History of biology

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A history of biology tries to recognize the myriad ideas of individuals and groups curious about the myriad aspects of the living world, including those individuals whose ideas have all but disappeared from the everyday knowledge base of biology. It tries to follow the sometimes narrow, nearly closed, torturous, and sometimes wide-open breakthrough path of discovery about the workings of living things. It does not constitute an evaluation of the veracity of biological ideas, or attempt to give answers to the fundamental questions in biology, or even to define those questions.

We will try to heed the words of the editor of the Journal of the History of Biology:

While hard data will always serve as the basis of history, the simple narrative is no longer acceptable, particularly when dealing with the emergence of ideas. The best history will be characterized by penetrating and critical analysis of changing concepts and altered methods of experiment and observation. Biology, in particular, must be studied in terms of its relationships with the other sciences and with the intellectual currents of its day.[1]


An unrecorded history of biology began when prehistoric human foragers first started to accumulate information about the behavior of plants and animals in their environment, which they did presumably for its importance in helping them acquire food for subsistence.

Homo sapiens, emerged nearly 200,000 years ago, exhibiting unprecedented cognitive abilities. They could discriminate cause and effect widely in nature, they could speak and thus share knowledge and cooperatively accumulate it to pass it down the generations, and they could make tools — all prerequisites for a successful study of food sources for immediate practical purposes. Living as hunter-gatherers, they learned the details of the behavior of animals and plants as they needed to subsist and thrive in the wild. How they managed to organize and teach their knowledge we can only speculate. Reports of direct observations of 19th and 20th century hunter-gatherer societies, whose lifestyle resembled them give some appreciation of the likely expertise important for survival required of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.[2]

Beginning approximately 10,000 years ago, self-expanding biological knowledge in the Middle East plausibly played a major role in evolving productivity in agriculture and the domestication of wild animals such as dogs and sheep. Some biologists extrapolate backwards in time from historic processes to speculate on the knowledge-based aspects of the developments in cultivation and domestication for human benefit by prehistoric agriculturalists. Harold Morowitz, Yale Professor of Biology and Natural Philosophy, views prehistoric agriculturalists as ‘natural’ biologists and selectionists:[3]

Domestication provides for rapid evolution of the species employed. A selection for fitness was imposed by the domesticators. Thus, large seeds, fleshy fruits, and other desirable properties were selected in choosing for planting. In time this had its genetic consequences, and new strains emerged. Similarly, in animal populations selection for docility or size or some other feature would alter a species....Animal domestication might have been preceded by hunter-gatherers who captured orphaned young animals and raised them in captivity. This would have provided information necessary for large-scale animal domestication. In a very real sense, agriculture is a knowledge-driven activity. Knowledge must be communicated by language and must eventually be stored by writing.

Farming techniques were invented possibly independently in at least seven parts of the world, including the Middle East, Asia, Sub-Sahara Africa, and the Western Hemisphere.

Beginnings of ancient biology

     The Pre-Socratics

The idea that the phenomena observed in nature resulted from natural causes that humans could potentially discover apparently originated in ancient Greece. C. Leon Harris writes that in the 6th century BC some Greeks:

became obsessed with the heresy that nature is not simply a whim of the gods, but that natural phenomena consistently follow particular causes which men can understand. There is no record of the idea prior to that time, and mankind was apparently cured of the fixation afterward, until it broke out again in the European Renaissance. Now, of course, this epidemic of science has infected us all.[4]

The science of biology begins in the 4th century BCE, with the work and though of Aristotle (384-322 BCE). He learned from earlier Greek thinkers who postulated biological explanations from observations of the everyday world, including:

  • Thales of Miletus (640-550 BCE), who posited water as the source of all things, including life;
  • Anaxagoras (500-428 BCE), who discovered respiration in animals and plants and attributed human intelligence to the development of bipedalism;
  • Empedocles (ca. 445 BCE), who advanced a theory of evolution, attributing it to the combination of natural experiments and natural selection. Aristotle both acknowledges Empedocles’ ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ argument and rejects it on the basis that nature operates for a purpose and does not offer random variations;[5][6]
  • Leucippus (ca. 445 BCE) and Democritus (460-360 BCE), who rejected design in nature and described nature as a machine.

