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Natural History

Maturity Of Natural History

The nineteenth century was rich in new theoretical approaches that attempted to explain the vast diversity in nature and the patterns that were emerging. On a more practical level, international commissions were established and worked to produce agreed-upon standards in nomenclature, bringing Linneaus's goal of unity in naming closer. Museum curators developed taxidermic techniques that eliminated the threat of insect pests and pioneered new methods of display that would culminate in the wonderful dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Biological Museum in Stockholm, and in the hundreds of other large museums that were established. Natural history museums became standard institutions in all major cities, and the new museums were large, well funded, and well attended. By 1900, there were 250 natural history museums in the United States, 300 in France, and 150 in Germany. Beyond the United States and Europe there were museums from Melbourne to Bombay, from Buenos Aires to Montreal. Along with the development of museums, there was a parallel development of zoological and botanical gardens that displayed and did research on living specimens. These were extraordinarily popular: In its first year, 1828, the Zoological Gardens in London's Regent Park had 130,000 visitors, and over the following decade that number swelled to a quarter of a million a year. By the 1880s, the garden attracted more than 600,000 people a year. With size and public support, the zoological and botanical gardens played new and important roles other than public entertainment and scholarly research. Kew Garden, outside London, functioned in an important manner in the global agricultural network that linked British interests to the transfer of important economic plants such as rubber plants and cinchona trees (important for quinine) throughout the empire. The New York Zoological Society Park pioneered the preservation of endangered species.

Important as these institutional and technical developments were, they have been somewhat overshadowed by the major intellectual synthesis provided by Charles Darwin (1809–1882). His theory of evolution by means of natural selection resolved the leading questions in natural history and also provided an intellectual structure that has proved to be the unifying theory of the life sciences. Like other naturalists of the nineteenth century, Darwin had been struck by the enormous diversity in nature and the interesting patterns of distribution that he and others observed. He was, similarly, curious about the relationship of fossils to living forms, and like many of his contemporaries who were trying to classify large groups, he attempted to sort out the differences between varieties and species. He approached the study of natural history with a secular perspective and sought natural explanations for the questions he asked. In an interesting sense, he combined and synthesized the traditions stemming from Linnaeus and Buffon. He sought the key to a classification and nomenclature system, and was searching for a secular vision of the order in nature. His Origin of Species (1859) has served as a model for how to envision and study nature.

Not that everyone agreed with his conclusions or his methods. For several decades scientists debated Darwin's theory. Some, like Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), did not want to break the tie between natural history and religion, while others were disturbed by numerous scientific problems: the age of the earth was not believed to be old enough for the process to have occurred, the theories of inheritance did not adequately explain how variation arose or how it could be transmitted in a way that supported the theory. Those in the medical sciences had been making great strides in investigations by using the experimental method and were elaborating a theory of the body based on an understanding of the cell. It was not clear how Darwin's science fit with that body of research. This latter issue was of special importance because many universities and other institutions were tending to see natural history as "old fashioned" by the end of the century and sought a new synthesis for the life sciences in the exciting research stemming from the experimental sciences that were elucidating how the body functions.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mysticism to Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotideNatural History - Collections And The Growth Of Natural History, Maturity Of Natural History, Modern Synthesis And Contemporary Natural History