We explain to you what the history of biology is like, its first antecedents, its relationship with the scientific revolution and its main figures.
What is the history of biology?
The history of biology is, at the same time, the account and the study of the development of this scientific discipline , dedicated as its name indicates (from the Greek bios , “life”, and logos , “knowledge” or “speech”) to the understanding of the mechanisms and dynamics of life as we know it.
The term “biology” was coined in the 19th century , when in 1802 both the French Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) and the German Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus (1776-1837) published independent works that proposed the common use of that word. Thus they founded a complete science, following the spirit of the European Enlightenment .
However, the proper study of the laws of life dates from the earliest naturalistic philosophers of Antiquity . Thus, what today we call biology, for centuries was known as natural philosophy or natural history, and therefore those who dedicated themselves to its study were called “philosophers” or “naturalists”.
It is difficult to mark a starting point in the history of biology, since the interest of human beings in the functioning and needs of animals and plants has always been with us, especially since the Neolithic Revolution, when agriculture became become part of our lives and it became essential to know more about them.
Thus, the different ancient civilizations began the study of life , without distinguishing between human anatomy , zoology , botany , chemistry , physics , etc.
There were many celebrated scholars of the body and life in ancient times, such as Súsruta (c. 3rd century BC), one of the founding sages of traditional Indian medicine, a surgeon, and the author of the Súsruta-samija treatise ; or the later Zhang Zhong Jin (150-209 AD), of the ancient Chinese medicine school. Each one was inscribed in a vast cultural, religious and philosophical tradition that sustained a vision of the world and of life itself.
In the West, there are also Egyptian and Greek pre-Socratic equivalents, but the most famous student of life was the Greek philosopher Aristotle of Stagira (384-322 BC). Among his numerous works is the first classification of organisms of which there is a record, and the analysis and description of around 500 different animal species.
The Aristotelian model of thought was of such importance that it was improved and extended by the naturalists and physicians of later times, thus surviving well beyond the Middle Ages . At that time, while the West was submerged in obscurantism and religious fanaticism, the Golden Age of Islam took place between the 8th and 9th centuries (AD), with great contributions to biology and medicine .
Nothing else in zoology, highlighted the Arab Al-Jahiz (781-869), who described some of the first ideas about evolutionism and the struggle for survival through the food chain; the Kurdish Al-Dinawari (828-896), one of the founders of botany and a scholar of more than 637 different species of plants; and the Persian Al-Biruni (973-1048), creator of the concept of artificial selection and one of the forerunners of evolutionism.
The West contributed little during the High Middle Ages to the advancement of biology, despite the fact that there were contributions to the subject in European universities, such as Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), Albert the Great (1193-1280) or Frederick II of Hohenstaufens (1194-1250). But compared to the interest in physics and chemistry in Europe, biology received little attention at the time.
Biology in the Scientific Revolution
This changed radically with the arrival of the Renaissance and the Modern Age. The renewed Western interest in the natural sciences and physiology, as well as in modern medicine, was largely due to a new way of philosophical thought, characterized by empiricism and reason. There were great contributions to botany in the form of studies of herbalism, and to zoology through numerous bestiaries.
Thanks to advances in physics and optics, the invention of the microscope allowed the first illustrated study of the first cells at the end of the 16th century : Micrographia (1665) by the British Robert Hooke (1635-1703).
Subsequently, the Dutchman Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s (1632-1723) improvements to the microscope allowed an even greater leap forward: the observation and description of the vast and complex microscopic life, as well as its relation to macroscopic life, through of the discovery of bacteria, spermatozoa and other protozoa.
As if that were not enough, the first steps in the development of paleontology were taken at that time , initially as a form of debate regarding the biblical universal flood.
The Danish Nicholas Steno (1638-1686) described the first fossils and fossilization procedures. Thus he laid the foundations for the much later theories of evolution and for the very concept of extinction, which in the 17th century were unthinkable for contravening religious ideas about the origin of life.
Biology began to take its first steps as an independent field of knowledge at the end of the 18th century , after great advances were made in the observation and dissection of animals, and especially after the famous Swedish naturalist Carlos Linnaeus (1707-1778 ) proposed his basic taxonomy for the natural world.
His view of the organization of the kingdoms of life made Aristotle’s obsolete. Furthermore, Linnaeus proposed a system of naming species that we still use today , consisting of two Latin terms (genus and species): Homo sapiens , for example.
Thus, entering the nineteenth century, what was formerly physiology had come to be called medicine; and what were natural history and natural philosophy were giving way to an immense set of more specialized knowledge: bacteriology, morphology, embryology, etc.
Even geology and geography began to emancipate their fields of knowledge, thanks in large part to the extended study trips of naturalists such as the German Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and the French Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858), among many others.
Another important quantum leap occurred around the debate on the origin of life and evolutionary theory. The first theory of evolution came from the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) and, later, the British Charles Darwin (1809-1882), responsible for the basic theory that we use today. His 1859 book On the Origin of Species is considered the most important event in the modern history of biology.
From then on, the knowledge of biology did not stop growing exponentially, greatly helped by the new inventions and possibilities that the Industrial Revolution brought with it . Great and revolutionary contributions to the field were made thanks to:
- Gregor Mendell (1822-1884) with his discoveries regarding the laws of genetic inheritance .
- Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) with his studies in embryology and ecology .
- Mathias Schleiden (1804-1881) and Theodor Schwann (1810-1882) with their studies on the cell as the fundamental unit of all living things .
- Robert Koch (1843-1910) with the first cultures of bacteria in a Pietri plate.
- Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) with his refutation of the Theory of Spontaneous Generation (and the invention of the pasteurization method).
- Thomas Morgan (1866-1945) with his demonstration that chromosomes were the carriers of genetic information.
- Aleksander Oparin (1894-1980) with his Theory of the Origin of Life , published in his book The Origin of Life on Earth (1936).
- James Watson (1928-) and Francis Crick (1916-2004) for their 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA , building on the work of Maurice Wilkins (1899-1986) and Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958).
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, advances in biology have not stopped, but are too numerous to try to list them. Biology is no longer just a field of consolidated scientific knowledge, but also expanding towards new horizons: with space exploration, biology makes contributions to discover life outside our planet (exobiology) or, in any case, to understand how it originated in ours (paleobiology).