NATURAL HISTORY is the research and study of organisms including
animals , fungi and plants in their environment, leaning more towards
observational than experimental methods of study. It encompasses
scientific research but is not limited to it, with articles nowadays
more often published in science magazines than in academic journals .
Grouped among the natural sciences , natural history is the systematic
study of any category of natural objects or organisms. That is a very
broad designation in a world filled with many narrowly focused
disciplines. So while natural history dates historically from studies
in the ancient
Greco-Roman world and the mediaeval
Arabic world ,
through to European
Renaissance naturalists working in near isolation,
today's field is more of a cross discipline umbrella of many specialty
sciences. For example, geobiology has a strong multi-disciplinary
nature combining scientists and scientific knowledge of many specialty
A person who studies natural history is known as a NATURALIST or
* 1 Definitions
* 1.1 Before 1900
* 1.2 Since 1900
* 2 History
* 2.1 Ancient times
* 2.2 Medieval
* 2.3 Birth of scientific biology
* 3 Museums
* 4 Societies
* 5 See also
* 6 References
* 7 Further reading
* 8 External links
Life timeline view • discuss • edit -4500 — – -4000 —
– -3500 — – -3000 — – -2500 — – -2000 — – -1500 —
– -1000 — – -500 — – 0 — WATER Single-celled
life PHOTOSYNTHESIS EUKARYOTES Multicellular
life LAND LIFE DINOSAURS MAMMALS FLOWERS ←
Earliest Earth (−4540 ) ← Earliest water ← Earliest
life ← LHB meteorites ← Earliest oxygen ←
Atmospheric oxygen ← Oxygen crisis ← Earliest sexual
reproduction ← Ediacara biota ←
← Earliest humans P
n Pongola Huronian
Cryogenian Andean Karoo Quaternary
Axis scale : millions of years .
Orange labels: known ICE AGES.
Human timeline and
view • discuss • edit -13 — – -12 — – -11 — – -10
— – -9 — – -8 — – -7 — – -6 — – -5 — – -4 —
– -3 — – -2 — – -1 — – 0 — COSMIC EXPANSION
EARLIEST LIGHT COSMIC SPEED-UP SOLAR SYSTEM WATER
SINGLE-CELLED LIFE PHOTOSYNTHESIS Multicellular
life LAND LIFE EARLIEST GRAVITY DARK ENERGY DARK MATTER
← Earliest universe (−13.80 ) ← Earliest galaxy
← Earliest quasar ←
Omega Centauri forms ← Andromeda
Galaxy forms ← Milky Way Galaxy
spiral arms form ←
Alpha Centauri forms ← Earliest
Earth (−4.54 ) ← Earliest life ← Earliest oxygen
← Atmospheric oxygen ← Earliest sexual reproduction ←
Cambrian explosion ← Earliest humans L
Axis scale : billions of years .
Human timeline and Life timeline
The English term "natural history" is a translation of the Latin
historia naturalis. Its meaning has narrowed progressively with time,
while the meaning of the related term "nature" has widened (see also
History below). In antiquity , it covered essentially anything
connected with nature or which used materials drawn from nature. For
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder 's encyclopedia of this title , published
circa 77 to 79 AD, covers astronomy , geography , man and his
technology , medicine and superstition as well as animals and plants.
Medieval European academics considered knowledge to have two main
divisions: the humanities (primarily what is now known as classics )
and divinity , with science studied largely through texts rather than
observation or experiment. The study of nature revived in the
Renaissance , and quickly became a third branch of academic knowledge,
itself divided into descriptive natural history and natural philosophy
, the analytical study of nature. In modern terms, natural philosophy
roughly corresponded to modern physics and chemistry , while natural
history included the biological and geological sciences. The two were
strongly associated. During the heyday of the gentleman scientists ,
many people contributed to both fields, and early papers in both were
commonly read at professional science society meetings such as the
Royal Society and the French
Academy of Sciences – both founded
during the seventeenth century.
Natural history had been encouraged by practical motives, such as
Linnaeus' aspiration to improve the economic condition of Sweden.
