History of zoology (through 1859)

History of zoology (through 1859)

This article considers the history of zoology before the theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859.

Pre-scientific zoology

Humans have been fascinated by the other members of the animal kingdom throughout history. In early Europe, they gathered up and treasured stories of strange animals from distant lands or deep seas, such as are recorded in the "Physiologus", in the works of Albertus Magnus ("On Animals"), and others. These accounts 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.

Almost a thousand years before Darwin, the Afro-Arab scholar Al-Jahiz (born in Basra, 781–868) developed a rudimentary theory of natural selection [Conway Zirkle (1941). Natural Selection before the "Origin of Species", "Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society" 84 (1), p. 71-123.] . In his "Book of Animals", Jahiz first described the struggle for existence and speculates on how environmental factors can affect the characteristics of species, forcing them to adapt and then pass on those new traits to future generations.

The disciplinary study of zoology also found root in China. Two great Chinese authors in this field were Su Song (1020-1101) and Shen Kuo (1031-1095) of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) period, yet there were many others.

The rise of the naturalist

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 early collectors of natural curiosities were the founders of zoology, and to this day the naturalists and, museum curators and systematists, play an important part in the progress of zoology. Indeed, the historical importance of this aspect or branch of zoology was previously so great that the name "zoology" had until the beginning of the 20th century been associated entirely with it, to the exclusion of the study of minute anatomical structure (anatomy) and function (physiology). Anatomy and the study of animal mechanism, animal physics and animal chemistry, all of which form part of a true zoology, were initially excluded from the usual definition of the word by the fact that the zoologist had museums unlike botanists who possessed living specimens. Early zoologists were deprived of the means of anatomical and physiological study and only later supplied by the method of preserving animal bodies in alcohol when the demands of medicine for a knowledge of the structure of the human animal brought into existence a separate and special study of human anatomy and physiology.

From the study of human structure the knowledge of the anatomy of animals proceeded. Scientists who studied the structure of the human body were able to compare human anatomical structures with those of other animals. Comparative anatomy came into existence as a branch of inquiry apart from zoology, and it was only in the latter part of the 19th century that the limitation of the word zoology to a knowledge of animals which expressly excludes the consideration of their internal structure was rejected by scientists. It is now generally recognised that zoology and comparative anatomy are essentially synonymous, and museum naturalists study both the anatomy (inside) and the morphology (outside) of animals.

16th century developments

Scientific zoology really started in the 16th century with the awakening of the new spirit of observation and exploration, but for a long time ran a separate course uninfluenced by the progress of the medical studies of anatomy and physiology. The active search for knowledge by means of observation and experiment found its natural home in the universities. Owing to the connection of medicine with these seats of learning, it was natural that the study of the structure and functions of the human body and of the animals nearest to man should take root there; the spirit of inquiry which now for the first time became general showed itself in the anatomical schools of the Italian universities of the 16th century, and spread fifty years later to Oxford.

17th century developments

In the 17th century, the lovers of the new philosophy, the investigators of nature by means of observation and experiment, banded themselves into academies or societies for mutual support and intercourse. The first founded of surviving European academies, the Academia Naturae Curiosorum (1651) especially confined itself to the description and illustration of the structure of plants and animals; eleven years later (1662) the Royal Society of London was incorporated by royal charter, having existed without a name or fixed organisation for seventeen years previously (from 1645).

A little later the Academy of Sciences of Paris was established by Louis XIV. The influence of these great academies of the 17th century on the progress of zoology was precisely to effect that bringing together of the museum-men and the physicians or anatomists which was needed for further development. Whilst the race of collectors and systematisers culminated in the latter part of the 18th century in Linnaeus, a new type of student made its appearance in such men as John Hunter and other anatomists, who, not satisfied with the superficial observations of the popular zoologists, set themselves to work to examine anatomically the whole animal kingdom, and to classify its members by aid of the results of such profound study.

