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Natural History Quotes (39 quotes)

A laboratory of natural history is a sanctuary where nothing profane should be tolerated. I feel less agony at improprieties in churches than in a scientific laboratory.
Lecture at a teaching laboratory on Penikese Island, Buzzard's Bay. Quoted from the lecture notes by David Starr Jordan, Science Sketches (1911), 147.
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All the different classes of beings which taken together make up the universe are, in the ideas of God who knows distinctly their essential gradations, only so many ordinates of a single curve so closely united that it would be impossible to place others between any two of them, since that would imply disorder and imperfection. Thus men are linked with the animals, these with the plants and these with the fossils which in turn merge with those bodies which our senses and our imagination represent to us as absolutely inanimate. And, since the law of continuity requires that when the essential attributes of one being approximate those of another all the properties of the one must likewise gradually approximate those of the other, it is necessary that all the orders of natural beings form but a single chain, in which the various classes, like so many rings, are so closely linked one to another that it is impossible for the senses or the imagination to determine precisely the point at which one ends and the next begins?all the species which, so to say, lie near the borderlands being equivocal, at endowed with characters which might equally well be assigned to either of the neighboring species. Thus there is nothing monstrous in the existence zoophytes, or plant-animals, as Budaeus calls them; on the contrary, it is wholly in keeping with the order of nature that they should exist. And so great is the force of the principle of continuity, to my thinking, that not only should I not be surprised to hear that such beings had been discovered?creatures which in some of their properties, such as nutrition or reproduction, might pass equally well for animals or for plants, and which thus overturn the current laws based upon the supposition of a perfect and absolute separation of the different orders of coexistent beings which fill the universe;?not only, I say, should I not be surprised to hear that they had been discovered, but, in fact, I am convinced that there must be such creatures, and that natural history will perhaps some day become acquainted with them, when it has further studied that infinity of living things whose small size conceals them for ordinary observation and which are hidden in the bowels of the earth and the depth of the sea.
Lettre Prétendue de M. De Leibnitz, à M. Hermann dont M. Koenig a Cité le Fragment (1753), cxi-cxii, trans. in A. O. Lovejoy, Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (1936), 144-5.
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Biology can be divided into the study of proximate causes, the study of the physiological sciences (broadly conceived), and into the study of ultimate (evolutionary) causes, the subject of natural history.
The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution and Inheritance (1982), 67.
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But in nothing are swifts more singular than in their early retreat. They retire, as to the main body of them, by the tenth of August, and sometimes a few days sooner: and every straggler invariably withdraws by the twentieth, while their congeners, all of them, stay till the beginning of October; many of them all through that month, and some occasionally to the beginning of November. This early retreat is mysterious and wonderful, since that time is often the sweetest season in the year. But, what is more extraordinary, they begin to retire still earlier in the most southerly parts of Andalusia, where they can be no ways influenced by any defect of heat; or, as one might suppose, defect of food. Are they regulated in their motions with us by failure of food, or by a propensity to moulting, or by a disposition to rest after so rapid a life, or by what? This is one of those incidents in natural history that not only baffies our searches, but almost eludes our guesses I
In Letter to Daines Barrington, (28 Sep 1774), in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), 278.
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From my earliest childhood I nourished and cherished the desire to make a creditable journey in a new country, and write such a respectable account of its natural history as should give me a niche amongst the scientific explorers of the globe I inhabit, and hand my name down as a useful contributor of original matter.
Letter to Charles Darwin (1854), in Francis Darwin, More Letters of Charles Darwin (1903).
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I believe that natural history has lost much by the vague general treatment that is so common.
From 'Note to the Reader', introducing Wild Animals I Have Known (1898), 9. The author explains this is his motivation for writing true stories about individual animals as real characters.
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I can no more explain why I like “natural history” than why I like California canned peaches; nor why I do not care for that enormous brand of natural history which deals with invertebrates any more than why I do not care for brandied peaches. All I can say is that almost as soon as I began to read at all I began to like to read about the natural history of beasts and birds and the more formidable or interesting reptiles and fishes.
In 'My Life as a Naturalist', American Museum Journal (May 1918), 18, 321. As cited in Maurice Garland Fulton (ed.) Roosevelt's Writings: Selections from the Writings of Theodore Roosevelt (1920), 247.
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I grew up in Leicestershire, in Leicester, which is on the Jurassic, and it’s full of lovely fossils. Ammonites, belemnites, brachiopods—very beautiful. How did they get there, in the middle of the rocks, in the middle of England, and so on? And I had the collecting bug, which I still have, actually, which is the basis of so much of natural history, really, and so much of science. And so collecting all these things, and discovering what they were, and how they lived, and when they had lived, and all that, was abiding fascination to me from the age of I suppose about eight. And I still feel that way, actually.
