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History of zoology (through 1859)

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Title: History of zoology (through 1859)  
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History of zoology (through 1859)

This article considers the history of cell theory. The growing importance of natural theology, partly a response to the rise of mechanical philosophy, encouraged the growth of natural history (although it entrenched the argument from design).

Over the 18th and 19th centuries, zoology became increasingly professional biogeography, ecology and ethology. Naturalists began to reject essentialism and consider the importance of extinction and the mutability of species. Cell theory provided a new perspective on the fundamental basis of life. These developments, as well as the results from embryology and paleontology, were synthesized in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. In 1859, Darwin placed the theory of organic evolution on a new footing, by his discovery of a process by which organic evolution can occur, and provided observational evidence that it had done so.


  • Pre-scientific zoology 1
    • Early cultures 1.1
      • Animals in Ancient Egypt 1.1.1
      • Eastern ancient cultures 1.1.2
      • Ancient Greek traditions 1.1.3
    • Medieval and Islamic knowledge 1.2
  • Zoology as a science 2
    • Renaissance and early modern developments 2.1
    • Impact of the microscope 2.2
  • In advance of On the Origin of Species 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6

Pre-scientific zoology

Early cultures

The earliest humans must have had and passed on knowledge about animals to increase their chances of survival. This may have included knowledge of human and animal anatomy and aspects of animal behavior (such as migration patterns). However, the first major turning point in zoological knowledge came with the Neolithic Revolution about 10,000 years ago. Humans domesticated livestock animals to accompany the resulting sedentary societies.[1]

Animals in Ancient Egypt

An ancient Egyptian plows his fields with a pair of oxen, used as beasts of burden and a source of food.

The Egyptians believed that a balanced relationship between people and animals was an essential element of the cosmic order; thus humans, animals and plants were believed to be members of a single whole.[2] Animals, both domesticated and wild, were therefore a critical source of spirituali companionship, and sustenance to the ancient Egyptians. Cattle were the most important livestock; the administration collected taxes on livestock in regular census, and the size of a herd reflected the prestige and importance of the estate or temple that owned them. In addition to cattle, the ancient Egyptians kept sheep, goats, and pigs. Poultry such as ducks, geese, and pigeons were captured in nets and bred on farms, where they were force-fed with dough to fatten them.[3] The Nile provided a plentiful source of fish. Bees were also domesticated from at least the Old Kingdom, and they provided both honey and wax.[4]

The ancient Egyptians used donkeys and oxen as beasts of burden, and they were responsible for plowing the fields and trampling seed into the soil. The slaughter of a fattened ox was also a central part of an offering ritual.[3] Horses were introduced by the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate Period, and the camel, although known from the New Kingdom, was not used as a beast of burden until the Late Period. There is also evidence to suggest that elephants were briefly utilized in the Late Period, but largely abandoned due to lack of grazing land.[3] Dogs, cats and monkeys were common family pets, while more exotic pets imported from the heart of Africa, such as lions, were reserved for royalty. Herodotus observed that the Egyptians were the only people to keep their animals with them in their houses.[2] During the Predynastic and Late periods, the worship of the gods in their animal form was extremely popular, such as the cat goddess Bastet and the ibis god Thoth, and these animals were bred in large numbers on farms for the purpose of ritual sacrifice.[5]

Eastern ancient cultures

The ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, the Indian subcontinent, and China, among others, produced renowned surgeons and students of the natural sciences such as Susruta and Zhang Zhongjing, reflecting independent sophisticated systems of natural philosophy. Taoist philosophers, such as Zhuangzi in the 4th century BC, expressed ideas related to evolution, such as denying the fixity of biological species and speculating that species had developed differing attributes in response to differing environments.[6] The ancient Indian Ayurveda tradition independently developed the concept of three humours, resembling that of the four humours of ancient Greek medicine, though the Ayurvedic system included further complications, such as the body being composed of five elements and seven basic tissues. Ayurvedic writers also classified living things into four categories based on the method of birth (from the womb, eggs, heat & moisture, and seeds) and explained the conception of a fetus in detail. They also made considerable advances in the field of surgery, often without the use of human dissection or animal vivisection.[7] One of the earliest Ayurvedic treatises was the Sushruta Samhita, attributed to Sushruta in the 6th century BC. It was also an early materia medica, describing 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources, and 57 preparations based on animal sources.[8] However, the roots of modern zoology are usually traced back to the secular tradition of ancient Greek philosophy.[9]

