Natural History is….

The theme in my undergraduate field biology course this term is “Natural History”.  This is proving very interesting, in part because defining natural history is difficult.

What is Natural History?

Thankfully, my colleague Terry Wheeler wrote a terrific post on this topic recently.  I urge you to read this, as I think it brings a lot of clarity to this issue.  In that post, Terry states his scientific definition of the concept: Natural History is the search for, and description of, patterns in nature.

The Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus)

Terry’s definition resonates with me, but I was curious about what natural history might mean to undergraduate students.  I wanted to share with you some ideas about natural history that were proposed by some of my students.  I had asked them to think about defining natural history, and to think of this concept as it might relate to the discipline of Ecology.

Here is some of what they said, paraphrased by me:

Ecology is a thorough interpretation of natural history

It’s not possible to study ecology without indirectly studying natural history

Natural history is studied with observation rather than experimental methods

Natural history is an indispensable part of science and culture.

Natural History can be represented in an artistic manner.

Natural history is a priceless source of information for biology and ecology.

The field of ecology sprouts from natural history.

Field work is natural history in action.

Natural history is a science which tries to show life and its diversity to a larger public.

Natural history is familiarity with nature, with or without an explanation.

Data gathered from natural history is not necessarily conclusive.

A Panamanian wonder…

Do these ideas resonate with you?

What does natural history mean to you? 

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5 thoughts on “Natural History is….

  1. I agree, patterns in nature is a great way to describe Natural History.

    Having taught first-year and fourth-year natural history courses at York, I would always explain to students that the term history in this case was less aligned with a conventional definition of the word — understanding past events — and more with the Latin and Greek origins of the word. In these languages, history relates to narrative and learning by enquiry, respectively. So I’d suggest it is curiosity about knowing the story about the (natural) world that surrounds us.

    I’d also offer that it is a fully-embodied way to learn about the natural world around us. Important as this embodiment is lost, or at least backgrounded, in contemporary approaches to knowing and describing nature (aka “Science”). So in some senses, it’s a political act too.

    I come to the practice of Natural History as someone from the social sciences interested in environmental education. While I would consider myself a naturalist, I’m not a Scientist and this certainly colours my interpretation of what Natural History is. It’s interesting to read your students’ thoughts, however, as I think there might be more congruence than I would have expected.

  2. Gavan – great comments, and thanks for taking the time to write. I think it would be fascinating, and worthwhile, to take a broader group of students (ie.., from Arts, Sci, Music and more) and ask the same question. I am completely biased by my scientific baggage, but as I delve into more thinking and reading about natural history, my world view on this topic is being opened up. That’s a good thing. You have brought a nice perspective, thanks.

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