Aristotle was founding father of biology through his lifelong wide-ranging observations of biological phenomena, his experimentation, his organization of information, his writing up reports and teaching students, and his basic philosophy that understanding reality required deductions and inductions from sense experience and not abstract postulations before the fact.[7] He noted that despite the enormous variety of living things, they showed very small gradations from less to more complex forms,

…that life has grown steadily in complexity and in power; that intelligence has progressed in correlation with complexity of structure and mobility of form; that there has been an increasing specialization of function, and a continuous centralization of physiological control.


Hippocrates. Engraving by Peter Paul Rubens, (S.L., 1638).

Of all the men in ancient Greece who shared the name, Hippocrates — a common Greek name like ‘Edward’ or ‘Lawrence’ in English — many such having distinguished themselves in Greek history in one way or other, only one Hippocrates, Hippocrates of Cos (c. 460 – 370 BCE), a physician, reigned with honor and respect during Western history to the present day. The revolution in medicine that he began and inspired so changed the course of Western civilization that the health and welfare of all humanity has benefited.

Hippocrates of Cos revolutionized the practice of medicine by transforming it from its mythical, superstitious, magical and supernatural roots to roots based on observation and reason — the roots of scientific objectivity — roots that have nourished an ever-growing evolutionary tree of Western scientific medicine still flourishing. For that reason History has bestowed on Hippocrates of Cos the honorific cognomen, “The Father of Medicine”, medicine’s progenitor. We might call him more accurately "The Progenitor of Western Scientific Medicine".

     Aristotle, the founding father of the science of biology

Aristotle gave some thought to the question, "what is life?". He thought that a living thing existed in 'potentiality' in the seed or semen, that environment factors initiated the realization of that potential, and that potential included the "nutritive power" needed for it to grow into the living thing.[8] Corresponding to that triad of suppositions by Aristotle, though it takes more than semen to generate a human,[9] modern biologists teach that the 'potentiality' of the human exists as molecules in the semen and ovum, that the fluid composition in the oviduct, where the sperm and ovum meet, enables their fusion — the fertilization process that starts the life form — and that the zygote (the first cell of the human) has within itself the wherewithal to utilize its own organization to develop itself into a multi-cellular individual human.

Aristotle developed a coherent vision of the nature of living thing. His four components of the causes of complex natural things,[10] [11] anticipates the somewhat more refined modern systems biology approach to the question of life, wherein a living thing comprises:

  • A collection of organic and inorganic parts (molecules and ions; cells, organelles, organs and organisms) — Aristotle’s 'material' cause, the parts that make up the living thing; Aristotle only recognized some of the organs;
  • Parts relating to each other to form structures (e.g., networks), how they interact with each other (e.g., network dynamics), and how the structures interact with each other in a coordinated dynamic and hierarchical manner — Aristotle’s 'formal' (form-like) cause, the form the living thing takes on from the parts; Aristotle thought in terms of sculpture;
  • Parts and structures dynamically coordinated (e.g., gene expression; self-organization) — Aristotle’s 'efficient' (effect-producing) cause, how the living thing gets produced into its form; the moving force; Aristotle thought about something putting it together;
  • How the living system as-a-whole functions and behaves, and the properties that characterize it (e.g., reproduction; locomotion; cognition) — Aristotle’s 'final' cause, its function; Aristotle thought in terms of the thing's 'purpose' or 'goal';

Modern biologists go down the road started as a path by Aristotle, who would have been delighted to know he asked the right questions during his pathbreaking studies, even if he did not know how to get the right answers. Unfortunately, the larger fraction of his writings have disappeared, so we cannot know the full breadth of Aristotle's curiosity and biological adumbrations. What he did leave had a major effect on Western thought for centuries.


Biology enters a period of relative decline

     The Alexandrian School

     Scientific plant illustration begins


Holding ref: Dioscorides Pedanius, of Anazarbos; The Greek herbal of Dioscorides; illustrated by a Byzantine, A.D. 512; Englished by John Goodyer, A.D. 1655; edited and first printed, A.D. 1933, by Robert T. Gunther ... with three hundred and ninety-six illustrations; Imprint Oxford, Printed by J. Johnson for the author, at the University press, 1934


