Natural History - History


Natural history begins with Aristotle and other ancient philosophers who analyzed the diversity of the natural world. Natural history, as a discipline, had existed since classical times, and fifteenth-century Europeans were very familiar with Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis. From the ancient Greeks until the work of Carolus Linnaeus (also known as Carl Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné) and other 18th century naturalists, the main concept of natural history was the scala naturae or Great Chain of Being, a conceptual arrangement of minerals, vegetables, more primitive forms of animals, and more complex life forms on a linear scale of increasing "perfection", culminating in our species.

Dioscorides' De Materia Medica is often said to be the oldest and most valuable work in the history of botany. A Greek manuscript of Aristotle's Biological Works, written in Constantinople in the mid-9th century, and preserved at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, is probably the oldest surviving manuscript of texts that founded the science of biology.

While natural history was basically static in medieval Europe, it continued to be developed by Arabic scholars during the Arab Agricultural Revolution. Al-Jahiz described early natural history ideas such as the "struggle for existence" (Malthus' phrase), and the idea of a food chain. He was an early adherent of environmental determinism. Al-Dinawari is considered the founder of Arabic botany for his Book of Plants, in which he described at least 637 plants and discussed plant development from germination (sprouting) to death, describing the phases of plant growth and the production of flowers and fruit. Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati developed an early scientific method for botany, introducing empirical and experimental techniques in the testing, description and identification of numerous materia medica, and separating unverified reports from those supported by actual tests and observations. His student Ibn al-Baitar wrote a pharmaceutical encyclopedia describing 1,400 plants, foods, and drugs, 300 of which were his own original discoveries. A Latin translation of his work was useful to European biologists and pharmacists in the 18th and 19th centuries. Earth sciences such as geology were also studied extensively by Arabic geologists, but by Avicenna's time, around 1000, the Arab Empire was in decline and scientists were not free to publish their ideas.

From the 13th century, the work of Aristotle was adapted rather rigidly into Christian philosophy, particularly by Thomas Aquinas, forming the basis for natural theology. During the Renaissance, scholars (herbalists and humanists, particularly) returned to direct observation of plants and animals for natural history, and many began to accumulate large collections of exotic specimens and unusual monsters. Andrea Cesalpino was the creator of one of the first herbaria and the inventor of botanical systematics. Leonhart Fuchs was one of the three founding fathers of botany, along with Otto Brunfels and Hieronymus Bock. Important contributors to the field were also Valerius Cordus, Konrad Gesner (Historiae animalium), Frederik Ruysch, or Gaspard Bauhin. The rapid increase in the number of known organisms prompted many attempts at classifying and organizing species into taxonomic groups, culminating in the system of the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus.

In modern Europe, professional disciplines such as physiology, botany, zoology, geology, and palaeontology were formed. Natural history, formerly the main subject taught by college science professors, was increasingly scorned by scientists of a more specialized manner and relegated to an "amateur" activity, rather than a part of science proper. In Victorian Scotland it was believed that the study of natural history contributed to good mental health. Particularly in Britain and the United States, this grew into specialist hobbies such as the study of birds, butterflies, seashells (malacology/conchology), beetles and wildflowers; meanwhile, scientists tried to define a unified discipline of biology (though with only partial success, at least until the modern evolutionary synthesis). Still, the traditions of natural history continue to play a part in the study of biology, especially ecology (the study of natural systems involving living organisms and the inorganic components of the Earth's biosphere that support them), ethology (the scientific study of animal behavior), and evolutionary biology (the study of the relationships between life-forms over very long periods of time), and re-emerges today as integrative organismal biology.

Amateur collectors and natural history entrepreneurs played an important role in building the large natural history collections of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Read more about this topic:  Natural History

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Famous quotes containing the word history:

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