For thousands of years, science was focused on something called “Natural History.” Science had yet to be broken down in to the dozens of specialized fields that we know today, zoology, botany, chemistry, physics, and so many more. Ancient scientists were concerned about how everything on earth fitted together – the first naturalists studied everything from art to human anatomy to astronomy. What does this have to do with us today?
Many of us living in today’s modern world have lost our connections to nature and our environment. While we all have incredible knowledge about the things that effect our everyday lives, we don’t often look outside our immediate surroundings. We could all benefit from the example of history’s great naturalists!
Simply by observing the world as a whole, the great naturalists helped to expand not only their own knowledge, but all of humanity’s! While we don’t necessarily need to have such lofty goals, expanding your horizons even a little will greatly enrich your life.
There are dozens of naturalists over the centuries who made incredible contributions to the understanding of our world. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) shaped the very method by which we group species of plants and animals. Before Linnaeus, there were many different systems for classifying plants and animals – and none of them did a very good job of it. Linnaeus created a simple system called “binomial nomenclature,” or in simpler terms, “two names.” Every species is grouped with similar species into a “genus,” and has its own “specific epithet” or “specific name.” These names are now known as scientific names, rather than the common names that someone would use in everyday conversation. Every scientist on earth can now use the same system no matter what country they were from. Being able to say, “Corvus corax,” and have everyone know that you are talking about a specific kind of raven (the Common Raven) is a huge advantage! The system is even more important with plants – think of all of the common names you’ve heard for some simple garden plants!
A name that everyone will probably recognize is that of John James Audubon (1785-1851). Audobon is well known for his wonderful book, The Birds of America, which features 435 prints of American birds as well as his writings about them. This ambitious project took over 14 years of dedicated research, drawing and painting. Unlike previous artists, Audubon worked hard to portray each species as it appeared in life. While he worked from specimens shot in the field, he posed them as though they were flying, hunting, or preening. In the course of his research, Audubon discovered 25 new species and 12 new subspecies of birds. His skill in combining art and science makes him one of America’s great naturalists.
Don’t think that men had a monopoly on natural history – many women contributed to the field as well! Called the “Princess of Paleontology,” Mary Anning (1799-1847) was a British woman who turned her family’s business of selling “curiosities” into a real scientific endeavor. Fossil collecting was a popular pastime in the late 18th century, it was more of a fashion than a science. Anning, however, had a real gift for finding complete skeletons and putting the specimens together. She and her brother were the first to assemble an ichthyosaur skeleton, and Anning was the first person ever to discover a plesiosaur! Despite the handicap of her gender and class (she grew up very poor, and few women attained any recognition in this time period), Anning’s discoveries were huge advances in the field of paleontology. She received very little professional recognition until after her death, but she was truly an extraordinary naturalist.
What do all of these people have in common? It isn’t a special education or special skills. The great naturalists of the past shared three things: the tendency to observe the world around them, a habit of recording what they observed, and a great enthusiasm for their findings. These are things that we can all develop with a little effort.
To develop your observational skills, just try to take note of things that you’ve never noticed before. When you leave work in the evening, look up at the sky and see if there are any interesting cloud shapes. Look out your kitchen window in the mornings, and see if you can spot any birds. Soon you’ll be noticing all kinds of things around you.
Next, start writing things down! Adam Savage, from the popular show Mythbusters said, “The only difference between screwing around and science is writing things down.” Records turn your observations in to data! As time goes by, you’ll have a great information resource – what date did a particular bird turn up in your yard last year? Was it later or earlier than this year? By having records of your observations, you begin to see trends in what’s happening.
Finally, keep up your enthusiasm! We’re only human, and we like to do things that are fun, not frustrating. Keep your goals simple, and focus on the things that interest you. Whether it’s animals, plants, minerals, or weather, there’s plenty of fascinating pieces of nature out there, waiting to be seen.