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The Nature of Natural History

The Nature of Natural History

by Marston Bates

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This classic work is an exploration of what natural history is, and a sustained effort to see how it relates to other areas of biology. Marston Bates did not attempt to overwhelm his audience with facts or overinterpret those he did use, and, perhaps for this reason, The Nature of Natural History is a timeless work. The author's genuine interest in the tropics has a


This classic work is an exploration of what natural history is, and a sustained effort to see how it relates to other areas of biology. Marston Bates did not attempt to overwhelm his audience with facts or overinterpret those he did use, and, perhaps for this reason, The Nature of Natural History is a timeless work. The author's genuine interest in the tropics has a very current feeling, and the first ten or fifteen chapters of the work have a style that is parallel to that of David Attenborough's verbal presentations of nature. From the book: "I have already made several remarks about the connection between parasitism and degeneracy. I suspect this is a matter of point of view. We are predatory animals ourselves, and consequently admire the characteristics of predationagility, speed, cunning, self-reliance. We feel a certain kinship with the lion, and regard the liver fluke with horror. If a sheep were given the choice, though, it might prefer to be debilitated by liver flukes rather than killed by a lion."

Editorial Reviews

**** This 1950 (Scribners) work is cited in Books for College Librarians, 3d ed. It is here reprinted with a new preface and a bibliographical essay. Writing for the general reader as well as for biologists, Bates defined and defended natural history as an intellectual enterprise and set it in the broad context of traditional biology. It is a tribute to his style and judgment that nearly everything he said is still fresh and pertinent. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
From the Publisher
"It is a charming and well-written work by an American mandarin with an appreciation of history.... The book ... helps us to understand the scientific mind and the attraction of natural history."Archives of Natural History

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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5.52(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

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The Nature of Natural History

By Marston Bates


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-02446-2


The Science of Natural History

THERE is a temptation to start a book with some grand phrase, some broad statement that will lead the reader on into the details of the text. The movie people often use such a device, starting with the camera aimed at an immensity of sky and clouds, lowering it to make a sweep across a wide landscape of forests and fields until one village is picked out, one street, one house. Within the house, the focus finally comes to rest on Dorothy, sitting quietly at her spinning wheel, her outward calm a cover for some seething turmoil of emotions. Only then does the story begin to develop.

If we used this same trick here, we could skip the incomprehensible universe of the astronomers and start by focussing on our planet, tiny by astronomical standards but big enough, in all conscience, to its inhabitants. Our first camera shot would be of this earth whirling endlessly on its axis, blindly following its elliptical course around the sun. We might stop to notice that its distance from the sun was just right to produce the temperatures that we find comfortable (as well as some uncomfortable ones), that its twistings and turnings gave us day and night and an annual succession of seasons and resulted in a curious zoning of the planetary surface from equatorial tropics to polar arctic.

Examining this surface more closely, we would see that most of it was covered with a thin film of water, that the dry parts were crinkled into corrugations of mountains in some places, spread out as broad plains in others. As we came down through the mats of cloud, we would make out details of lakes, rivers, bays, forests, savannahs—the endlessly variegated environmental conditions of the planetary surface.

If we carried the thing out in proper Hollywood style, we would land in the middle of a biological laboratory where there would be a man in a white jacket peering at a drop of water with a microscope. He would stand aside and allow us to look through the eyepiece at the world of subvisible creatures that he had been studying. There, certainly, we would see marvellous things: diatoms and desmids with their crystalline symmetry; bright green filaments of algae forming thickets through which jelly-like ciliates picked their leisurely way; bacterial rods trembling constantly from molecular bombardment, the ceaseless vibration called Brownian movement. Then, having settled our eye definitely on some particular bug, we could start to describe its life, its history, its relations with the other organisms surrounding it, and so gradually build up a picture of biological processes.

But such an approach would be misleading. My errand, in writing this book, is missionary; but it is not to impress with the facts of biology, or with the marvels of what we have learned about the processes of life. Rather, my errand is to arouse interest in an attitude, to explain a point of view, using facts only insofar as they may be necessary as illustrations for this attitude, this point of view.