Under the influence of the touchstone of strict inquiry set on foot by the Royal Society, the marvels of witchcraft, sympathetic powders, and other relics of mediaeval superstition disappeared, whilst accurate observations and demonstrations of a host of new wonders accumulated, amongst which were numerous contributions to the anatomy of animals, and none perhaps more noteworthy than the observations, made by the aid of microscopes constructed by himself, of Leeuwenhoek, the Dutch naturalist (1683), some of whose instruments were presented by him to the Society.

19th century developments

Development of the microscope

It was not until the 19th century that the microscope, thus early applied by Leeuwenhoek, Malpighi, Hooke, and Swammerdam to the study of animal structure, was perfected as an instrument, and accomplished for zoology its final and most important service. The perfecting of the microscope led to a full comprehension of the great doctrine of cell structure and the establishment of the facts - (1) that all organisms are either single corpuscles (so-called "cells") of living material (microscopic animalcules, "etc.") or are built up of an immense number of such units; (2) that all organisms begin their individual existence as a single unit or corpuscle of living substance, which multiplies by binary fission, the products growing in size and multiplying similarly by binary fission; and (3) that the life of a multicellular organism is the sum of the activities of the corpuscular units of which it consists, and that the processes of life must be studied in and their explanation obtained from an understanding of the chemical and physical changes which go on in each individual corpuscle or unit of living material or protoplasm.

Developments in other sciences impacting zoology

Meanwhile the astronomical theories of development of the solar system from a gaseous condition to its present form, put forward by Kant and by Laplace, had impressed men's minds with the conception of a general movement of spontaneous progress or development in all nature. The science of geology came into existence, and the whole panorama of successive stages of the Earths history, each with its distinct population of strange animals and plants, unlike those of the present day and simpler in proportion as they recede into the past, was revealed by Georges Cuvier, Agassiz, and others. The history of the crust of the earth was explained by Lyell as due to a process of slow development, in order to effect which he called in no cataclysmic agencies, no mysterious forces differing from those operating at the present day. Thus he carried on the narrative of orderly development from the point at which it was left by Kant and Laplace - explaining by reference to the ascertained laws of physics and chemistry the configuration of the Earth, its mountains and seas, its igneous and its stratified rocks, just as the astronomers had explained by those same laws the evolution of the Sun and planets from diffused gaseous matter of high temperature. The suggestion that living things must also be included in this great development was obvious.

The delay in the establishment of the doctrine of organic evolution was due, not to the ignorant and unobservant, but to the leaders of zoological and botanical science. Knowing the almost endless complexity of organic structures, realising that man himself with all the mystery of his life and consciousness must be included in any explanation of the origin of living things, they preferred to regard living things as something apart from the rest of nature, specially cared for, specially created by a Divine Being. Thus it was that the so-called "Natur-philosophen" of the last decade of the 18th century, and their successors in the first quarter of the 19th, found few adherents among the working zoologists and botanists. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Treviranus, Erasmus Darwin, Goethe, and Saint-Hilaire preached to deaf ears, for they advanced the theory that living beings had developed by a slow process of transmutation in successive generations from simpler ancestors, and in the beginning from simplest formless matter, without being able to demonstrate any existing mechanical causes by which such development must necessarily be brought about. They were met by the criticism that possibly such a development had taken place; but, as no one could show as a simple fact of observation that it had taken place, nor as a result of legitimate inference that it must have taken place, it was quite as likely that the past and present species of animals and plants had been separately created or individually brought into existence by unknown and inscrutable causes, and (it was held) the truly scientific man would refuse to occupy himself with such fancies, whilst ever centinuing to concern himself with the observation and record of indisputable facts. The critics did well; for the "Natur-philosophen", though right in their main conception, were premature.

