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History of biology

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History of biology

The frontispiece to Erasmus Darwin's evolution-themed poem The Temple of Nature shows a goddess pulling back the veil from nature (in the person of Artemis). Allegory and metaphor have often played an important role in the history of biology.

The history of biology traces the study of the 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, biological sciences such as 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. The end of the 19th century saw the fall of spontaneous generation and the rise of the germ theory of disease, though the mechanism of inheritance remained a mystery.

In the early 20th century, the rediscovery of cellular and molecular biology. By the late 20th century, new fields like genomics and proteomics were reversing this trend, with organismal biologists using molecular techniques, and molecular and cell biologists investigating the interplay between genes and the environment, as well as the genetics of natural populations of organisms.


  • Etymology of "biology" 1
  • Ancient and medieval knowledge 2
    • Early cultures 2.1
      • Ancient Chinese traditions 2.1.1
      • Ancient Indian traditions 2.1.2
      • Ancient Mesopotamian traditions 2.1.3
      • Ancient Egyptian traditions 2.1.4
    • Ancient Greek and Roman traditions 2.2
    • Medieval and Islamic knowledge 2.3
  • Renaissance and early modern developments 3
    • Seventeenth and eighteenth centuries 3.1
  • 19th century: the emergence of biological disciplines 4
    • Natural history and natural philosophy 4.1
      • Geology and paleontology 4.1.1
      • Evolution and biogeography 4.1.2
    • Physiology 4.2
      • Cell theory, embryology and germ theory 4.2.1
      • Rise of organic chemistry and experimental physiology 4.2.2
  • Twentieth century biological sciences 5
    • Ecology and environmental science 5.1
    • Classical genetics, the modern synthesis, and evolutionary theory 5.2
    • Biochemistry, microbiology, and molecular biology 5.3
      • Origins of molecular biology 5.3.1
      • Expansion of molecular biology 5.3.2
    • Biotechnology, genetic engineering, and genomics 5.4
      • Recombinant DNA 5.4.1
      • Molecular systematics and genomics 5.4.2
  • Twenty-first century biological sciences 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Etymology of "biology"

The word biology is formed by combining the Greek βίος (bios), meaning "life", and the suffix '-logy', meaning "science of", "knowledge of", "study of", based on the Greek verb λέγειν, 'legein' "to select", "to gather" (cf. the noun λόγος, 'logos' "word"). The term biology in its modern sense appears to have been introduced independently by Thomas Beddoes (in 1799),[1] Karl Friedrich Burdach (in 1800), Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus (Biologie oder Philosophie der lebenden Natur, 1802) and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (Hydrogéologie, 1802).[2][3] The word itself appears in the title of Volume 3 of Michael Christoph Hanow's Philosophiae naturalis sive physicae dogmaticae: Geologia, biologia, phytologia generalis et dendrologia, published in 1766.

Before biology, there were several terms used for the study of animals and plants. geology, physics, chemistry, and astronomy. Physiology and (botanical) pharmacology were the province of medicine. Botany, zoology, and (in the case of fossils) geology replaced natural history and natural philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries before biology was widely adopted.[4][5] To this day, "botany" and "zoology" are widely used, although they have been joined by other sub-disciplines of biology, such as mycology and molecular biology.

Ancient and medieval knowledge

Early cultures

The earliest humans must have had and passed on knowledge about plants and 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 biological knowledge came with the Neolithic Revolution about 10,000 years ago. Humans first domesticated plants for farming, then livestock animals to accompany the resulting sedentary societies.[6]

The ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, 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. However, the roots of modern biology are usually traced back to the secular tradition of ancient Greek philosophy.[7]

Ancient Chinese traditions

In ancient China, biological topics can be found dispersed across several different disciplines, including the work of herbologists, physicians, alchemists, and philosophers. The Taoist tradition of Chinese alchemy, for example, can be considered part of the life sciences due to its emphasis on health (with the ultimate goal being the elixir of life). The system of classical Chinese medicine usually revolved around the theory of yin and yang, and the five phases.[8] Taoist philosophers, such as Zhuangzi in the 4th century BCE, also 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.[9]

Ancient Indian traditions

One of the oldest organised systems of medicine is known from the Indian subcontinent in the form of Ayurveda which originated around 1500 BCE from Atharvaveda (one of the four most ancient books of Indian knowledge, wisdom and culture).

