AskDefine | Define naturalist

Dictionary Definition



1 an advocate of the doctrine that the world can be understood in scientific terms
2 a biologist knowledgeable about natural history (especially botany and zoology) [syn: natural scientist]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. a person committed to studying nature or natural history
  2. a person who believes in the tenets of naturalism


student of nature

Extensive Definition

Natural history is the systematic study or scientific research of any category of natural objects or organisms, although in modern usage it more often refers to matters relating to biology (the study of living organisms such as plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, etc. and their relationships in natural systems ("ecosystems") as opposed to its former designation as the study of ALL things in the natural world, such as rocks and minerals (geology), atoms and molecules (chemistry) and even the universe at large (astronomy), (physics), (astrophysics), etc.) It is sometimes considered an archaic term in the scientific community, and in its modern form usually leans toward the observational rather than the experimental, and encompasses more research that is published in magazines than in academic journals. Natural history involves the research and formation of statements that make elements of life and the world of living beings comprehensible by describing the relevant structures, operations, relationships (in natural or "eco"systems, as well as the biosphere as a whole (i.e. the sum total of life on our planet))and circumstances of various species, such as diet, reproduction, and social grouping. The term has grown to be an umbrella term for what are now often viewed as several distinct scientific disciplines of integrative organismal biology. Most definitions include the study of living things (e.g. biology, including botany and zoology); other definitions extend the topic to include paleontology, ecology or biochemistry, as well as parts of geology and climatology.
Natural history is the scientific study of plants and animals in their natural environments. It is concerned with levels of organization from the individual organism to the ecosystem, and stresses identification, life history, distribution, abundance, and inter-relationships. It often and appropriately includes an esthetic component.Stephen G. Herman, 2002
It has historically been an often somewhat haphazard or less strictly organized study, description, and classification of natural objects, such as animals, plants, minerals, and placed an importance and significance on fieldwork as opposed to the more systematic scientific investigation such as experimental or lab work. A person interested in natural history is known as a naturalist or natural historian. Natural History is not now commonly applied to the fields of astronomy, physics, or chemistry., as briefly discussed above. However, it sometimes even includes the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology.

History of natural history

The roots of natural history go back to Aristotle and other ancient philosophers who analyzed the diversity of the natural world. From the ancient Greeks until the work of Carolus Linnaeus and other 18th century naturalists, the central concept tying together the various domains of natural history was the scala naturae or Great Chain of Being, which arranged minerals, vegetables, more primitive or "lower" forms of animals, and more advanced or "higher" life forms on a linear scale of increasing "perfection", culminating in our species. Natural history was basically static through the Middle Ages in Europe - although in the Arabic and Oriental world it proceeded at a much brisker pace - when the work of Aristotle was adapted rather rigidly into Christian philosophy, particularly by Thomas Aquinas, forming the basis for natural theology. In the Renaissance, scholars (herbalists and humanists, particularly) returned to direct observation of plants and animals for natural history, and many began to accumulate large collections of exotic specimens and unusual monsters. The rapid increase in the number of known organisms prompted many attempts at classifying and organizing species into taxonomic groups, culminating in the system of the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus.
In the 18th century and well into the 19th century, natural history as a term was frequently used to refer to all descriptive aspects of the study of nature, as opposed to political, ecclesiastical or other human-related history; it was the counterpart to the analytical study of nature, natural philosophy. Roughly, it may be said that natural philosophy corresponded to modern physics and chemistry, while natural history included the biological and geological sciences, although the terminology was, and remains fairly flexible.
Beginning in Europe, professional disciplines such as physiology, botany, zoology, geology, and palaeontology formed. Natural history, formerly the main subject taught by college science professors, was increasingly scorned by scientists of a more specialized manner and relegated to an "amateur" activity, rather than a part of science proper. Particularly in Britain and the United States, this grew into specialist hobbies such as the study of birds, butterflies, seashells (malacology/conchology), beetles and wildflowers; meanwhile, scientists tried to define a unified discipline of biology (though with only partial success, at least until the modern evolutionary synthesis). Still, the traditions of natural history continued to play a part in late 19th- and early 20th century biology, especially ecology (the study of natural systems involving living organisms and the inorganic components of the earth's biosphere that support them), ethology (the scientific study of animal behavior), and evolutionary biology (the study of the relationships between life-forms over very long periods of time), and re-emerges today as integrative organismal biology.
Amateur collectors and natural history entrepreneurs played an important role in building the large natural history collections of the 19th and early-20th centuries, particularly the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Natural history museums

The term "natural history" forms the descriptive part of institution names, such as the Natural History Museum in London, the Humboldt Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, the Grigore Antipa Museum of Natural History in Bucharest, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which also publishes a magazine called Natural History.
Natural history museums, which evolved from cabinets of curiosities, played an important role in the emergence of professional biological disciplines and research programs. Particularly in the 19th century, scientists began to use their natural history collections as teaching tools for advanced students and the basis for their own morphological research.

Natural history and naturalist societies

The term "natural history" alone, or sometimes together with archeology, forms the name of many national, regional and local natural history societies that maintain records for birds (ornithology), mammals (mammology), insects (entomology), fungi (mycology) and plants (botany). They may also have microscopical and geological sections.
Examples of these societies in Britain include the British Entomological and Natural History Society founded in 1872, Birmingham Natural History Society, Glasgow Natural History Society, London Natural History Society founded in 1858, Manchester Microscopical and Natural History Society established in 1880, Scarborough Field Naturalists' Society and the Sorby Natural History Society, Sheffield, founded in 1918. The growth of natural history societies was also spurred due to the growth of British colonies in tropical regions with numerous new species to be discovered. Many civil servants took an interest in their new surroundings, sending specimens back to museums in Britain. (See also Indian natural history)


* Herman, Stephen G. Wildlife biology and natural history: time for a reunion. Journal of Wildlife Management (2002) 66(4):933–946
  • Kohler, Robert E. Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2002.
  • Mayr, Ernst. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982.
  • Rainger, Ronald; Keith R. Benson; and Jane Maienschein, editors. The American Development of Biology. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 1988.

External links

naturalist in Arabic: تاريخ طبيعي
naturalist in Catalan: Història natural
naturalist in Danish: Naturhistorie
naturalist in German: Naturgeschichte
naturalist in Modern Greek (1453-): Φυσική ιστορία
naturalist in Spanish: Historia natural
naturalist in French: Histoire naturelle
naturalist in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Historia natural
naturalist in Italian: Storia naturale
naturalist in Dutch: Natuurlijke historie
naturalist in Japanese: 博物学
naturalist in Norwegian: Naturhistorie
naturalist in Uzbek: Tabiatshunoslik
naturalist in Polish: Historia naturalna
naturalist in Portuguese: História natural
naturalist in Russian: Естествознание
naturalist in Simple English: Natural history
naturalist in Finnish: Luonnonhistoria
naturalist in Swedish: Naturhistoria
naturalist in Thai: ธรรมชาติวิทยา
naturalist in Chinese: 博物学

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Marxist, anatomist, bacteriologist, biochemist, biologist, biometrist, biophysicist, botanist, commonsense philosopher, cytologist, dialectical materialist, ecologist, epistemological realist, geneticist, materialist, natural realist, natural scientist, physicist, physiologist, realist, zoologist
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