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The Great Naturalists


We sometimes forget that much of how we view the world is the result of incremental steps in the growth of knowledge of many people who went before us. This is very true in the field of natural history when not long ago it was believed that some birds slept away the winter buried in muddy ponds. What follows is a quick tour of some of the great thinkers of the past who have shaped our understanding of the natural world.


Our story begins in Greece nearly 2,400 years ago. Aristotle was born in Macedonia in 384 B.C. where his father was a physician. We know so much about this man because he wrote down his thoughts.  Several of his ideas were wrong - that lions bones were so hard that sparks flew from them when struck, the sex of goat kids depended on the direction fo the wind during the mating, and that snakes had a insatiable thirst for wine. Neverthe less, Aristotle knew the importance of observation and was the first to study bird migration, how the partridge lured away the fox from her chicks, and on the territorial behaviour of animals. Many of his observations and musings appear in his natural history book Historia animalium. His knowledge of fishes remained little changed for nearly 2000 years.

    Following about four centuries later was Pliny, a Roman cavalry general who lived from AD 23-79. He wrote on natural history later in his life following a military career. Like Aristotle, Pliny wrote many yarns but he is well known for his 37 volume Historia naturalis.  

    A renaissance man of the ages was Frederick II of Germany. Frederick lived from 1194 to 1250. What seems to be a key element in Frederick's emergence as a great naturalist was his training. Born to a Norman King with Pope Innocent III as his tutor and raised in Sicily which was very cosmopolitan, he came to see all religions as bogus to the obvious chagrin of the Pope. Among Frederick's achievements were the establishment of the University of Naples, establishment of zoological parks, and a host of inventive researches into diving behaviour of marine life, incubation of eggs and his favourite past time - falconry.  He was skeptical about other's observations and debunked many old tales. Frederick wrote De arte venande cum avibus (Concerning the Art of Hunting with Birds) which is one of the earliest illustrated bird books, many by Frederick himself. He wrote on migration, avian anatomy, foraging behaviour and mechanics of flight.

    Carolus Linnaeus also known as Carl von Linne born in Sweden in 1707, established the taxonomic nomenclature used today to name plants and animals. Linnaeus realized that a universal means of naming flora and fauna was required so that scientists could understand each others studies. He developed the system of giving each distinct organism two names, a genus and species name in either Latin or Greek. Similar species were grouped into families, and similar families into classes, and so on. Each species was represented by the 'type' specimen after which the description was made. Finally, scientists could read each other's works and understand which species the author was describing.

    Gilbert White was born in Selbrone, England in 1720. His meticulous study of natural history was preserved in the Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. This was the age of romanticism toward nature and soon others arose to describe the natural world. One of the most famous of naturalists was John James Audubon. Audubon took to illustrating and writing the monumental Birds of North America from direct observation in the wild. He set a new standard for observation and illustration.

    The most famous naturalist was Charles Darwin whose voyage around the world on HMS Beagle began to challenge his views of evolution. During a life time of research, Darwin pieced together a monumental argument that life evolved in small steps in which the most capable individuals replaced the less able over geological time. Triggered by a short paper on a similar subject by Alfred Russell Wallace, Darwin published his most famous book, The Origin of Species. As he expected, the book raised the hackles of Victorian scientists and the public, and Darwin was publicly ridiculed. However, his arguments remain largely unchanged over a century later. 


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