Industrial Revolution prompted the development of
geology to help find useful mineral deposits.
The astronomer, William Herschel was also a natural historian.
Instead of working with plants or minerals he worked with the stars.
He spent his time building telescopes to see the stars and the rest of
the time watching the stars. In the beginning, he believed there to be
an object known as a nebulae, but then later realized it was just
another stage in star development. Herschel can be considered a
natural historian because he observed the natural world and attempted
to understand it. In the process he made charts of all the stars and
kept records of all that he saw (while his sister Caroline did all the
Modern definitions of natural history come from a variety of fields
and sources, and many of the modern definitions emphasize a particular
aspect of the field, creating a plurality of definitions with a number
of common themes among them. For example, while natural history is
most often defined as a type of observation and a subject of study, it
can also be defined as a body of knowledge, and as a craft or a
practice, in which the emphasis is placed more on the observer than on
the observed. A natural history collection in a French public
Definitions from biologists often focus on the scientific study of
individual organisms in their environment, as seen in this definition
by Marston Bates: "
Natural history is the study of animals and Plants
– of organisms. ... I like to think, then, of natural history as the
study of life at the level of the individual – of what plants and
animals do, how they react to each other and their environment, how
they are organized into larger groupings like populations and
communities" and this more recent definition by D.S. Wilcove and T.
Eisner: "The close observation of organisms—their origins, their
evolution, their behavior, and their relationships with other
species". This focus on organisms in their environment is also echoed
by H.W. Greene and J.B. Losos: "
Natural history focuses on where
organisms are and what they do in their environment, including
interactions with other organisms. It encompasses changes in internal
states insofar as they pertain to what organisms do". Some
definitions go further, focusing on direct observation of organisms in
their environment, both past and present, such as this one by G.A.
Bartholomew: "A student of natural history, or a naturalist, studies
the world by observing plants and animals directly. Because organisms
are functionally inseparable from the environment in which they live
and because their structure and function cannot be adequately
interpreted without knowing some of their evolutionary history, the
study of natural history embraces the study of fossils as well as
physiographic and other aspects of the physical environment". A
common thread in many definitions of natural history is the inclusion
of a descriptive component, as seen in a recent definition by H.W.
Greene: "Descriptive ecology and ethology". Several authors have
argued for a more expansive view of natural history, including S.
Herman, who defines the field as "the scientific study of plants and
animals in their natural environments. It is concerned with levels of
organization from the individual organism to the ecosystem, and
stresses identification, life history, distribution, abundance, and
inter-relationships. It often and appropriately includes an esthetic
component", and T. Fleischner, who defines the field even more
broadly, as "A practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and
receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and
accuracy". These definitions explicitly include the arts in the field
of natural history, and are aligned with the broad definition outlined
by B. Lopez, who defines the field as the "Patient interrogation of a
landscape" while referring to the natural history knowledge of the
A slightly different framework for natural history, covering a
similar range of themes, is also implied in the scope of work
encompassed by many leading natural history museums , which often
include elements of anthropology, geology, paleontology and astronomy
along with botany and zoology, or include both cultural and natural
components of the world.
The plurality of definitions for this field has been recognized as
both a weakness and a strength, and a range of definitions have
recently been offered by practitioners in a recent collection of views
on natural history.
Blackberry from the 6th century
Vienna Dioscurides manuscript
Natural history begins with
Aristotle and other ancient philosophers
who analyzed the diversity of the natural world.
Natural history was
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder to cover anything that could be found in
the world, including living things, geology, astronomy, technology,
art and man.
De Materia Medica
De Materia Medica was written between 50 and 70 AD by Pedanius
Dioscorides , a Roman physician of Greek origin. It was widely read
for more than 1,500 years until supplanted in the
Renaissance , making
it one of the longest-lasting of all natural history books.
From the ancient Greeks until the work of
Carl Linnaeus and other
18th century naturalists, a major concept of natural history was the
scala naturae or
Great Chain of Being , an arrangement of minerals,
vegetables, more primitive forms of animals, and more complex life
forms on a linear scale of supposedly increasing perfection,
culminating in our species.