Ancient Greek traditions

The pre-Socratic philosophers asked many questions about life but produced little systematic knowledge of specifically zoological interest—though the attempts of the atomists to explain life in purely physical terms would recur periodically through the history of zoology. However, the medical theories of Hippocrates and his followers, especially humorism, had a lasting impact.[10]

The philosopher Aristotle was the most influential scholar of the living world from classical antiquity. Though his early work in natural philosophy was speculative, Aristotle's later biological writings were more empirical, focusing on biological causation and the diversity of life. He made countless observations of nature, especially the habits and attributes of animals in the world around him, which he devoted considerable attention to categorizing. In all, Aristotle classified 540 animal species, and dissected at least 50. He believed that intellectual purposes, formal causes, guided all natural processes.[11]

Aristotle, and nearly all Western scholars after him until the 18th century, believed that creatures were arranged in a graded scale of perfection rising from plants on up to humans: the scala naturae or Great Chain of Being.[12] Pliny the Elder was also known for his knowledge of animals and nature, and was the most prolific compiler of zoological descriptions.[13]

A few scholars in the Hellenistic period under the Ptolemies—particularly Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Chios—amended Aristotle's physiological work, even performing experimental dissections and vivisections.[14] Claudius Galen became the most important authority on medicine and anatomy. Though a few ancient atomists such as Lucretius challenged the teleological Aristotelian viewpoint that all aspects of life are the result of design or purpose, teleology (and after the rise of Christianity, natural theology) would remain central to biological thought essentially until the 18th and 19th centuries. The ideas of the Greek traditions of zoology survived, but they were generally taken unquestioningly in medieval Europe.[15]

Medieval and Islamic knowledge

De arte venandi, by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, was an influential medieval natural history text that explored bird morphology.

The decline of the Roman Empire led to the disappearance or destruction of much knowledge, though physicians still incorporated many aspects of the Greek tradition into training and practice. In Byzantium and the Islamic world, many of the Greek works were translated into Arabic and many of the works of Aristotle were preserved.[16]

Medieval Muslim physicians, scientists and philosophers made significant contributions to zoological knowledge between the 8th and 13th centuries during what is known as the "Islamic Golden Age" or "Muslim Agricultural Revolution". The Afro-Arab scholar al-Jahiz (781–869) described early evolutionary ideas[17][18] such as the struggle for existence.[19] He also introduced the idea of a food chain,[20] and was an early adherent of environmental determinism.[21]

During the High Middle Ages, a few European scholars such as Hildegard of Bingen, Albertus Magnus and Frederick II expanded the natural history canon. Magnus' De animalibus libri XXVI is not the only volume of his commentaries on natural history, but it was one of the most extensive studies of zoological observation published before modern times.[22] The rise of European universities, though important for the development of physics and philosophy, had little impact on zoological scholarship.[23]

Zoology as a science

Renaissance and early modern developments

Conrad Gesner (1516–1565). His Historiae animalium is considered the beginning of modern zoology.

Prior to the Renaissance, accounts of animals were often apocryphal and creatures were often described as "legendary." This period was succeeded by the age of collectors and travellers, when many of the stories were actually demonstrated as true when the living or preserved specimens were brought to Europe. Verification by collecting of things, instead of the accumulation of anecdotes, then became more common, and scholars developed a new faculty of careful observation. The Renaissance brought expanded interest in both empirical natural history and physiology. In 1543, Andreas Vesalius inaugurated the modern era of Western medicine with his seminal human anatomy treatise De humani corporis fabrica, which was based on dissection of corpses. Vesalius was the first in a series of anatomists who gradually replaced scholasticism with empiricism in physiology and medicine, relying on first-hand experience rather than authority and abstract reasoning. Bestiaries—a genre that combines both the natural and figurative knowledge of animals—also became more sophisticated. Conrad Gessner great zoological work, Historiae animalium, appeared in four volumes, 1551-1558, at Zürich, a fifth being issued in 1587. His works were the starting-point of modern zoology. Other major works were produced by William Turner, Pierre Belon, Guillaume Rondelet, and Ulisse Aldrovandi.[24] Artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci, often working with naturalists, were also interested in the bodies of animals and humans, studying physiology in detail and contributing to the growth of anatomical knowledge.[25]