     Galen, a paradox

     The dark and middle ages

     The Renaissance

     The scholastics

     Albertus Magnus

A new birth of investigation in biology

     Naturalistic art


     Botany in Germany


     Vesalius and von Kalkar and human anatomy

     Harvey discovers the Circulation of the Blood

Beginnings of modern biology

How Darwinism evolved into multiple species of neo-Darwinism


  1. Mendelsohn E. (1968) Editorial forward. Journal of the History of Biology 1:iii-iiv.
  2. See sampling of such studies:
    • Lee RB, DeVore I. (1968) Man the Hunter. Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago.
    • Woodburn J (1968) An introduction to Hadza ecology. In: Man the Hunter. Editors: Lee RB and DeVore I. Aldine Publishing Co., Chicago.
    • Tanaka J (1976) Subsistence ecology of Central Kalahari San. In: Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers. Editors: Lee RB and DeVore I. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
    • Hawkes K, Hill K, O'Connell J. (1982) Why hunters gather, optimal foraging theory and the Ache of Eastern Ache Paraguay. American Ethnologist 9:379-398
    • O'Dea K, White NG, Sinclair AJ. (1988) An investigation of nutrition-related risk factors in an isolated Aboriginal community in northern Australia: advantages of a traditionally-orientated life-style. Med J Aust 148:177-180 PMID 3277018
    • Milton K, Knight CD, Crowe I. (1991) Comparative Aspects of Diet in Amazonian Forest-Dwellers. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 334:253-263
    • Hill K, Hurtado M, HurtadoA.M. (1996) Ache Life History: The Ecology and Demography of a Foraging People (Foundations of Human Behavior). Aldine De Gruyter.
  3. Morowitz HJ. (2002) The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex. Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-517331-7 Full-Text
  4. Harris CL. (1981) Evolution, Genesis and Revelations, with Readings from Empedocles to Wilson. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY. page 30 Full-Text
  5. Aristotle (350 BCE) Physics Book II Part 8 (Translated by R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye)
    • ”We must explain then (1) that Nature belongs to the class of causes which act for the sake of something; (2) about the necessary and its place in physical problems... A difficulty presents itself: why should not nature work, not for the sake of something, nor because it is better so, but just as the sky rains, not in order to make the corn grow, but of necessity? What is drawn up must cool, and what has been cooled must become water and descend, the result of this being that the corn grows... Why then should it not be the same with the parts in nature, e.g. that our teeth should come up of necessity-the front teeth sharp, fitted for tearing, the molars broad and useful for grinding down the food-since they did not arise for this end, but it was merely a coincident result; and so with all other parts in which we suppose that there is purpose? Wherever then all the parts came about just what they would have been if they had come be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish, as Empedocles says his 'man-faced ox-progeny' did. Such are the arguments (and others of the kind) which may cause difficulty on this point. Yet it is impossible that this should be the true view. For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way; but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true... It is plain then that nature is a cause, a cause that operates for a purpose.” (Emphasis added)
  6. University of California Museum of Paleontology Evolution and Paleontology in the Ancient World
  7. Aristotle. Prior Analytics. In: Aristotle Selections. Fine G, Irwin T, translators. Hackett Publishing Company. Indianapolis. 1995 ISBN 0872203395
  8. Aristotle. The Generation of Animals. In. Ruse M (editor) Philosophy of Biology. Prometheus Books, New York. 1998 ISBN 1-57392-185-8
  9. Note: For a more extensive discussion, from a feminist perspective, of Aristotle’s views of the respective roles of men and women in the biology of reproduction, see:
    • Tuana N. (1994) Aristotle and the Politics of Reproduction. In: Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Readings in Plato and Aristotle. Bat-Ami Bar On (editor). State University of New York Press. Albany, NY.
  10. Andrea Falcon (2006) Aristotle on Causality
  11. Bothwell JHF. (2006) The long past of systems biology. New Phytologist 170:6-10 Link to Full-Text.
    Note: We might interpret Aristotle's four components of 'causality' as four components of 'explanation', for as Bothwell writes: “Aristotle (384-322 BC) wanted to search for explanations of natural events that inspire wonder. His search led him to conclude that any question which might be asked about the behaviour of a complex, apparently designed, system might be answered if we knew four properties of that system. He called these the aitiai, a word which is usually rendered into English as 'causes', but which may be better translated as 'explanations' (Aristotle, APst 90a7-94b34; CA 715a1-17 [Aristotle. APst (Posterior Analytics), Trans: H. Tredennick (1960). Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library. (ISBN 0-674-99430-2)]).”