The facts of the various sciences have been fairly well publicized; their impact has altered our material environment, affecting the course of our daily lives in all sorts of ways, many obvious, many subtle and indirect. The facts of biology have penetrated the nursery, the kitchen, the garden almost as much as they have the farm or the hospital. But the attitude of biology, the general method of science, seems to have made no corresponding contribution to our culture, to have resulted in no comparable alteration of our intellectual processes. Science remains a rather mysterious affair, cultivated by a special priesthood, guarded by an unintelligible jargon. We are all exposed to science in school: but the dissection of the frog or the smells of the chemical laboratory have about as much relation to the living discipline of science as do the rules for the ablative absolute to the living language in which Cicero played his games of politics.

It is a difficult assignment, to convey an attitude. I do not think it can be done by describing facts, or by arranging facts into narrative patterns. I do not think either that it can be done by abstract inquiry into the philosophy of science, or by a review of the history of science. Some combination of these methods, applied to one of the active growing points of knowledge, might be more helpful than any single type of exposition in itself.

I think natural history is well adapted to this purpose. It represents a growing point of science, an area in which our ignorance is more impressive than our knowledge, yet an area in which our knowledge is constantly, hopefully increasing. It is an area of science of immediate concern to all of us, since we are animals, subject to its laws and observations, though at the same time we seek to apply those laws for our very human purposes. It is also an area of science that has not yet progressed to a level that can only be reached by special training in its symbols of thought. Yet its methods, its attitudes, its goals, are the same as those of any other science.

There are many definitions of science, corresponding to an equal number of ideas about what should be included under the term. Most broadly, science is systematized or organized knowledge. But it has come, particularly during the last century or so, to be used more and more in a narrower sense, for a special type of knowledge, arrived at by special sorts of activities.

The characteristic stamp of our Western civilization comes from science in this narrower sense. Ours is the "scientific" age, an adjective that is supposed to distinguish it from any other, though we can lay no claim to the exclusive development of systematized or organized knowledge. By science in this special sense, we mean particular kinds of study, like physics and chemistry and biology. And we are apt also to think that we mean the experimental method —though we readily include things like geology and astronomy among our sciences, despite the fact that they have few traces of experiments in their make-up.

For science in this present, narrow sense, I like the definition of James Bryant Conant. Conant says that "science emerges from the other progressive activities of man to the extent that new concepts arise from experiments and observations, and that the new concepts in turn lead to further experiments and observations."

Science is a progressive activity. The outstanding peculiarity of man is that he stumbled onto the possibility of progressive activities. Such progress, the accumulation of experience from generation to generation, depended first on the development of language, then of writing and finally of printing. These allowed the accumulation of tradition and of knowledge, of the whole aura of cultural inheritance that surrounds us. This has so conditioned our existence that it is almost impossible for us to stop and examine the nature of our culture. We accept it as we accept the air we breathe; we are as unconscious of our culture as a fish, presumably, is of water.

The equipment with which we face the world is of two sorts: our biological inheritance and our cultural inheritance. Within the time span of history, our biological inheritance has not changed. The physiology of reproduction, for instance, is the same as with our cave man ancestors—though the antics that precede copulation may be different now, and may vary greatly from culture to culture. Our digestive system remains the same, despite its varying degrees of maltreatment. The shape of our noses has not changed since Caesar's day. And while lately we have been growing taller in the United States, this seems to be a result of better diet rather than of a shift in our biological potentialities.

Our cultural inheritance, when compared with our biological inheritance, seems to be subject to constant change. Though when we examine it carefully, we find that the rate of progress of its different parts is far from uniform. To realize this, we have only to compare our culture, our activities, with those of some other period in the line of historical antecedents. With Periclean Athens, for instance. Whether our activities in art, literature, philosophy, represent "progress" as compared with the Athenian is at least debatable. The amount of progress in politics or government might also be debated. We read the histories and wonder why the Greeks so stupidly clung to their petty city states, why their civilization was so persistently marred by internecine strife. But we seem still to be involved in the same sort of political jealousies, the same sort of armed strife, though we have changed the scale.

If we go back far enough, of course, we can detect all sorts of changes that have progressive aspects. If we compare ourselves with our cave man ancestors, we can see progress in art and philosophy as well as in mining and implements of war. But as we move along the time scale the progress in some things seems more regular than in others. The discovery of a technique makes possible the development of an art form, but the development proceeds in fits and starts. We might report progress in music, for instance, over Periclean Athens (though the evidence is pretty indirect), but this progress happened in a spurt after the discovery of harmony and the invention of a system of notation. The cumulative progress since Bach is at least not a matter of universal agreement. From this irregularity comes all of the discussion of the cycles of cultures and civilizations.