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.[10] One of the earliest Ayurvedic treatises was the Sushruta Samhita, attributed to Sushruta in the 6th century BCE. It was also an early materia medica, describing 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources, and 57 preparations based on animal sources.[11]

Ancient Mesopotamian traditions

Ancient Mesopotamian medicine may be represented by Esagil-kin-apli, a prominent scholar of the 11th Century BCE, who made a compilation of medical prescriptions and procedures, which he presented as exorcisms.

Ancient Egyptian traditions

Over a dozen medical papyri have been preserved, most notably the Edwin Smith Papyrus (the oldest extant surgical handbook) and the Ebers Papyrus (a handbook of preparing and using materia medica for various diseases), both from the 16th Century BCE.

Ancient Egypt is also known for developing embalming, which was used for mummification, in order to preserve human remains and forestall decomposition.[12]

Ancient Greek and Roman traditions

Frontispiece to a 1644 version of the expanded and illustrated edition of Historia Plantarum, originally written by Theophrastus around 300 BC

The pre-Socratic philosophers asked many questions about life but produced little systematic knowledge of specifically biological interest—though the attempts of the atomists to explain life in purely physical terms would recur periodically through the history of biology. However, the medical theories of Hippocrates and his followers, especially humorism, had a lasting impact.[13]

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 plants and 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.[14]

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.[15] Aristotle's successor at the Lyceum, Theophrastus, wrote a series of books on botany—the History of Plants—which survived as the most important contribution of antiquity to botany, even into the Middle Ages. Many of Theophrastus' names survive into modern times, such as carpos for fruit, and pericarpion for seed vessel. Dioscorides wrote a pioneering and encyclopaedic pharmacopoeia, De Materia Medica, incorporating descriptions of some 600 plants and their uses in medicine. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, assembled a similarly encyclopaedic account of things in nature, including accounts of many plants and animals.[16]

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 dissections and vivisections.[17] 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. Ernst W. Mayr argued that "Nothing of any real consequence happened in biology after Lucretius and Galen until the Renaissance."[18] The ideas of the Greek traditions of natural history and medicine survived, but they were generally taken unquestioningly in medieval Europe.[19]

Medieval and Islamic knowledge

A biomedical work by Ibn al-Nafis, an early adherent of experimental dissection who discovered the pulmonary circulation and coronary circulation.

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.[20]

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

During the High Middle Ages, a few European scholars such as Hildegard of Bingen, Albertus Magnus and Frederick II expanded the natural history canon. The rise of European universities, though important for the development of physics and philosophy, had little impact on biological scholarship.[21]

Renaissance and early modern developments

The European 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. Via herbalism, medicine was also indirectly the source of renewed empiricism in the study of plants. Otto Brunfels, Hieronymus Bock and Leonhart Fuchs wrote extensively on wild plants, the beginning of a nature-based approach to the full range of plant life.[22] Bestiaries—a genre that combines both the natural and figurative knowledge of animals—also became more sophisticated, especially with the work of William Turner, Pierre Belon, Guillaume Rondelet, Conrad Gessner, and Ulisse Aldrovandi.[23]

Artists such as E. coli The

The unity of much of the homeobox genes, first in fruit flies, then in other insects and animals, including humans. These developments led to advances in the field of evolutionary developmental biology towards understanding how the various body plans of the animal phyla have evolved and how they are related to one another.[89]

The development and popularization of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in mid-1980s (by Kary Mullis and others at Cetus Corp.) marked another watershed in the history of modern biotechnology, greatly increasing the ease and speed of genetic analysis.[87] Coupled with the use of expressed sequence tags, PCR led to the discovery of many more genes than could be found through traditional biochemical or genetic methods and opened the possibility of sequencing entire genomes.[88]