Speaking about fossils that first inspired his love of natural history. In video by Royal Society of Biology, 'Sir David Attenborough, Biology: Changing the World Interview,' published on YouTube (13 Feb 2015).
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I was a reasonably good student in college ... My chief interests were scientific. When I entered college, I was devoted to out-of-doors natural history, and my ambition was to be a scientific man of the Audubon, or Wilson, or Baird, or Coues type—a man like Hart Merriam, or Frank Chapman, or Hornaday, to-day.
In Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (1913), 23.
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If I were working in astrophysics I would find it quite hard to explain to people what I was doing. Natural history is a pretty easy thing to explain. It does have its complexities, but nowhere do you speak about things that are outside people’s experience. You might speak about a species that is outside their experience, but nothing as remote as astrophysics.
From interview with Michael Bond, 'It’s a Wonderful Life', New Scientist (14 Dec 2002), 176, No. 2373, 48.
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In all works on Natural History, we constantly find details of the marvellous adaptation of animals to their food, their habits, and the localities in which they are found. But naturalists are now beginning to look beyond this, and to see that there must be some other principle regulating the infinitely varied forms of animal life. It must strike every one, that the numbers of birds and insects of different groups having scarcely any resemblance to each other, which yet feed on the same food and inhabit the same localities, cannot have been so differently constructed and adorned for that purpose alone. Thus the goat-suckers, the swallows, the tyrant fly-catchers, and the jacamars, all use the same kind ‘Of food, and procure it in the same manner: they all capture insects on the wing, yet how entirely different is the structure and the whole appearance of these birds!
In A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro (1853), 83-84.
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In its earliest development knowledge is self-sown. Impressions force themselves upon men’s senses whether they will or not, and often against their will. The amount of interest in which these impressions awaken is determined by the coarser pains and pleasures which they carry in their train or by mere curiosity; and reason deals with the materials supplied to it as far as that interest carries it, and no further. Such common knowledge is rather brought than sought; and such ratiocination is little more than the working of a blind intellectual instinct. It is only when the mind passes beyond this condition that it begins to evolve science. When simple curiosity passes into the love of knowledge as such, and the gratification of the æsthetic sense of the beauty of completeness and accuracy seems more desirable that the easy indolence of ignorance; when the finding out of the causes of things becomes a source of joy, and he is accounted happy who is successful in the search, common knowledge passes into what our forefathers called natural history, whence there is but a step to that which used to be termed natural philosophy, and now passes by the name of physical science.
In this final state of knowledge the phenomena of nature are regarded as one continuous series of causes and effects; and the ultimate object of science is to trace out that series, from the term which is nearest to us, to that which is at the farthest limit accessible to our means of investigation.
The course of nature as it is, as it has been, and as it will be, is the object of scientific inquiry; whatever lies beyond, above, or below this is outside science. But the philosopher need not despair at the limitation on his field of labor; in relation to the human mind Nature is boundless; and, though nowhere inaccessible, she is everywhere unfathomable.
The Crayfish: an Introduction to the Study of Zoölogy (1880), 2-3. Excerpted in Popular Science (Apr 1880), 16, 789-790.
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In order to turn natural history into a true science, one would have to devote oneself to investigations capable of telling us not the particular shape of such and such an animal, but the general procedures of nature in the animal's production and preservation. 'Lettre sur le progress des sciences' in Oeuvres de Mr. De Maupertuis (1756), Vol. 2, 386.
Quoted in Jacques Roger, The Life Sciences in Eighteenth-Century French Thought, ed. Keith R. Benson and trans. Robert Ellrich (1997), 392.
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It is possible to read books on Natural History with intelligence and profit, and even to make good observations, without a scientific groundwork of biological instruction; and it is possible to arrive at empirical facts of hygiene and medical treatment without any physiological instruction. But in all three cases the absence of a scientific basis will render the knowledge fragmentary and incomplete; and this ought to deter every one from offering an opinion on debatable questions which pass beyond the limit of subjective observations. The psychologist who has not prepared himself by a study of the organism has no more right to be heard on the genesis of the psychical states, or of the relations between body and mind, than one of the laity has a right to be heard on a question of medical treatment.
The Physical Basis of Mind (1877), 4.
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It’s important natural history isn’t seen as something that is “out there”, which you have to travel to. It’s right there in your garden. Public awareness of the natural history of the world as a whole has never been as great. But it’s important to know about species close to home.
As reported by Adam Lusher in 'Sir David Attenborough', Daily Mail (28 Feb 2014).