Zoology since 1859: Darwin and theory of evolution

Then, in 1859, Charles Darwin placed the whole 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. This changed the attitudes of most exponents of the scientific method. Darwin's discoveries revolutionised the zoological and botanical sciences, by introducing the theory of evolution by natural selection as an explanation for the diversity of all animal and plant life. The subject-matter of this new science, or branch of biological science, had been neglected: it did not form part of the studies of the collector and systematist, nor was it a branch of anatomy, nor of the physiology pursued by medical men, nor again was it included in the field of microscopy and the cell theory. Almost a thousand years before Darwin, the Arab scholar Al-Jahiz (781868) had already developed a rudimentary theory of natural selection [Conway Zirkle (1941). Natural Selection before the "Origin of Species", "Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society" 84 (1), p. 71-123.] , describing the Struggle for existence in his "Book of Animals" where he speculates on how environmental factors can affect the characteristics of species by forcing them to adapt and then passing on those new traits to future generations. However, his work had largely been forgotten, along with many other early advances of Arab scientists, and there is no evidence that his works were known to Darwin.

The area of biological knowledge which Darwin was the first to subject to scientific method and to render, as it were, contributory to the great stream formed by the union of the various branches, is that which relates to the breeding of animals and plants, their congenital variations, and the transmission and perpetuation of those variations. This branch of biological science may be called thremmatology - the science of breeding. Outside the scientific world, an immense mass of observation and experiment had grown up in relation to this subject. From the earliest times the shepherd, the farmer, the horticulturist, and the fancier had for practical purposes made themselves acquainted with a number of biological laws, and successfully applied them without exciting more than an occasional notice from the academic students of biology. Darwin made use of these observations and formulated their results to a large extent as the laws of variation and heredity. As the breeder selects a congenital variation which suits his requirements, and by breeding from the animals (or plants) exhibiting that variation obtains a new breed specially characterised by that variation, so in nature is there a selection amongst all the congenital variations of each generation of a species. This selection depends on the fact that more young are born than the natural provision of food will support. In consequence of this excess of births there is a struggle for existence and a survival of the fittest, and consequently an ever-present necessarily acting selection, which either maintains accurately the form of the species from generation to generation or leads to its modification in correspondence with changes in the surrounding circumstances which have relation to its fitness for success in the struggle for life, structures to the service of the organisms in which they occur.

It cannot be said that previously to Darwin there had been any very profound study of teleology, but it had been the delight of a certain type of mind, that of the lovers of nature or naturalists par excellence as they were sometimes termed, to watch the habits of living animals and plants and to point out the remarkable ways in which the structure of each variety of organic life was adapted to the special circumstances of life of the variety or species. The astonishing colours and grotesque forms of some animals and plants which the museum zoologists gravely described without comment were shown by these observers of living nature to have their significance in the economy of the organism possessing them; and a general doctrine was recognized, to the effect that no part or structure of an organism is without definite use and adaptation, being designed by the Creator for the benefit of the creature to which it belongs, or else for the benefit, amusement or instruction of his highest creatureman. Teleology in this form of the doctrine of design was never very deeply rooted amongst scientific anatomists and systematists. It was considered permissible to speculate somewhat vaguely on the subject of the utility of this or that startling variety of structure; but few attempts, though some of great importance, were made systematically to explain by observation and experiment the adaptation of organic structures to particular purposes in the case of the lower animals and plants. Teleology had, indeed, an important part in the development of physiology - the knowledge of the mechanism, the physical and chemical properties, of the parts of the body of man and the higher animals allied to him. But, as applied to lower and more obscure forms of life, teleology presented almost insurmountable difficulties; and consequently, in place of exact experiment and demonstration, the most reckless though ingenious assumptions were made as to the utility of the parts and organs of lower animals.

Darwin's theory had as one of its results the reformation and rehabilitation of teleology. According to that theory, every organ, every part, colour and peculiarity of an organism, must either be of benefit to that organism itself or have been so to its ancestors: no peculiarity of structure or general conformation, no habit or instinct in any organism, can be supposed to exist for the benefit or amusement of another organism, not even for the delectation of man himself.