By the 1980s, protein sequencing had already transformed methods of symbiotic relationships, even the overall division of the tree of life was revised. Into the 1990s, the five domains (Plants, Animals, Fungi, Protists, and Monerans) became three (the Archaea, the Bacteria, and the Eukarya) based on Carl Woese's pioneering molecular systematics work with 16S rRNA sequencing.[86]

Inside of a 48-well thermal cycler, a device used to perform polymerase chain reaction on many samples at once

Molecular systematics and genomics

Following Asilomar, new genetic engineering techniques and applications developed rapidly. gene expression than the bacteria models of earlier studies.[84] The first such race, for synthesizing human insulin, was won by Genentech. This marked the beginning of the biotech boom (and with it, the era of gene patents), with an unprecedented level of overlap between biology, industry, and law.[85]

Wary of the potential dangers (particularly the possibility of a prolific bacteria with a viral cancer-causing gene), the scientific community as well as a wide range of scientific outsiders reacted to these developments with both enthusiasm and fearful restraint. Prominent molecular biologists led by Berg suggested a temporary moratorium on recombinant DNA research until the dangers could be assessed and policies could be created. This moratorium was largely respected, until the participants in the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA created policy recommendations and concluded that the technology could be used safely.[82]

Biotechnology in the modern sense of plasmid vectors and adding genes for antibiotic resistance, greatly increasing the reach of the recombinant techniques.[81]

Recombinant DNA

Carefully engineered strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli are crucial tools in biotechnology as well as many other biological fields.

Biotechnology in the general sense has been an important part of biology since the late 19th century. With the industrialization of brewing and agriculture, chemists and biologists became aware of the great potential of human-controlled biological processes. In particular, fermentation proved a great boon to chemical industries. By the early 1970s, a wide range of biotechnologies were being developed, from drugs like penicillin and steroids to foods like Chlorella and single-cell protein to gasohol—as well as a wide range of hybrid high-yield crops and agricultural technologies, the basis for the Green Revolution.[79]

Biotechnology, genetic engineering, and genomics

Resistance to the growing influence of molecular biology was especially evident in Theodosius Dobzhansky made the famous statement that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" as a response to the molecular challenge. The issue became even more critical after 1968; Motoo Kimura's neutral theory of molecular evolution suggested that natural selection was not the ubiquitous cause of evolution, at least at the molecular level, and that molecular evolution might be a fundamentally different process from morphological evolution. (Resolving this "molecular/morphological paradox" has been a central focus of molecular evolution research since the 1960s.)[78]

The late 1950s to the early 1970s was a period of intense research and institutional expansion for molecular biology, which had only recently become a somewhat coherent discipline. In what organismic biologist E. O. Wilson called "The Molecular Wars", the methods and practitioners of molecular biology spread rapidly, often coming to dominate departments and even entire disciplines.[75] Molecularization was particularly important in genetics, immunology, embryology, and neurobiology, while the idea that life is controlled by a "genetic program"—a metaphor Jacob and Monod introduced from the emerging fields of cybernetics and computer science—became an influential perspective throughout biology.[76] Immunology in particular became linked with molecular biology, with innovation flowing both ways: the clonal selection theory developed by Niels Jerne and Frank Macfarlane Burnet in the mid-1950s helped shed light on the general mechanisms of protein synthesis.[77]

In addition to the Division of Biology at Caltech, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (and its precursors) at Cambridge, and a handful of other institutions, the Pasteur Institute became a major center for molecular biology research in the late 1950s.[71] Scientists at Cambridge, led by Max Perutz and John Kendrew, focused on the rapidly developing field of structural biology, combining X-ray crystallography with Molecular modelling and the new computational possibilities of digital computing (benefiting both directly and indirectly from the military funding of science). A number of biochemists led by Frederick Sanger later joined the Cambridge lab, bringing together the study of macromolecular structure and function.[72] At the Pasteur Institute, François Jacob and Jacques Monod followed the 1959 PaJaMo experiment with a series of publications regarding the lac operon that established the concept of gene regulation and identified what came to be known as messenger RNA.[73] By the mid-1960s, the intellectual core of molecular biology—a model for the molecular basis of metabolism and reproduction— was largely complete.[74]