Natural history was basically static through the
Middle Ages in
Europe – although in the
Oriental world it proceeded at a
much brisker pace. From the thirteenth 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 .
Leonhart Fuchs was one of the three
founding fathers of botany, along with
Otto Brunfels and Hieronymus
Bock . Other important contributors to the field were 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
BIRTH OF SCIENTIFIC BIOLOGY
Georges Buffon is best remembered for his
Histoire naturelle , a
44 volume encyclopedia describing everything known about the natural
A significant contribution to English natural history was made by
parson-naturalists such as
Gilbert White , William Kirby , John George
Wood , and
John Ray , who wrote about plants, animals, and other
aspects of nature. Many of these men wrote about nature to make the
natural theology argument for the existence or goodness of God.
Europe , professional disciplines such as botany, geology,
mycology , palaeontology , physiology and zoology 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 world's large natural history
collections, such as the
Natural History Museum, London , and the
National Museum of Natural History
National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.
Three of the greatest English naturalists of the nineteenth century,
Henry Walter Bates ,
Charles Darwin , and
Alfred Russel Wallace
Alfred Russel Wallace —who
all knew each other—each made natural history travels that took
years, collected thousands of specimens, many of them new to science,
and by their writings both advanced knowledge of "remote" parts of the
Amazon basin , the
Galápagos Islands , and the Malay
archipelago , among others—and in so doing helped to transform
biology from a descriptive to a theory based science.
The understanding of "Nature" as "an organism and not as a mechanism"
can be traced to the writings of Alexander Humboldt (Prussia,
1769–1859). Humboldt's copious writings and research were seminal
influences for Charles Darwin, Simone Bolivar, Henry David Thoreau,
Ernst Haeckel, and John Muir.
List of natural history museums
Natural history museums , which evolved from cabinets of curiosities
, played an important role in the emergence of professional biological
disciplines and research programs. Particularly in the 19th century,
scientists began to use their natural history collections as teaching
tools for advanced students and the basis for their own morphological
The monument of
Jan Czekanowski , a president of Polish
Copernicus Society of Naturalists (1923–1924), in
The term "natural history" alone, or sometimes together with
archaeology, forms the name of many national, regional and local
natural history societies that maintain records for animals (including
birds (ornithology), insects (entomology ) and mammals (mammalogy)),
fungi (mycology ), plants (botany) and other organisms. They may also
have geological and microscopical sections.
Examples of these societies in Britain include the Natural History
Society of Northumbria founded in 1829,
London Natural History Society
Birmingham Natural History Society (1859), British
Entomological and Natural History Society founded in 1872, Glasgow
Natural History Society,
Manchester Microscopical and Natural History
Society established in 1880, Whitby Naturalists' Club founded in 1913,
Scarborough Field Naturalists' Society and the Sorby Natural History
Sheffield , founded in 1918. The growth of natural history
societies was also spurred due to the growth of British colonies in
tropical regions with numerous new species to be discovered. Many
civil servants took an interest in their new surroundings, sending
specimens back to museums in Britain . (See also: Indian natural
Societies in other countries include the American Society of
Polish Copernicus Society of Naturalists .
Evolutionary history of life
History of evolutionary thought
History of evolutionary thought
* Terra: The
Nature of Our World (video podcast)
Timeline of natural history
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* ^ Koerner, Lisbet (1999). Linnaeus:
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Harvard University Press
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natural history," Chronicle of Higher Education 15 (2000): B24
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and Conservation – Field Biologists Must Fight a Public-Image
Problem," Bioscience 38 (1988): 458–462
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Biology", Bioscience 36 (1986): 324–329
* ^ H.W. Greene, "Organisms in nature as a central focus for
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reunion", The Journal of wildlife management 66, no. 4 (2002):
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* ^ American
Museum of Natural History, Mission Statement
* ^ Field Museum, Mission Statement
* ^ The Natural History Museum, Mission Statement
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