Definitions

natural-historian

Natural history

Natural history is the scientific research of plants or animals, leaning more towards the observational than experimental methods of study, and encompasses more research that is published in 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 modern natural history dates historically from studies in the ancient Greco-Roman world and then the medieval Arabic world through to the scattered European Renaissance scientists working in near isolation, today's field is more of a cross discipline umbrella of many specialty sciences that like geobiology have a strong multi-disciplinary nature combining scientists and scientific knowledge of many specialty sciences.

Description

Natural history involves the research and formation of statements that make elements of life and life styles comprehensible by describing the relevant structures, operations and circumstances of various species, such as diet, reproduction, and social grouping. The term has grown to be an umbrella term for what are now often viewed as several distinct scientific disciplines of integrative organismal biology. Most definitions include the study of living things (e.g. biology, including botany and zoology); other definitions extend the topic to include paleontology, ecology or biochemistry, as well as parts of geology and climatology.

Today, well into the scientific revolution, natural history is sometimes considered an archaic term in the scientific community, since in its cross-discipline form usually leans toward the observational rather than the experimental, and encompasses more research that is published in general information (popular) magazines than in academic journals. As an umbrella science, this is perhaps inevitable, and such cross disciplinary articles have their counterpart papers in many professional journals as well—which are frequently cited in the popular articles. That many advances, even in specialties, could not have been made without such cross-fertilization of strong points is beyond contestation. No one thirty years ago could have foreseen how genetics, has remade and impacted other science, nor radiometrics and other analytical methods that have proved useful in many fields. In the past, during the heyday of the gentleman scientists, natural history was strongly associated with (and hardly distinguished from) natural philosophy for many figures contributed in both areas and early papers of both fields were commonly read at early professional science societies meetings such as the Royal Society and French Academy of Sciences—both founded during the early industrial revolution in the seventeenth century.

In the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, natural history, as a term, was frequently used to refer to all descriptive aspects of the study of nature—what today are called natural sciences—as opposed to political, ecclesiastical or other human-related history. In that era, where knowledge was divided into two main branches, the humanities including theology—which was considered by far the most important discipline in the mindset of the age until about the late seventeenth century—and the studies of nature, it was the counterpart to the analytical study of nature, natural philosophy, which today we call the physical sciences. Spurred by the industrial revolution, the later became ascendant, natural history grew alongside it—mostly spurred by needs to analyze rock strata and find mineable mineral deposits, and the modern world gradually took place with a very different set of priorities and mindsets, as new sciences such as psychology emerged with expanding knowledge. Furthermore, in modern usage as a term, natural history's sense has become narrowed and more tightly focused, and more often refers to matters relating to biology (the study of living organisms such as plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, etc. and their relationships in natural systems)—but such also encompasses paleobiology, paleozoology, etcetera and so weds the field strongly with many earth sciences like geology and its disciplines such as stratigraphy and petrology. In contrast, until the twentieth century, it had the designation as the study of all things in the natural world, such as rocks and minerals (geology), atoms and molecules (chemistry), and even the universe at large (astronomy, physics, astrophysics), etc.

It has historically been an often somewhat haphazard or less strictly organized study, description, and classification of natural objects, such as animals, plants, minerals, and placed an importance and significance on fieldwork as opposed to the more systematic scientific investigation such as experimental or lab work. A person interested in natural history is known as a naturalist or natural historian. Natural History is not now commonly applied to the fields of astronomy, physics, or chemistry., as briefly discussed above. However, it sometimes even includes the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology.

Natural history involves the research and formation of statements that make elements of life and the world of living beings comprehensible by describing the relevant structures, operations, relationships (in natural or "eco"systems, as well as the biosphere as a whole (i.e. the sum total of life on our planet))and circumstances of various species, such as diet, reproduction, and social grouping. Great Apes & Other Primates. Retrieved on 2008-06-21.. The term has grown to be an umbrella term for what are now often viewed as several distinct scientific disciplines of integrative organismal biology. Most definitions include the study of living things (e.g. biology, including botany and zoology); other definitions extend the topic to include paleontology, ecology or biochemistry, as well as parts of geology and climatology.

Natural history is 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 aesthetic component.|Stephen G. Herman, 2002

History of natural history

The roots of natural history go back to Aristotle and other ancient philosophers who analyzed the diversity of the natural world. From the ancient Greeks until the work of Carolus Linnaeus and other 18th century naturalists, the central concept tying together the various domains of natural history was the scala naturae or Great Chain of Being, which arranged minerals, vegetables, more primitive or "lower" forms of animals, and more advanced or "higher" life forms on a linear scale of increasing "perfection", culminating in our species.

While natural history was basically static in medieval Europe, it continued to flourish in the medieval Arabic world during the Arab Agricultural Revolution. In zoology, Al-Jahiz described early evolutionary ideas such as the struggle for existence. He also introduced the idea of a food chain, and 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 evolution from its birth to its 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.

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. In 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. 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 the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, natural history as a term was frequently used to refer to all descriptive aspects of the study of nature, as opposed to political, ecclesiastical or other human-related history; it was the counterpart to the analytical study of nature, natural philosophy. Roughly, it may be said that natural philosophy corresponded to modern physics and chemistry, while natural history included the biological and geological sciences, although the terminology was, and remains fairly flexible.

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. 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 continued to play a part in late nineteenth- and early twentieth century 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, particularly the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Natural history museums

The term "natural history" forms the descriptive part of institution names, such as the Natural History Museum in London, the Humboldt Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, the Grigore Antipa Museum of Natural History in Bucharest, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which also publishes a magazine called Natural History.

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 research.

Natural history and naturalist societies

The term "natural history" alone, or sometimes together with archeology, forms the name of many national, regional and local natural history societies that maintain records for birds (ornithology), mammals (mammalogy), insects (entomology), fungi (mycology) and plants (botany). They may also have microscopical and geological sections.

Examples of these societies in Britain include the British Entomological and Natural History Society founded in 1872, Birmingham Natural History Society, Glasgow Natural History Society, London Natural History Society founded in 1858, Manchester Microscopical and Natural History Society established in 1880, Scarborough Field Naturalists' Society and the Sorby Natural History Society, 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 history)

See also

References

Citations and notesGeneral information

  • Herman, Stephen G. Wildlife biology and natural history: time for a reunion. Journal of Wildlife Management (2002) 66(4):933–946
  • Kohler, Robert E. Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2002.
  • Mayr, Ernst. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982.
  • Rainger, Ronald; Keith R. Benson; and Jane Maienschein, editors. The American Development of Biology. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 1988.

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