Before the Scientific Revolution, any attempt to ascribe order to nature was largely rooted in the study of holy texts, rather than in the nature of minerals and organisms themselves. The development of natural history as an observational science in the seventeenth century changed this entirely and lives on to be a crucial element in the study of living organisms today.
The philosophers of Classical Greece are responsible for an outlook towards the scheme of nature that would persist through the Early Modern Period. Among the first to attempt to organize nature was Aristotle. Aristotle saw the living world as a tiered hierarchy with a deity at its pinnacle, followed by angles (demigods), humans, [nonhuman] animals, plants, and minerals respectively (Otter 2016). While Aristotle was not himself a follower of an Abrahamic religion, this vision of nature was highly compatible with the Christian bible which painted humans at the height of Earthly creation. It was likely this compatibility that allowed the Aristotelian “Great Chain of Being” to persist as the dominant paradigm after Christianity came to rule the West, through the beginning of the Early Modern Period.
Likely spurred by rapidly expansive European marine excursions after Columbus’ voyage of 1492, and the resulting natural oddities shipped back to Europe from far-off lands, a pressing need arose to fit these new plants and animals into the existing understanding of nature. Natural history prints of this period were often fraught with inaccuracies and it became apparent that actual specimens of organisms would be necessary to properly sort these creatures into their places. Often, plants and animals were classified according to how useful these organisms were to humans (Huxley 2007, pp.33-37). Though the value placed on these specimens usually did not go beyond their potential economic worth or sheer curiosity towards the unfamiliar ‘beasts,’ collections of natural history specimens such as that of English doctor, Sir Hans Sloane, went on to become the foundations of Europe’s most prestigious natural history museums (Huxley 2007, pp. 116-117). It was at institutions such as these that a more systematic approach to the study of nature would be developed.
Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus has been credited with blowing apart the “Great Chain of Being” with the publication of his Systema Naturae in 1735 (Otter 2016). It is quite misleading, however, to think of his breaks with the Aristotelian system to be novel. Renaissance anatomist, Pierre Belon published his L’Histoire de la Nature des Oyseaux in 1555 and within he classified birds into 6 taxonomic groups based on their anatomy (revealed via dissection) and life habits. Like Linnaeus after him, Belon also understood the importance of homology in his classification schemes. His most famous monograph features an avian skeleton in the same anatomical position as a human skeleton depicted adjacent to it. Without making evolutionary assertions, Belon recognized that similar skeletal anatomy unified certain groups of animals (in this case, the tetrapods). This way of viewing nature represents a breakdown of the divinely planned hierarchical order long before Linnaeus (Huxley 2007, pp. 67-70).
The significance of Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae is, however, the codification of standards for the nomenclature and classification of animals, plants, and later fungi (Otter 2016). Linnaeus created a system of classification that he admitted was artificial, still elements of Linnaean taxonomy, crucially binomial nomenclature, survive today. In the system devised by Linnaeus, every living organisms is referred to with two names, the Genus and the species. Linnaeus’ hierarchical system has also been married with phylogenetic systematics by modern taxonomists who more-justifiably group organisms based on perceived-evolutionary relatedness.
The work of French pop-naturalist, George-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon, represents the epitome of natural history in the eighteenth century. Buffon used his royal appointment at the Jardin du Roi as a platform from which to conduct expansive research which he then compiled into his fifty-volumed Histoire Naturelle which sought to document all that was then known about the natural world. Buffon revolutionarily depicted species as independent studies (meaning that he focused on detailing one species at a time), accompanied by lavish color illustrations, documenting their form, life history, and interactions with the rest of their environment. He placed humans in with the rest of animals (even apes), wrote of an old Earth, and included many proto-evolutionary ideas in his work.
Histoire Naturelle was “pop-science”, intended for the amusement of the aristocracy and upper-bourgeois, yet it contained many revolutionary ideas and changed the face of natural history forever. While condemned by the academic circles of eighteenth century France, Charles Darwin himself wrote of a huge debt to Buffon in his letters to fellow naturalists (Stott 2012, pp. 10-11).
About the Author: Grant Terrell is a second year student at the Ohio State University. He is double-majoring in Evolution & Ecology and History. Grant works as a Curatorial Assistant in the Tetrapod Collection of the Museum of Biological Diversity and focuses on Ornithology.
Huxley, Robert. The Great Naturalists. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007. Print. Amazon: https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.amazon.com/Great-Naturalists-Robert-Huxley/dp/0500251398&sa=D&ust=1476732896892000&usg=AFQjCNFdoE3oSkmxbPuFX35rthSgiKioEA
Otter, Christopher. “Natural History.” History 3712. The Ohio State University Main Campus, Columbus. 6 Sept. 2016. Lecture.
Stott, Rebecca. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2012. Print.
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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABuffon_1707-1788.jpgA Reflection on Natural History: Part 1 of 2 (Topic post)