Expansion of molecular biology

genetic code connected proteins and DNA. Between 1953 and 1961, there were few known biological sequences—either DNA or protein—but an abundance of proposed code systems, a situation made even more complicated by expanding knowledge of the intermediate role of RNA. To actually decipher the code, it took an extensive series of experiments in biochemistry and bacterial genetics, between 1961 and 1966—most importantly the work of Nirenberg and Khorana.[70]

The "central dogma of molecular biology" (originally a "dogma" only in jest) was proposed by Francis Crick in 1958.[68] This is Crick's reconstruction of how he conceived of the central dogma at the time. The solid lines represent (as it seemed in 1958) known modes of information transfer, and the dashed lines represent postulated ones.

The development of standard, genetically uniform organisms that could produce repeatable experimental results was essential for the development of Beadle and Tatum's one gene-one enzyme hypothesis in 1941. Genetics experiments on even simpler systems like tobacco mosaic virus and bacteriophage, aided by the new technologies of electron microscopy and ultracentrifugation, forced scientists to re-evaluate the literal meaning of life; virus heredity and reproducing nucleoprotein cell structures outside the nucleus ("plasmagenes") complicated the accepted Mendelian-chromosome theory.[67]

Like biochemistry, the overlapping disciplines of bacteriology and virology (later combined as microbiology), situated between science and medicine, developed rapidly in the early 20th century. Félix d'Herelle's isolation of bacteriophage during World War I initiated a long line of research focused on phage viruses and the bacteria they infect.[66]

Wendell Stanley's crystallization of tobacco mosaic virus as a pure nucleoprotein in 1935 convinced many scientists that heredity might be explained purely through physics and chemistry.

Following the rise of classical genetics, many biologists—including a new wave of physical scientists in biology—pursued the question of the gene and its physical nature. Warren Weaver—head of the science division of the Rockefeller Foundation—issued grants to promote research that applied the methods of physics and chemistry to basic biological problems, coining the term molecular biology for this approach in 1938; many of the significant biological breakthroughs of the 1930s and 1940s were funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.[65]

Origins of molecular biology

By the end of the 19th century all of the major pathways of drug metabolism had been discovered, along with the outlines of protein and fatty acid metabolism and urea synthesis.[63] In the early decades of the 20th century, the minor components of foods in human nutrition, the vitamins, began to be isolated and synthesized. Improved laboratory techniques such as chromatography and electrophoresis led to rapid advances in physiological chemistry, which—as biochemistry—began to achieve independence from its medical origins. In the 1920s and 1930s, biochemists—led by Hans Krebs and Carl and Gerty Cori—began to work out many of the central metabolic pathways of life: the citric acid cycle, glycogenesis and glycolysis, and the synthesis of steroids and porphyrins. Between the 1930s and 1950s, Fritz Lipmann and others established the role of ATP as the universal carrier of energy in the cell, and mitochondria as the powerhouse of the cell. Such traditionally biochemical work continued to be very actively pursued throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.[64]

Biochemistry, microbiology, and molecular biology

In the 1970s Jack Sepkoski and David M. Raup led to a better appreciation of the importance of mass extinction events to the history of life on earth.[62]

In the second half of the century the ideas of population genetics began to be applied in the new discipline of the genetics of behavior, endosymbiosis, and contrasting approaches to molecular evolution in the gene-centered view (which held selection as the predominant cause of evolution) and the neutral theory (which made genetic drift a key factor) spawned perennial debates over the proper balance of adaptationism and contingency in evolutionary theory.[59]

Hugo de Vries tried to link the new genetics with evolution; building on his work with heredity and hybridization, he proposed a theory of mutationism, which was widely accepted in the early 20th century. Lamarckism also had many adherents. Darwinism was seen as incompatible with the continuously variable traits studied by biometricians, which seemed only partially heritable. In the 1920s and 1930s—following the acceptance of the Mendelian-chromosome theory— the emergence of the discipline of population genetics, with the work of R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane and Sewall Wright, unified the idea of evolution by natural selection with Mendelian genetics, producing the modern synthesis. The inheritance of acquired characters was rejected, while mutationism gave way as genetic theories matured.[58]

