History of Biology

Charles Robert Darwin
Benjamin Franklin
Albert Einstein

Biology is the study of life on earth. The History of Biology however, focuses on the advent of life on earth, right from the ancient times. Biological discoveries have a remarkable impact on the human society. Traditionally, the history of biology is diversified into two wings – studies on medicine and theories of natural history. Medicines are not results of current biological discoveries.

Have you heard names like Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen of Pergamum? Well, these eminent people were first explorers of the anatomy and physiology of living organisms. Their works focused on the naturalist leanings of organisms, especially animals. Theophrastus, the most notable work of Aristotle still holds a valuable place in the hearts of our modern-day scientists. Do you know why? Theophrastus makes an enormous contribution to the study of zoology, botany, ecology and taxonomy, all of which are essential branches of biology.

Awareness about medicines became prominent during the middle ages. It is believed that Islamic scholars working in accordance with the Galenic and Aristotelian traditions were the first to introduce medicinal science. Neolithic Revolution was a big turning point in the history of biology. This age old revolution dated 10,000 years ago brought practices of farming and animal husbandry into limelight. Much before the study of human beings, biology referred to the study of plant and animal life. Works on botanical studies by Albertus Magnus (1206-1280) and ‘The Art on Falconry,’ introducing the first resource to ornithology by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) played a pivotal role in shaping the natural history of biology.

Botany flourished during the Renaissance and early modern period. Plants were then referred as ‘materia medica’ because studies proved that plants brimmed with amazing medicinal properties. Not just the Greek culture but ancient cultures of Egypt, China, Mesopotamia and India had immense contribution in the evolution of biology. From classical Chinese medicine, formulated on the basis of theories by Yin and Yang and the Five Phases to the Indian introduction of Ayurveda, discovery and study of medicinal sciences became highly popular. Zhuangzi, the noted Taoist philosopher first brought his ideas about evolution on the boards during the 4th Century. His philosophy stated that species differ in attributes in response to diverse environmental conditions. Developments began springing in gradually during the 17th and 18th Century. Theories regarding a quantitative approach to physiology and Santorio’s studies on Metabolism ruled the charts. It was only during the 19th Century when several disciplines of biological science were introduced like embryology, cytology, morphology, bacteriology, paleontology, geography and geology.

The roots of Biology, the term coined after combining the Greek words of ‘Bios’ meaning life and ‘Logy’ meaning science dates back to the secular traditions of ancient philosophies. Learning about the history of biology is an attempt to understand the evolution of science.

Here are some excellent resources on various historians and scientists who have contributed to biological studies from the dawn of time:

A Brief History of the Human Genome Project

This chapter summarizes human genetics and its history with simple descriptions of modes of inheritance using the commonly-used terms from the genetic literature. It also describes current efforts to create genetic maps and to sequence the 3 billion bases in the human genome.

Biographies – the Scientists

Alphabetical list of scientists, including biologists, each with a precis of the scientists life and achievements. Links to deeper and more extensive materials.

Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873)

Adam Sedgwick was born on March 22, 1785, the third of seven chidren of an Anglican vicar, in Dent, Yorkshire, England. His home life was happy; like so many geologists, young Adam spent time rambling through the countryside, looking at and collecting rocks and fossils. Despite his family’s modest means, Sedgwick attended nearby Sedbergh School, and then entered Trinity College at Cambridge University, as a “sizar” — a type of scholarship student.

Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)

Leeuwenhoek was an unlikely scientist. He came from a family of tradesmen, received no higher education, and knew no languages other than his native Dutch. This would have been enough to exclude him from the scientific community of his time. Yet with skill, diligence, and an open mind free of the scientific dogma, he succeeded in making some of the most important discoveries in biology. It was he who discovered bacteria, free-living and parasitic microscopic protists, and much more.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.)

Though Aristotle’s work in zoology was not without errors, it was the grandest biological synthesis of the time, and remained the ultimate authority for many centuries after his death. His observations on the anatomy of octopus, cuttlefish, crustaceans, and many other marine invertebrates are remarkably accurate, and could only have been made from first-hand experience with dissection.

Biography of Francis Harry Compton Crick

Biography of Francis Harry Compton Crick from the Nobel Foundation.

Biography of James Dewey Watson

Biography of James Dewey Watson from the Nobel Foundation.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)

Carl Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnaeus, is often called the Father of Taxonomy. His system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms is still in wide use today (with many changes). His ideas on classification have influenced generations of biologists during and after his own lifetime, even those opposed to the philosophical and theological roots of his work.

DNA from the Beginning

DNA from the Beginning is an animated primer on molecular biology and genetics. It goes through the major discoveries and experiments from Mendel’s peas to the 21st century’s genetic age of the Human Genome Project.

Early Classics in Biogeography, Distribution, and Diversity Studies: To 1950

The following bibliography and full-text archive is designed as a service to advanced students and researchers engaged in work in biogeography, biodiversity, history of science, and related studies. The subjects involved touch on fields ranging from ecology, conservation, systematics and physical geography, to evolutionary biology, cultural biogeography, paleobiology, and bioclimatology–but have in common a relevance to the study of geographical distribution and diversity.

Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897)

Edward Drinker Cope was an American paleontologist and evolutionist. He was one of the founders of the Neo- Lamarckian school of evolutionary thought. This school believed that changes in developmental (embryonic) timing, not natural selection, was the driving force of evolution. In 1867, Cope suggested that most changes in species occured by coordinated additions to the ontogeny of all the individuals in a species.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)

As a naturalist, Darwin formulated one of the first formal theories on evolution in Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life (1794-1796). He also presented his evolutionary ideas in verse, in particular in the posthumously published poem The Temple of Nature. Although he did not come up with natural selection, he did discuss ideas that his grandson elaborated on sixty years later, such as how life evolved from a single common ancestor, forming “one living filament”.

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