In the 17th century, the enthusiasts of the new sciences, the investigators of nature by means of observation and experiment, banded themselves into academies or societies for mutual support and discourse. The first founded of surviving European academies, the common descent. Though he was writing in an era before evolution existed, Buffon is a key figure in the history of evolutionary thought; his "transformist" theory would influence the evolutionary theories of both Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.[27]

Before the Age of Exploration, naturalists had little idea of the sheer scale of biological diversity. The discovery and description of new species and the collection of specimens became a passion of scientific gentlemen and a lucrative enterprise for entrepreneurs; many naturalists traveled the globe in search of scientific knowledge and adventure.[28]

Table of the Animal Kingdom ("Regnum Animale") from the 1st edition of Linnaeus' Systema Naturae (1735).

Extending the work of Vesalius into experiments on still living bodies (of both humans and animals), William Harvey and other natural philosophers investigated the roles of blood, veins and arteries. Harvey's De motu cordis in 1628 was the beginning of the end for Galenic theory, and alongside Santorio Santorio's studies of metabolism, it served as an influential model of quantitative approaches to physiology.[29]

Impact of the microscope

In the early 17th century, the micro-world of zoology was just beginning to open up. A few lensmakers and natural philosophers had been creating crude microscopes since the late 16th century, and Robert Hooke published the seminal Micrographia based on observations with his own compound microscope in 1665. But it was not until Antony van Leeuwenhoek's dramatic improvements in lensmaking beginning in the 1670s—ultimately producing up to 200-fold magnification with a single lens—that scholars discovered spermatozoa, bacteria, infusoria and the sheer strangeness and diversity of microscopic life. Similar investigations by Jan Swammerdam led to new interest in entomology and built the basic techniques of microscopic dissection and staining.[30]

Debate over the extinction.[31]

18th century microscopes from the Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris.

Advances in life, though they opposed the idea that (3) all cells come from the division of other cells. Thanks to the work of Robert Remak and Rudolf Virchow, however, by the 1860s most biologists accepted all three tenets of what came to be known as cell theory.[32]

In advance of On the Origin of Species

Up through the 19th century, the scope of zoology was largely divided between physiology, which investigated questions of form and function, and natural history, which was concerned with the diversity of life and interactions among different forms of life and between life and non-life. By 1900, much of these domains overlapped, while natural history (and its counterpart natural history) using the quantitative approaches of natural philosophy (i.e., physics and chemistry). Humboldt's work laid the foundations of biogeography and inspired several generations of scientists.[33]

Charles Darwin's first sketch of an evolutionary tree from his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)

The emerging discipline of geology also brought natural history and natural philosophy closer together; comparative anatomy and paleontology in the late 1790s and early 19th century. In a series of lectures and papers that made detailed comparisons between living mammals and fossil remains Cuvier was able to establish that the fossils were remains of species that had become extinct—rather than being remains of species still alive elsewhere in the world, as had been widely believed.[34] Fossils discovered and described by Gideon Mantell, William Buckland, Mary Anning, and Richard Owen among others helped establish that there had been an 'age of reptiles' that had preceded even the prehistoric mammals. These discoveries captured the public imagination and focused attention on the history of life on earth.[35]