[57]: rediscovery of Mendel 1900 marked the so-called

crossing over, part of the Mendelian-chromosome theory of heredity

Classical genetics, the modern synthesis, and evolutionary theory

In the 1960s, as evolutionary theorists explored the possibility of multiple International Biological Program attempted to apply the methods of big science (which had been so successful in the physical sciences) to ecosystem ecology and pressing environmental issues, while smaller-scale independent efforts such as island biogeography and the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest helped redefine the scope of an increasingly diverse discipline.[54]

[53] The

[51] In the early 20th century, naturalists were faced with increasing pressure to add rigor and preferably experimentation to their methods, as the newly prominent laboratory-based biological disciplines had done. Ecology had emerged as a combination of biogeography with the

Ecology and environmental science

At the beginning of the 20th century, biological research was largely a professional endeavour. Most work was still done in the natural history mode, which emphasized morphological and phylogenetic analysis over experiment-based causal explanations. However, anti-vitalist experimental physiologists and embryologists, especially in Europe, were increasingly influential. The tremendous success of experimental approaches to development, heredity, and metabolism in the 1900s and 1910s demonstrated the power of experimentation in biology. In the following decades, experimental work replaced natural history as the dominant mode of research.[50]

Embryonic development of a salamander, filmed in the 1920s

Twentieth century biological sciences

Physiologists such as Claude Bernard explored (through vivisection and other experimental methods) the chemical and physical functions of living bodies to an unprecedented degree, laying the groundwork for endocrinology (a field that developed quickly after the discovery of the first hormone, secretin, in 1902), biomechanics, and the study of nutrition and digestion. The importance and diversity of experimental physiology methods, within both medicine and biology, grew dramatically over the second half of the 19th century. The control and manipulation of life processes became a central concern, and experiment was placed at the center of biological education.[49]

In chemistry, one central issue was the distinction between organic and inorganic substances, especially in the context of organic transformations such as urea could be created by chemical means that do not involve life, providing a powerful challenge to vitalism. Cell extracts ("ferments") that could effect chemical transformations were discovered, beginning with diastase in 1833. By the end of the 19th century the concept of enzymes was well established, though equations of chemical kinetics would not be applied to enzymatic reactions until the early 20th century.[48]

Rise of organic chemistry and experimental physiology

By the mid-1850s the spontaneous generation) was attacked in a series of experiments carried out by Louis Pasteur, while debates over vitalism vs. mechanism (a perennial issue since the time of Aristotle and the Greek atomists) continued apace.[47]

Cell theory led biologists to re-envision individual organisms as interdependent assemblages of individual cells. Scientists in the rising field of cytology, armed with increasingly powerful microscopes and new staining methods, soon found that even single cells were far more complex than the homogeneous fluid-filled chambers described by earlier microscopists. Robert Brown had described the nucleus in 1831, and by the end of the 19th century cytologists identified many of the key cell components: chromosomes, centrosomes mitochondria, chloroplasts, and other structures made visible through staining. Between 1874 and 1884 Walther Flemming described the discrete stages of mitosis, showing that they were not artifacts of staining but occurred in living cells, and moreover, that chromosomes doubled in number just before the cell divided and a daughter cell was produced. Much of the research on cell reproduction came together in August Weismann's theory of heredity: he identified the nucleus (in particular chromosomes) as the hereditary material, proposed the distinction between somatic cells and germ cells (arguing that chromosome number must be halved for germ cells, a precursor to the concept of meiosis), and adopted Hugo de Vries's theory of pangenes. Weismannism was extremely influential, especially in the new field of experimental embryology.[46]

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.[45]

Cell theory, embryology and germ theory

Innovative laboratory glassware and experimental methods developed by Louis Pasteur and other biologists contributed to the young field of bacteriology in the late 19th century.

