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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 magazine than in academic journal. 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.

A person who studies natural history is known as a naturalist or "natural historian". Natural history is categorized among the natural sciences. As a published topic, it originated from studies in the ancient Greco-Roman world. The modern topic comprises many specialty sciences such as geobiology.



The English term 'natural history' is a translation of the Latin naturalis historia. Its meaning has narrowed considerably over time (see also History below). In antiquity, it covered more-or-less anything which is connected with nature or which uses materials drawn from nature; see for example the contents of Pliny's encyclopedia of this title, published circa AD 77-79.

Until well into the nineteenth century, knowledge was considered by Europeans to have two main divisions: the humanities (including theology), and studies of nature. Studies of nature could in turn be divided, with natural history being the descriptive counterpart to natural philosophy which was 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 figures 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.


The growth of many separate scientific disciplines in the twentieth century altered the way in which the term 'natural history' was used. Since it encompasses research that is now normally published within distinct disciplines, it may be considered an archaic or popular term.

Although terminology was and remains somewhat vague, a number of increasingly restricted uses can be distinguished. The less restricted uses are 'umbrella terms' for distinct modern scientific disciplines. Modern uses exclude chemistry and almost all of physics (astronomy is sometimes included).

  • A more restricted use excludes those areas of geology not concerned with living organisms. In this sense, natural history includes all of biology (the study of living organisms such as plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, etc. and their relationships in natural systems) and paleobiology (the study of extinct life), but only some life-related areas of geology, such as stratigraphy and petrology.

  • Applied only within biology, it is used for the study of particular organisms. Thus the 'natural history of primates' involves describing the relevant structures, operations and circumstances of primates, such as their diet, reproduction, social grouping, and interactions with other species.

The term may be used to denote the less strictly organized study, description, and classification of natural object, such as animals, plants, minerals, which emphasise fieldwork as opposed to more systematic scientific investigation such as experimental or laboratory work.

Modern definitions of the term include:

  • Natural history is "the scientific study of plants or animals (more observational than experimental) usually published in popular magazines rather than in academic journals"..

  • "Natural history is the scientific research of plants and animals in their natural environments. It is concerned with degrees of organization from individual organisms to an entire ecosystem, and emphasizes identification, life history, distribution, abundance, and inter-relationships. It may include an aesthetic component."


Natural history begins with Aristotle and other ancient philosophers who analyzed the diversity of the natural world. From the ancient Greeks until the work of Carolus Linnaeus (also known as Carl Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné) and other 18th century naturalists, the main concept of natural history was the scala naturae or Great Chain of Being, a conceptual arrangement of minerals, vegetables, more primitive forms of animals, and more complex 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 be developed by Arabic scholars during the Arab Agricultural Revolution.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 development from germination (sprouting) to death, describing the phases of plant growth and the production of flowers and fruit. , in 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. 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. 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 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 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 large natural history collections of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as the Smithsonian Institutionmarker's National Museum of Natural Historymarker.


Further information: 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 research.


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 Natural History Society of Northumbria founded in 1829, British Entomological and Natural History Society founded in 1872, Birminghammarker Natural History Society, Glasgowmarker Natural History Society, Londonmarker Natural History Society founded in 1858, Manchestermarker Microscopical and Natural History Society established in 1880, Scarborough Field Naturalists' Society and the Sorby Natural History Society, Sheffieldmarker, 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 Britainmarker. (See also Indian natural history)

See also


Citations and notes
  1. Natural History WordNet Search,
  2. Primate Glossary - National Zoo| FONZ
  3. nature glossary
  4. Natural History WordNet Search,
  5. Mehmet Bayrakdar, "Al-Jahiz And the Rise of Biological Evolutionism", The Islamic Quarterly, Third Quarter, 1983, London.
  6. Conway Zirkle (1941), Natural Selection before the "Origin of Species", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 84 (1): 71-123.
  7. Frank N. Egerton, "A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 6: Arabic Language Science - Origins and Zoological", Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, April 2002: 142-146 [143]
  8. Lawrence I. Conrad (1982), "Taun and Waba: Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 25 (3), pp. 268-307 [278].
  9. Diane Boulanger (2002), "The Islamic Contribution to Science, Mathematics and Technology", OISE Papers, in STSE Education, Vol. 3.
General information
  • 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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