The most significant evolutionary theory before Darwin's was that of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck; based on the inheritance of acquired characteristics (an inheritance mechanism that was widely accepted until the 20th century), it described a chain of development stretching from the lowliest microbe to humans.[36] The British naturalist Charles Darwin, combining the biogeographical approach of Humboldt, the uniformitarian geology of Lyell, Thomas Malthus's writings on population growth, and his own morphological expertise, created a more successful evolutionary theory based on natural selection; similar evidence led Alfred Russel Wallace to independently reach the same conclusions.[37] Charles Darwin's early interest in nature led him on a five-year voyage on HMS Beagle which established him as an eminent geologist whose observations and theories supported Charles Lyell's uniformitarian ideas, and publication of his journal of the voyage made him famous as a popular author.[38] Puzzled by the geographical distribution of wildlife and fossils he collected on the voyage, Darwin investigated the transmutation of species and conceived his theory of natural selection in 1838.[39] Although he discussed his ideas with several naturalists, he needed time for extensive research and his geological work had priority.[40] He was writing up his theory in 1858 when Alfred Russel Wallace sent him an essay which described the same idea, prompting immediate joint publication of both of their theories.[41] Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published on 24 November 1859, a seminal work of scientific literature, was to be the foundation of evolutionary biology.

See also


  1. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 2–3
  2. ^ a b Strouhal (1989) p. 117
  3. ^ a b c Manuelian (1998) p. 381
  4. ^ Nicholson (2000) p. 409
  5. ^ Oakes (2003) p. 229
  6. ^  
  7. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, p. 6
  8. ^ Girish Dwivedi, Shridhar Dwivedi (2007). "History of Medicine: Sushruta – the Clinician – Teacher par Excellence" (PDF).  
  9. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 3–9
  10. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 9–27
  11. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 84–90, 135; Mason, A History of the Sciences, p 41–44
  12. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 201–202; see also: Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being
  13. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 90–91; Mason, A History of the Sciences, p 46
  14. ^ Barnes, Hellenistic Philosophy and Science, p 383–384
  15. ^ Annas, Classical Greek Philosophy, p 252
  16. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 91–94
  17. ^ Mehmet Bayrakdar, "Al-Jahiz And the Rise of Biological Evolutionism", The Islamic Quarterly, Third Quarter, 1983, London.
  18. ^ Paul S. Agutter & Denys N. Wheatley (2008). Thinking about Life: The History and Philosophy of Biology and Other Sciences.  
  19. ^ Conway Zirkle (1941), Natural Selection before the "Origin of Species", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 84 (1): 71–123.
  20. ^ 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]
  21. ^ 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].
  22. ^ Albertus Magnus. On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica. The Review of Metaphysics | December 01, 2001 | Tkacz, Michael W.
  23. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 91–94:
    "As far as biology as a whole is concerned, it was not until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that the universities became centers of biological research."
  24. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 166–171
  25. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 80–83
  26. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, chapter 4
  27. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, chapter 7
  28. ^ See Raby, Bright Paradise
  29. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 103–113
  30. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 133–144
  31. ^ Rudwick, The Meaning of Fossils, pp 41–93
  32. ^ Sapp, Genesis, chapter 7; Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century, chapters 2
  33. ^ Bowler, The Earth Encompassed, pp 204–211
  34. ^ Rudwick, The Meaning of Fossils, pp 112–113
  35. ^ Bowler, The Earth Encompassed, pp 211–220
  36. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 343–357
  37. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, chapter 10: "Darwin's evidence for evolution and common descent"; and chapter 11: "The causation of evolution: natural selection"; Larson, Evolution, chapter 3
  38. ^ Desmond & Moore 1991, pp. 210, 284–285
  39. ^ Desmond & Moore 1991, pp. 263–274
  40. ^ van Wyhe 2007, pp. 184, 187
  41. ^ Beddall, B. G. (1968). "Wallace, Darwin, and the Theory of Natural Selection" (PDF). Journal of the History of Biology 1 (2): 261–323.  

Further reading

  • C. M. Pyle, “Zoology,” in Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution from Copernicus to Newton, ed. Wilbur Applebaum, New York, Garland, 2000, 695-698.
  • ______, “The Art and Science of Renaissance Natural History: Thomas of Cantimpré, Pietro Candido Decembrio, Conrad Gessner and Teodoro Ghisi in Vatican Library MS Urb. lat. 276,” Viator, 27 (1996), 265-321.
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