Natural history

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Natural history is the study of plants and animals in the wild, and the environments they live in. Also included are those aspects of geology which can be done in the field.

The work of naturalists is observation, interpretation, collecting and classification, rather than experiments. People who study natural history are called naturalists. Charles Darwin was a naturalist. They were among the first to explore the world. They were the first to study the Amazon and other tropical places. Naturalists find new species and classify plants and animals. They study ecology.

Naturalists developed some theoretical ideas which were valuable. They noticed that living things more or less fitted the lives they led. This was adaptation. They noticed a struggle for existence between animals. They thought they could see a chain of being from lower animals to higher, which they thought was the work of God. The idea that such things might happen by natural means began to surface in the 18th century, but did not become the majority view until the time of Charles Darwin.

Before Darwin, most naturalists did not think of themselves as scientists. When they looked at nature, perhaps as explorers, they looked at everything. They looked at the land, the people, the plants and animals. After Darwin, they did see themselves as scientists. Early on, Darwin called himself a geologist. Huxley was an anatomist. Hooker was a botanist. Lyell was a geologist. Their education changed, too. They often took degrees in science. That sort of education was rare before Darwin.

Naturalists were educated amateurs; scientists are trained professionals. The change happened slowly, during the 19th century.[1] The very word scientist was invented in 1937 by William Whewell. Before then, the term was natural philosopher (for the physical sciences) or natural historian (for the biological sciences and geology). Naturalist is short for natural historian.

HMS Rattlesnake
In the 19th century, naturalists travelled on ships like this! Thomas Henry Huxley went round the world on this ship. He found his wife in Sydney, Australia

Important naturalists[change | edit source]

These men are important. They are just some well-known names amongst the many who investigated nature before science existed in its modern form.

References[change | edit source]

  1. Barber, Lynn 1980. The heyday of natural history 1820–1870. Cape, London.