Along with these cycles of culture, we have the stream of progressive activities. Its first trickle is apparent in the discovery of fire, of ores, of agriculture, and its development can be measured by a constantly increasing power over the material universe. The stream has grown more rapidly in some periods than in others. But looking back over a large scale map of history, the stream seems surprisingly independent of the vicissitudes of cultures and civilizations. In Europe, even during the darkest part of the post-Roman Dark Ages, we find water mills developing, and the invention of things like stirrups and horse shoes. At that time, the main stream had left Europe in a curve that passed through the luxuriant periods of the Arabic and Indian civilizations, so that when it again turned towards Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was much grander than when it left that continent with the collapse of the Graeco-Roman world.

Science can truly be said to emerge from this stream of progressive activities, but so imperceptibly that it is difficult to say exactly when, where or how. The history books trace its origins among the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks. It can be distinguished fairly clearly from philosophy at Alexandria, and it began to take definite shape during the bright period of Arabic culture. But as a strikingly distinct sort of activity, depending on the wide dissemination of individual discovery and thought, its development was hardly possible without the printing press. Its methods and attitudes are hard to define until we come to the first of the great modern scientists, Galileo, who lived in the sixteenth century.

Experiments, observations and conceptual schemes, if we accept Conant's definition, then form the basic components of science, of this progressive activity that first clearly emerges with Galileo. They must, in any particular science, act together as a self-maintaining system, an endless series in which new concepts are constantly formed or old ones modified through the factual accumulations resulting from the observations and experiments. The problem, in understanding any particular science, is to see how this modifying process works: how, in the present case, it applies to natural history.

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.

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.

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. 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. The phenomena at each level are different, and we must try to get an understanding of each. A cell is something more than an aggregate of molecules; an individual more than an aggregate of organs. A population or community, for that matter, is something more than an accumulation of individuals.

Studies at all of these levels can be fun; and can be important from the human point of view of trying to manipulate the universe for our own comfort, and of trying to understand it for our peace of mind. I happen to enjoy most the study at the level of the individual; and this level is also, I suspect, most easily understood. I am an individual; so are you; so is my dog and the oak tree on my lawn. What makes us act the way we do? How do we get along with each other—the oak tree, the dog and the man? How did we come to get this way?

The physiologists, cytologists and biochemists are very largely involved with the problems of explaining living systems in chemical and physical terms. This is surely one of the major objectives of biology, but it need concern us little in our pursuit of natural history. The explanation of the living process is one thing; the explanation of the diversity of living things is another; and the latter may well be taken as the major objective of natural history itself.

The diversity of life is extraordinary. There are said to be a million or so different kinds of living animals, and hundreds of thousands of kinds of plants. But we don't need to think of the world at large. It is amazing enough to stop and look at a forest or at a meadow—at the grass and trees and caterpillars and hawks and deer. How did all of these different kinds of things come about; what forces governed their evolution; what forces maintain their numbers and determine their survival or extinction; what are their relations to each other and to the physical environment in which they live? These are the problems of natural history, problems that concern us ourselves as animals and that concern us even more as originators of this thing we call civilization—which is, after all, merely a rather special sort of an animal community.

The explanation of these things furnishes us with an objective; one that at times seems hopelessly remote. But whether we ever get to the objective or not, we keep finding interesting things along the way so that the going, however difficult, never seems tedious.


The Naming of Organisms

CHARLES ELTON has remarked that there is little use in making observations on an animal unless you know its name. The first step in a survey of natural history, then, should be the acquisition of some familiarity with the system of names and the system of classification, with the word equipment used by naturalists.

Many animals and plants have vernacular names that everyone learns in childhood, or that form parts of special vocabularies such as those of farmers, woodsmen or hunters. It is surprising, though, how quickly we exhaust this supply of names. It works well enough for large mammals such as bobcats, deer, foxes, raccoons. But if we start to make observations on field mice, we soon find that there are no common names for all of the kinds that we find; in the ordinary course of events, these different kinds of field mice simply don't come to our attention.


Excerpted from The Nature of Natural History by Marston Bates. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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