Over the course of the 19th century, the scope of physiology expanded greatly, from a primarily medically oriented field to a wide-ranging investigation of the physical and chemical processes of life—including plants, animals, and even microorganisms in addition to man. Living things as machines became a dominant metaphor in biological (and social) thinking.[44]


The scientific study of heredity grew rapidly in the wake of Darwin's Origin of Species with the work of Francis Galton and the biometricians. The origin of genetics is usually traced to the 1866 work of the monk Gregor Mendel, who would later be credited with the laws of inheritance. However, his work was not recognized as significant until 35 years afterward. In the meantime, a variety of theories of inheritance (based on pangenesis, orthogenesis, or other mechanisms) were debated and investigated vigorously.[43] Embryology and ecology also became central biological fields, especially as linked to evolution and popularized in the work of Ernst Haeckel. Most of the 19th century work on heredity, however, was not in the realm of natural history, but that of experimental physiology.

Wallace, following on earlier work by de Candolle, Humboldt and Darwin, made major contributions to zoogeography. Because of his interest in the transmutation hypothesis, he paid particular attention to the geographical distribution of closely allied species during his field work first in South America and then in the Malay archipelago. While in the archipelago he identified the Wallace line, which runs through the Spice Islands dividing the fauna of the archipelago between an Asian zone and a New Guinea/Australian zone. His key question, as to why the fauna of islands with such similar climates should be so different, could only be answered by considering their origin. In 1876 he wrote The Geographical Distribution of Animals, which was the standard reference work for over half a century, and a sequel, Island Life, in 1880 that focused on island biogeography. He extended the six-zone system developed by Philip Sclater for describing the geographical distribution of birds to animals of all kinds. His method of tabulating data on animal groups in geographic zones highlighted the discontinuities; and his appreciation of evolution allowed him to propose rational explanations, which had not been done before.[41][42]

The 1859 publication of Darwin's theory in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life is often considered the central event in the history of modern biology. Darwin's established credibility as a naturalist, the sober tone of the work, and most of all the sheer strength and volume of evidence presented, allowed Origin to succeed where previous evolutionary works such as the anonymous Vestiges of Creation had failed. Most scientists were convinced of evolution and common descent by the end of the 19th century. However, natural selection would not be accepted as the primary mechanism of evolution until well into the 20th century, as most contemporary theories of heredity seemed incompatible with the inheritance of random variation.[40]

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.[38] 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.[39]

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

Evolution and biogeography

The emerging discipline of geology also brought natural history and natural philosophy closer together; the establishment of the 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.[35] 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.[36] Most of these geologists held to catastrophism, but Charles Lyell's influential Principles of Geology (1830) popularised Hutton's uniformitarianism, a theory that explained the geological past and present on equal terms.[37]

Geology and paleontology

Widespread travel by naturalists in the early-to-mid-19th century resulted in a wealth of new information about the diversity and distribution of living organisms. Of particular importance was the work of 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.[34]

Natural history and natural philosophy

In the course of his travels, Alexander von Humboldt mapped the distribution of plants across landscapes and recorded a variety of physical conditions such as pressure and temperature.

Up through the 19th century, the scope of biology was largely divided between medicine, which investigated questions of form and function (i.e., physiology), 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 philosophy) had largely given way to more specialized scientific disciplines—cytology, bacteriology, morphology, embryology, geography, and geology.

19th century: the emergence of biological disciplines

As the microscopic world was expanding, the macroscopic world was shrinking. Botanists such as extinction.[33]

In Micrographia, Robert Hooke had applied the word cell to biological structures such as this piece of cork, but it was not until the 19th century that scientists considered cells the universal basis of life.

