The origin of natural history likely predates modern humans. It was at first the information our hunter and gather ancestors needed to know when and where they had to be to find prey or pick fruits, roots, and seeds. Natural history knowledge was essential for survival. Memories of where to go and what to do were valuable in times of environmental stress. Droughts, heat waves, excessive cold, fires, and floods altered the opportunities to find food. At these times memories of older group members had significant survival value.
As with much of modern western culture, historians often trace roots of knowledge to ancient Greece. Aristotle reported what he observed firsthand while Pliny the Elder cataloged stories from older writings and verbal communications. Thus, making these two men the ancestral natural historians that we can identify by name.
Natural history covers topics ranging from the forces at work on the earth’s surface to the lives of animals and plants. Shamans and healers made practical use of natural history information. Molecules produced by organisms could supply relief to people suffering from a variety of maladies. Of course, the trial and error methodology in figuring out which ones worked and which ones did not may have resulted in more suffering and death before discoveries that actually worked were realized.
Religion has been a proponent and a resisting force for natural history. While it promoted medicines and agricultural technology, religion has never been comfortable with the search for cause and effect explanations for natural phenomena. Despite the disapproval of organized religions some early naturalists resisted. In the 13th century, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (von Hohenstaufen) and friends produced the first ornithology textbook.
Rejection of the anthropocentric view of the world was spreading by the 17th century. The experimental methods championed by Francis Bacon began to spread across the western world. John Ray, a British clergyman, devised the first classification system for organisms, one that is still in use today, at least in part.
Francesco Redi, born and raised in the hills of Tuscany in the early 17th century was taught by his parents. His father was a physician, and Francesco became a pharmacist and a member of the Accademia del Cimento, a scientific organization. Redi investigated chemistry and physics, as well as biological problems using the experimental method. In June of 1663, he turned his attention to vipers and discovered, among other things, that the yellowish fluid that flows from the fangs can be fatal if placed under the skin. He also found liquid venom could be dried to a solid and then rehydrated, and that it was still deadly. Redi’s findings were not left unchallenged.
The French apothecary, Möyse Charas, insisted the fluid was saliva and the actual poison was the spirit formed in the angry serpent. The motive behind Charas’s statement is unclear. Though it may have been linked to the fact he had been previously jailed as a heretic for stating that Spanish vipers were poisonous. At the time, a local archbishop had allegedly exorcised venom from all Spanish vipers, thus rendering them harmless.
Charas did his best to defend the widespread belief that biological events were controlled by spiritual forces, possibly for political motives. However, jealousy of Redi’s experimental methods may have also motivated the challenge. Redi responded to Charas’ claims with further experimentation. He enraged a viper, allowed it to expend its venom, and then bite a chicken. The bird was unharmed. He followed up this experiment by removing the venom glands from a live snake which he then allowed to bite a bird. Again, the bird lived. And, in a final series of experiments, Redi collected venom and placed it in wounds of animals. Not surprisingly, the animals died. Clearly, enraged snake spirits were not involved in killing prey for snakes. There were chemical and biological mechanisms at work.
The start of the 19th century saw Alexander von Humboldt traveling the Neotropics to in search of the principles that controlled the distribution of plants. Charles Darwin sailed around the world and made observations throughout his life to develop evidence that supported the idea of evolution.
Gilbert White’s 1789, The Natural History of Selborne, is often considered the first book about ecology. Yet ecology was not defined until Charles Elton laid out a framework. Elton said, “Ecology is a new name for a very old subject. It simply means scientific natural history.”
Anderson JG. 2017. Why Ecology Needs Natural History. American Scientist. 2017 Sep 1, 105(5):290.
Anderson, J. G. T. 2012. Deep Things Out of Darkness: A History of Natural History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Elton, C. 1927 Animal Ecology, Sidgwick and Jackson, London.
Humboldt, A. von, and A. Bonpland. 1852. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, during the Years 1799–1804. Vol. 1. Trans. T. Ross. London: H. Bohn.
Ray, J. 2014. The Wisdom of God in the Works of Creation. Republished from the 7th edition of 1717. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press.
Tewksbury, J., et al. 2014. Natural history’s place in science and society. BioScience 64:300–310.