History of Biology

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Zoology is the study of the animals and habitats within the animal kingdom. The study of zoology is important to understand the balance of nature. Through zoology we learn what animals eat, where they sleep, and even life cycle patterns that reveal more about ourselves and about the role of nature. Learning about animals is a way to learn how each animal impacts its ecosystem, which then impacts humans who live within that ecosystem. The knowledge earned can also dispel myths and enable us to learn more about the human condition as well. 

In the beginning, humans may not have paid much attention to animals as they struggled to survive. But even hunters would have to become aware of the animals they hunted. They had to understand where the animals would eat, and what they would eat so the hunter could lie in wait of the animal. The hunter had to learn how an animal would pick up on the hunter’s presence and then take steps to prevent discovery. The hunter would have to know movement and rest patterns in the animals that they sought. So zoology may have started well before recollection and recognition. 

However, humans realized that animals were a necessary part of survival and learned to domesticate certain animals, while leaving others to the wilds. The Egyptians believed that humans, animals, and plants were integral to each other, creating a balance in a cosmic chaos. Egyptians used animals as a form of status  as well as food, and kept records of cattle, which were thought most important, as well as goats, pigs, geese and ducks. Bees were even “tamed” for their honey. Dogs and monkeys were often kept as pets. And of course, cats were seen as messengers of the gods. 

The Greeks were not into zoology as they were more concerned with the arts, however philosophers such as Hippocrates compiled a body of knowledge concerning anatomical and physiological information. He eventually became thought of as the “father of medicine.” Aristotle was also accredited with information concerning zoology, though his work was more philosophical than realistic. He was extremely observant of the nature around him and was said to have over 500 animal species. Pliny the Elder eventually compiled all these notes on zoology and they would be taken seriously for many years. 

The Islamic Golden Age would tout the idea of survival of the fittest, in a rudimentary form, and the food chain through an African Arab named al-Jahiz. Later, this would be added to by another Arabian physician Ibn al-Nafis who discovered the basics of the circulatory system.

In the middle ages, a book named De animalibus libri XXVI was published. It was a study of zoological observation, one of the most important before modern times. However, it wouldn’t be until the Renaissance when people began to look seriously at animals again. This was also a period where many of the legendary creatures that still delight children’s minds were created. Bestiaries were being created that illustrated what was known of animals in the natural world. Though bestiaries became more sophisticated, they still contained figurative information and sometimes were unreliable. 

The 17th century saw an increase in scientific practices, part of which was devoted to animal science. This era created several universities, one of which was devoted to plants and animals. The next two centuries would be dominated by the organization of various creatures into species and naming previously unknown, or unseen, creatures. In 1735, Carl Linnaeus wrote and published a book on the natural world. This was the first publication that included scientific names and would be used as a template for future books. But still, naturalists had little idea of the sheer volume of animals that existed on the planet. 

The age of exploration created a hobby in many scientific minded people to find new species and collect samples. But it wasn’t until the creation of the microscope that zoology would evolve to more than observation and philosophy. The creation of the microscope lead to the discovery of cells, bacteria, spermatozoa and various other life that could only be seen through a microscope lens. 

Probably one of the most important works in the field of zoology was the work of Alexander von Humboldt. His interest was in the relationship between a creature and its environment. His work led the way for other researchers. Georges Cuvier made discoveries in comparative anatomy and paleontology by noting the similarities between living animals and fossil remains. His work led to the thought that the fossils belonged to creatures that were no longer living and turned attention to the history of life on earth. Charles Darwin would investigate the transmutation of species and eventually create his work on the origin of species which is still referred to today. 

Discoveries in the area of zoology are still being made today. Many theories are still being tested and validated. Through zoology humans may yet be able to save numerous creatures, if not all of them, from extinction. 

More about this author: Chrystina Trulove-Reyes

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