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Johnson said that he could repeat a complete chapter of The Natural History of Iceland from the Danish of Horrebow, the whole of which was exactly thus: “There are no snakes to meet with throughout the whole island.
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Many Species of Animals have been lost out of the World, which Philosophers and Divines are unwilling to admit, esteeming the Destruction of anyone Species a Dismembring of the Universe, and rendring the World imperfect; whereas they think the Divine Providence is especially concerned, and solicitous to secure and preserve the Works of the Creation. And truly so it is, as appears, in that it was so careful to lodge all Land Animals in the Ark at the Time of the general Deluge; and in that, of all Animals recorded in Natural Histories, we cannot say that there hath been anyone Species lost, no not of the most infirm, and most exposed to Injury and Ravine. Moreover, it is likely, that as there neither is nor can be any new Species of Animals produced, all proceeding from Seeds at first created; so Providence, without which one individual Sparrow falls not to the ground, doth in that manner watch over all that are created, that an entire Species shall not be lost or destroyed by any Accident. Now, I say, if these Bodies were sometimes the Shells and Bones of Fish, it will thence follow, that many Species have been lost out of the World... To which I have nothing to reply, but that there may be some of them remaining some where or other in the Seas, though as yet they have not come to my Knowledge. Far though they may have perished, or by some Accident been destroyed out of our Seas, yet the Race of them may be preserved and continued still in others.
John Ray
Three Physico-Theological Discourses (1713), Discourse II, 'Of the General Deluge, in the Days of Noah; its Causes and Effects', 172-3.
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Natural history is a matter of observation; it is a harvest which you gather when and where you find it growing. Birds and squirrels and flowers are not always in season, but philosophy we have always with us. It is a crop which we can grow and reap at all times and in all places and it has its own value and brings its own satisfaction.
From Under the Apple-Trees (1916), Preface.
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Natural history is not equivalent to biology. Biology is the study of life. Natural history is the study of animals and plants—of organisms. Biology thus includes natural history, and much else besides.
In The Nature of Natural History (1961, 2014), 7.
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No body can desire more ardently than myself to concur in whatever may promote useful science, and I view no science with more partiality than Natural history.
Letter (24 May 1807) from Jefferson in Washington to G.C. de la Coste.
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One dictionary that I consulted remarks that “natural history” now commonly means the study of animals and plants “in a popular and superficial way,” meaning popular and superficial to be equally damning adjectives. This is related to the current tendency in the biological sciences to label every subdivision of science with a name derived from the Greek. “Ecology” is erudite and profound; while “natural history” is popular and superficial. Though, as far as I can see, both labels apply to just about the same package of goods.
In The Nature of Natural History (1961, 2014), 7.
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Selborne is the secret, private parish inside each one of us.
Alluding to the Hampshire village of Selborne about which curate Gilbert White wrote A Natural History of Selborne, one of the most frequently published books in the English language.
The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History (1976), 51.
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That alone is worthy to be called Natural History, which investigates and records the condition of living things, of things in a state of nature; if animals, of living animals:— which tells of their 'sayings and doings,' their varied notes and utterances, songs and cries; their actions, in ease and under the pressure of circumstances; their affections and passions, towards their young, towards each other, towards other animals, towards man: their various arts and devices, to protect their progeny, to procure food, to escape from their enemies, to defend themselves from attacks; their ingenious resources for concealment; their stratagems to overcome their victims; their modes of bringing forth, of feeding, and of training, their offspring; the relations of their structure to their wants and habits; the countries in which they dwell; their connexion with the intimate world around them, mountain or plain, forest or field, barren heath or bushy dell, open savanna or wild hidden glen, river, lake, or sea:— this would be indeed zoology, i.e. the science of living creatures.
A Naturalist's Sojourn in Jamaica (1851), vi-vii.
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The beauty of natural history programmes is that you can be straightforward and fascinate the 7s and the 70s. If you just present it as it is, all kinds of people of all ages and all educational backgrounds love it. That’s the joy of natural history—it’s a godsend for blokes like me.
In Rowan Hooper, 'One Minute With… David Attenborough', New Scientist (2 Feb 2013), 217, No. 2902, 25.
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The combination in time and space of all these thoughtful conceptions [of Nature] exhibits not only thought, it shows also premeditation, power, wisdom, greatness, prescience, omniscience, providence. In one word, all these facts in their natural connection proclaim aloud the One God, whom man may know, adore, and love; and Natural History must in good time become the analysis of the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe….
In Essay on Classification (1851), 205.