In the early 17th century, the micro-world of biology 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.[31]

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.[30]

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.[29]

common descent. Though he was opposed to evolution, Buffon is a key figure in the history of evolutionary thought; his work would influence the evolutionary theories of both Lamarck and Darwin.[28]

Seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

[26], S. cerevisiae and C. elegans. Shotgun sequencing and gene discovery methods pioneered by Craig Venter—and fueled by the financial promise of gene patents with Celera Genomics— led to a public–private sequencing competition that ended in compromise with the first draft of the human DNA sequence announced in 2000.[90]

Twenty-first century biological sciences

At the beginning of the 21st century, biological sciences converged with previously differentiated new and classic disciplines like Physics into research fields like Biophysics. Advances were made in analytical chemistry and physics instrumentation including improved sensors, optics, tracers, instrumentation, signal processing, networks, robots, satellites, and compute power for data collection, storage, analysis, modeling, visualization, and simulations. These technology advances allowed theoretical and experimental research including internet publication of molecular biochemistry, biological systems, and ecosystems science. This enabled worldwide access to better measurements, theoretical models, complex simulations, theory predictive model experimentation, analysis, worldwide internet observational data reporting, open peer-review, collaboration, and internet publication. New fields of biological sciences research emerged including Bioinformatics, Neuroscience, Theoretical biology, Computational genomics, Astrobiology and Synthetic Biology.