A very subtle and important qualification of this generalization has to be recognized (and was recognized by Darwin) in the fact that owing to the interdependence of the parts of the bodies of living things and their profound chemical interactions and peculiar structural balance (what is called organic polarity) the variation of one single part (a spot of colour, a tooth, a claw, a leaflet) may, and demonstrably does in many cases entail variation of other parts what are called correlated variations. Hence many structures which are obvious to the eye, and serve as distinguishing marks of separate species, are really not themselves of value or use, btit are the necessary concomitants of less obvious and even altogether obscure qualities, which are the real characters upon which selection is acting. Such correlated variations may attain to great size and complexity without being of use. But eventually they may in turn become, in changed conditions, of selective value. Thus in many cases the difficulty of supposing that selection has acted on minute and imperceptible initial variations, so small as to have no selective value, may be got rid of. A useless correlated variation may have attained great volume and quality before it is (as it were) seized upon and perfected by natural selection. All organisms are essentially and necessarily built up by such correlated variations.

Necessarily, according to the theory of natural selection, structures either are present because they are selected as useful or because they are still inherited from ancestors to whom they were useful, though no longer useful to the existing representatives of those ancestors. Structures previously inexplicable were now explained as survivals from a past age, no longer useful though once of value. Every variety of form and colour was urgently and absolutely called upon to produce its title to existence either as an active useful agent or as a survival. Darwin himself spent a large part of the later years of his life in thus extending the new teleology.

The old doctrine of types, which was used by the philosophically minded zoologists (and botanists) of the first half of the 19th century as a ready means of explaining the failures and difficulties of the doctrine of design, fell into its proper place under the new dispensation. The adherence to type, the favourite conception. of the transcendental morphologist, was seen to be nothing more than the expression of one of the laws of thremmatology, the persistence of hereditary transmission of ancestral characters, even when they have ceased to be significant or valuable in the struggle for existence, whilst the so-called evidences of design which was supposed to modify the limitations of types assigned to Himself by the Creator were seen to be adaptations due to the selection and intensification by selective breeding of fortuitous congenital variations, which happened to prove more useful than the many thousand other variations which did not survive in the struggle for existence.

Thus not only did Darwins theory give a new basis to the study of organic structure, but, whilst rendering the general theory of organic evolution equally acceptable and necessary, it explained the existence of low and simple forms of life as survivals of the earliest ancestry of the more highly complex forms, and revealed the classifications of the systematist as unconscious attempts to construct the genealogical tree or pedigree of plants and animals. Finally, it brought the simplest living matter or formless protoplasm before the mental vision as the starting point whence, by the operation of necessary mechanical causes, the highest forms have been evolved, and it rendered unavoidable the conclusion that this earliest living material was itself evolved by gradual processes, the result also of the known and recognized laws of physics and chemistry, from material which we should call not living. It abolished the conception of life as an entity above and beyond the common properties of matter, and led to the conviction that the marvellous and exceptional qualities of that which we call living matter are nothing more nor less than an exceptionally complicated development of those chemical and physical properties which we recognize in a gradually ascending scale of evolution in the carbon compounds, containing nitrogen as well as oxygen, sulphur and hydrogen as constituent atoms of their enormous molecules. Thus mysticism was finally banished from the domain of biology, and zoology became one of the physical sciencesthe science which seeks to arrange and discuss the phenomena of animal life and form, as the outcome of the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry.

A subdivision of zoology which was at one time in favour is simply into morphology and physiology, the study of form and structure on the one hand, and the study of the activities and functions of the forms and structures of the other. But a logical division like this is not necessarily conducive to the ascertainment and remembrance of the historical progress and present significance of the science. No such distinction of mental activities as that involved in the division of the study of animal life into morphology and physiology has ever really existed: the investigator of animal forms has never entirely ignored the functions of the forms studied by him, and the experimental inquirer into the functions and properties of animal tissues and organs has always taken very careful account of the forms of those tissues and organs. A more instructive subdivision must be one which corresponds to the separate currents of thought and mental preoccupation which have been historically manifested in western Europe in the gradual evolution of what is to-day the great river of zoological doctrine to which they have all been rendered contributory.


*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, Pier Candido Decembrio, Conrad Gessner and Teodoro Ghisi in Vatican Library MS Urb. lat. 276,” "Viator", 27 (1996), 265-321.

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