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The knowledge of Natural-History, being Observation of Matters of Fact, is more certain than most others, and in my slender Opinion, less subject to Mistakes than Reasonings, Hypotheses, and Deductions are; ... These are things we are sure of, so far as our Senses are not fallible; and which, in probability, have been ever since the Creation, and will remain to the End of the World, in the same Condition we now find them.
A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica: With the Natural History of the Herbs and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles, &c. of the Last of those Islands (1707), Vol. 1, 1.
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The philosophy that I have worked under most of my life is that the serious study of natural history is an activity which has far-reaching effects in every aspect of a person's life. It ultimately makes people protective of the environment in a very committed way. It is my opinion that the study of natural history should be the primary avenue for creating environmentalists.
As quoted in William V. Mealy, ‎Peter Friederici and ‎Roger Tory Peterson Institute, Value in American Wildlife Art: Proceedings of the 1992 Forum (1992), 3.
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The science of government is my duty. ... I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
Letter to Abigail Adams, (1780). In John Adams and Charles Francis Adams, Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife (1841), 68.
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The sciences of Natural History and Botany require so much time to be devoted to them that, however pleasing, they may be justly considered as improper objects for the man of business to pursue scientifically, so as to enter into the exact arrangement and classification of the different bodies of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. But reading and personal observation will supply him with ample matter for reflection and admiration.
'On the Advantages of Literature and Philosophy in general and especially on the Consistency of Literary and Philosophical with Commercial Pursuits' (Read 3 Oct 1781). As quoted in Robert Angus Smith, A Centenary of Science in Manchester (1883), 79.
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The study of taxonomy in its broadest sense is probably the oldest branch of biology or natural history as well as the basis for all the other branches, since the first step in obtaining any knowledge of things about us is to discriminate between them and to learn to recognize them.
From paper presented to New York Entomological Society (12 Dec 1939), 'Some Aspects of Modern Taxonomy', published in Journal of the New York Entomological Society (Sep 1940), 48, No. 3, 245.
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The world of organisms, of animals and plants, is built up of individuals. I like to think, then, of natural history as the study of life at the level of the individual—of what plants and animals do, how they react to each other and their environment, how they are organized into larger groupings like populations and communities.
In The Nature of Natural History (1961, 2014), 7.
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There is no counting the unsolved problems of Natural History.
In Riddles of Science (1932), 102.
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To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or sea-side stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall. Teach him something of natural history, and you place in his hands a catalogue of those which are worth turning around. Surely our innocent pleasures are not so abundant in this life, that we can afford to despise this or any other source of them.
On the Educational Value of the Natural History Sciences' (1854). In Collected Essays (1893). Vol. 3, 63.
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To write the true natural history of the world, we should need to be able to follow it from within. It would thus appear no longer as an interlocking succession of structural types replacing one another, but as an ascension of inner sap spreading out in a forest of consolidated instincts. Right at its base, the living world is constituted by conscious clothes in flesh and bone.
In Teilhard de Chardin and Bernard Wall (trans.), The Phenomenon of Man (1959, 2008), 151. Originally published in French as Le Phénomene Humain (1955).
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When I was a little over eight years old,… I was sent to a day-school…. [By this time] my taste for natural history, and more especially for collecting, was well developed. I tried to make out the names of plants, and collected all sorts of things, shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals. The passion for collecting which leads a man to be a systematic naturalist, a virtuoso, or a miser, was very strong in me.
In Charles Darwin and Francis Darwin (ed.), 'Autobiography', The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887, 1896), Vol. 1, 26.
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When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a long history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, in the same way as any great mechanical invention is the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, does the study of natural history become!
From the Conclusion of Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (3rd. ed., 1861), 521.
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[Beyond natural history] Other biological sciences take up the study at other levels of organization: dissecting the individual into organs and tissues and seeing how these work together, as in physiology; reaching down still further to the level of cells, as in cytology; and reaching the final biological level with the study of living molecules and their interactions, as in biochemistry. No one of these levels can be considered as more important than any other.
In The Nature of Natural History (1961, 2014), 7.
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[Theodore Roosevelt] was a naturalist on the broadest grounds, uniting much technical knowledge with knowledge of the daily lives and habits of all forms of wild life. He probably knew tenfold more natural history than all the presidents who had preceded him, and, I think one is safe in saying, more human history also.
In 'Theodore Roosevelt', Natural History (Jan 1919), 19, No.1, 5.
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[William Gull] endeavoured, above all things, to study the natural history of disease, uncomplicated by the action of unnecessary drugs, and he resented all useless interference with the course of nature. He would say of meddlesome poly-pharmacy—“Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread.”
Stated in Sir William Withey Gull and Theodore Dyke Acland (ed.), A Collection of the Published Writings of William Withey Gull (1896), xxv-xxvi.
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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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