Natural History from Antiquity to Now
Professor Jane E. Boyd

This course will be held at the Independence Branch of the Free Library, located at 18 S. 7th Street (7th and Market Streets), Philadelphia.


1.  Wednesday, September 25, 2013 - Nature in the Ancient World
Course overview and themes; defining natural history; the prehistory of natural history; observing and describing nature in ancient Greece and Rome, from Aristotle to Pliny the Elder.

2.  Wednesday, October 2, 2013 - The Middle Ages
Herbals, bestiaries and lapidaries: how medieval scholars studied and classified plants, animals, and minerals; the continuing influence of ancient philosophy and Arab scholarship.

3.  Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - Exploring the Globe
Renaissance exploration: how colonial conquest brought New World flora and fauna back to Europe to fill cabinets of curiosities; advances in science and technology that affected the study of natural history.

4.  Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - Natural Philosophies

Natural history in the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment and encyclopedias: Linnaeus, Buffon, and the birth of modern taxonomies; naturalists in North America and their exchanges with European scientists.

5.  Wednesday, October 23, 2013 - Darwin's Revolution
The 19th century: ideas about evolution before Charles Darwin; his evolutionary theory and the debates it sparked; the founding and growth of the great natural history museums; natural history in popular culture.

6.  Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - Specialized Sciences
The 20th century and the rise of "ologies"; further development of evolutionary theories and the discovery of genetics; revolutions in taxonomy; collecting and conservation; future prospects for natural history.

7.  Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - A 19th-Century Natural History Museum
The final class session will be a field trip to the Wagner Free Institute of Science for a special tour of this unique museum, built in 1865, and its historically important collections. Step back in time to experience how the Victorians learned about natural history. This final class meets at the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

For millennia, people have been fascinated with the natural world, studying and trying to understand animals, plants, and their environments. This illustrated lecture course will explore the colorful history of natural history in the West, from the philosophers of Ancient Greece to Renaissance explorers to today's specialized scientists. Topics will include exploration and collecting; naming and classifying (taxonomy); the rise of evolutionary theories; the art of natural history; natural history in popular culture; and major developments in botany, zoology, geology, and paleontology.

Recommended reading:

There is no textbook or required reading for this course. The following resources are recommended as supplements to the course for people who wish to learn more.

Farber, Paul Lawrence. Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E.O. Wilson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

One of the best short introductions to natural history from the 18th through the 20th centuries. Key figures discussed include Linnaeus, Buffon, Darwin, and the ant expert and sociobiologist E.O. Wilson.

Fortey, Richard. Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

A fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Natural History Museum in London, including its rich history, eccentric staff, and remarkable collections.

A Romantic Natural History (Ashton Nichols, 2011)

An in-depth website that explores the connections between natural history and literature in the 18th and 19th centuries. Includes biographies of scientists, literary figures, and illustrators.



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