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.
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.
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, social grouping, and interactions with other species. 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 organisms (i.e. biology, including botany and zoology); other definitions extend the topic to include paleontology, ecology or biochemistry, as well as parts of geology and climatology.
Nowadays, natural history is sometimes considered an archaic or popular term by scientists, since it is a cross-discipline form and encompasses research that is generally published within a subdiscipline, such as botany, ornithology, or geobiology.
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 to both topics and early papers of both fields were commonly read at professional science societies meetings such as the Royal Society and French Academy of Sciences—- both founded during the seventeenth century.
During the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, knowledge was considered by Europeans to be divided into two main parts: the humanities including theology, and the studies of nature. Natural history was the descriptive counterpart to the analytical study of nature-- natural philosophy, which we know nowadays as the physical sciences. However, natural history was encouraged by the Industrial Revolution and the need to analyze rock strata (layers) to find mineral deposits. 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 somewhat vague.
In modern usage as a term, natural history's sense has become restricted 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. By contrast, until the twentieth century, it had the designation as the study of all of 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. The term natural history is not now commonly applied to the fields of astronomy, physics, or chemistry, as briefly discussed above. However, it sometimes includes the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology.
|“||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.||”|
—Stephen G. Herman, 2002
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. 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 Institution's National Museum of Natural History.
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, 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)
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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. 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.
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