  1. ^ ."n"biology, .   (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  2. ^ Junker Geschichte der Biologie, p8.
  3. ^ Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century, pp 1–2.
  4. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp36–37
  5. ^ Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century, pp 1–3.
  6. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 2–3
  7. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 3–9
  8. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, p. 4
  9. ^  
  10. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, p. 6
  11. ^ Girish Dwivedi, Shridhar Dwivedi (2007). "History of Medicine: Sushruta – the Clinician – Teacher par Excellence" (PDF).  
  12. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, p. 8
  13. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 9–27
  14. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 84–90, 135; Mason, A History of the Sciences, p 41–44
  15. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 201–202; see also: Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being
  16. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 90–91; Mason, A History of the Sciences, p 46
  17. ^ Barnes, Hellenistic Philosophy and Science, p 383–384
  18. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 90–94; quotation from p 91
  19. ^ Annas, Classical Greek Philosophy, p 252
  20. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 91–94
  21. ^ 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."
  22. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 94–95, 154–158
  23. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 166–171
  24. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 80–83
  25. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 90–97
  26. ^ Merchant, The Death of Nature, chapters 1, 4, and 8
  27. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, chapter 4
  28. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, chapter 7
  29. ^ See Raby, Bright Paradise
  30. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 103–113
  31. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 133–144
  32. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 162–166
  33. ^ Rudwick, The Meaning of Fossils, pp 41–93
  34. ^ Bowler, The Earth Encompassed, pp 204–211
  35. ^ Rudwick, The Meaning of Fossils, pp 112–113
  36. ^ Bowler, The Earth Encompassed, pp 211–220
  37. ^ Bowler, The Earth Encompassed, pp 237–247
  38. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 343–357
  39. ^ 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
  40. ^ Larson, Evolution, chapter 5: "Ascent of Evolutionism"; see also: Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism; Secord, Victorian Sensation
  41. ^ Larson, Evolution, pp 72-73, 116–117; see also: Browne, The Secular Ark.
  42. ^ Bowler Evolution: The History of an Idea p. 174
  43. ^ Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought, pp 693–710
  44. ^ Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century, chapter 6; on the machine metaphor, see also: Rabinbach, The Human Motor
  45. ^ Sapp, Genesis, chapter 7; Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century, chapters 2
  46. ^ Sapp, Genesis, chapter 8; Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century, chapter 3
  47. ^ Magner, A History of the Life Sciences, pp 254–276
  48. ^ Fruton, Proteins, Enzymes, Genes, chapter 4; Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century, chapter 6
  49. ^ Rothman and Rothman, The Pursuit of Perfection, chapter 1; Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century, chapter 7
  50. ^ See: Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century; Kohler, Landscapes and Labscapes; Allen, Life Science in the Twentieth Century; Agar, Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond
  51. ^ Kohler, Landscapes and Labscapes, chapters 2, 3, 4
  52. ^ Agar, Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond, p. 145
  53. ^ Hagen, An Entangled Bank, chapters 2–5
  54. ^ Hagen, An Entangled Bank, chapters 8–9
  55. ^ Randy Moore, "The 'Rediscovery' of Mendel's Work", Bioscene, Volume 27(2) pp. 13-24, May 2001.
  56. ^ T. H. Morgan, A. H. Sturtevant, H. J. Muller, C. B. Bridges (1915) The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity Henry Holt and Company.
  57. ^ Garland Allen, Thomas Hunt Morgan: The Man and His Science (1978), chapter 5; see also: Kohler, Lords of the Fly and Sturtevant, A History of Genetics
  58. ^ Smocovitis, Unifying Biology, chapter 5; see also: Mayr and Provine (eds.), The Evolutionary Synthesis
  59. ^ Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, chapter 8; Larson, Evolution, chapter 12
  60. ^ Larson, Evolution, pp 271–283
  61. ^ Zimmer, Evolution, pp 188–195
  62. ^ Zimmer, Evolution, pp 169–172
  63. ^ Caldwell, "Drug metabolism and pharmacogenetics"; Fruton, Proteins, Enzymes, Genes, chapter 7
  64. ^ Fruton, Proteins, Enzymes, Genes, chapters 6 and 7
  65. ^ Morange, A History of Molecular Biology, chapter 8; Kay, The Molecular Vision of Life, Introduction, Interlude I, and Interlude II
  66. ^ See: Summers, Félix d'Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology
  67. ^ Creager, The Life of a Virus, chapters 3 and 6; Morange, A History of Molecular Biology, chapter 2
  68. ^ Crick, F. (1970). "Central Dogma of Molecular Biology". Nature 227 (5258): 561–563.  
  69. ^ Watson, James D. and Francis Crick. "Molecular structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid", Nature, vol. 171, , no. 4356, pp 737–738
  70. ^ Morange, A History of Molecular Biology, chapters 3, 4, 11, and 12; Fruton, Proteins, Enzymes, Genes, chapter 8; on the Meselson-Stahl experiment, see: Holmes, Meselson, Stahl, and the Replication of DNA
  71. ^ On Caltech molecular biology, see Kay, The Molecular Vision of Life, chapters 4–8; on the Cambridge lab, see de Chadarevian, Designs for Life; on comparisons with the Pasteur Institute, see Creager, "Building Biology across the Atlantic"
  72. ^ de Chadarevian, Designs for Life, chapters 4 and 7
  73. ^ Pardee A (2002). "PaJaMas in Paris". Trends Genet. 18 (11): 585–7.  
  74. ^ Morange, A History of Molecular Biology, chapter 14
  75. ^ Wilson, Naturalist, chapter 12; Morange, A History of Molecular Biology, chapter 15
  76. ^ Morange, A History of Molecular Biology, chapter 15; Keller, The Century of the Gene, chapter 5
  77. ^ Morange, A History of Molecular Biology, pp 126–132, 213–214
  78. ^ Dietrich, "Paradox and Persuasion", pp 100–111
  79. ^ Bud, The Uses of Life, chapters 2 and 6
  80. ^ Agar, Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond, p. 436
  81. ^ Morange, A History of Molecular Biology, chapters 15 and 16
  82. ^ Bud, The Uses of Life, chapter 8; Gottweis, Governing Molecules, chapter 3; Morange, A History of Molecular Biology, chapter 16
  83. ^ Morange, A History of Molecular Biology, chapter 16
  84. ^ Morange, A History of Molecular Biology, chapter 17
  85. ^ Krimsky, Biotechnics and Society, chapter 2; on the race for insulin, see: Hall, Invisible Frontiers; see also: Thackray (ed.), Private Science
  86. ^ Sapp, Genesis, chapters 18 and 19
  87. ^ Agar, Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond, p. 456
  88. ^ Morange, A History of Molecular Biology, chapter 20; see also: Rabinow, Making PCR
  89. ^ Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, chapter 10
  90. ^ Davies, Cracking the Genome, Introduction; see also: Sulston, The Common Thread


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External links

  • International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology – professional history of biology organization
  • History of Biology – Historyworld article
  • History of Biology at Bioexplorer.Net – a collection of history of biology links
  • Biology – historically oriented article on Citizendium
  • Miall, L. C. (1911) History of biology. Watts & Co. London
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