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Remarks on the Estimation in which Natural History is held at the present Day, and on its Importance—Men are more conversant with Nature in uncivilized Life—The original State of Man, and his progressive Acquisition of Knowledge—General View of the Objects of Natural History: the Earth's Surface and Structure, the Ocean, the Atmosphere, Plants, and Animals—Definition of Mineralogy, Botany, and Zoology—Sketch of the Progress of Zoology: four Eras distinguished, as marked by the Names of Aristotle, Pliny, Linnæus, and Cuvier.
At no period in the progress of civilisation have the advantages to be derived from the study of nature been so highly appreciated as at the present day, when descriptions and representations of the various objects by which we are surrounded, or which have been observed in distant countries, are issuing from the press in a variety of forms calculated to attract the attention and to gratify the taste of almost every class of society. Only a few years ago, Natural History was held in some degree of contempt by the enlightened as well as by the ignorant; its cultivators[Pg 18] were considered as triflers, wasting their energies upon that which could profit nothing; and the information which it affords was looked upon as unworthy of the attention of persons fitted for intellectual pursuits. Now, it is raised in popular estimation to the highest dignity, and is pronounced to be a science capable of exercising the most splendid talents, and of affording pleasure to the most improved minds.
Of the several changes that have recently taken place in society this is not the least important. The diversified productions of Nature,—those objects, in the formation of which have been exercised unlimited wisdom and power,—are not now considered beneath the notice of the wisest of the sons of men. It still, however, remains to be perceived, that in the construction of the familiar fly that buzzes through our apartments, not less than in the frame of the mighty elephant,—in the simple blade of grass that springs from between the stones of the pavement, not less than in the knotted oak or the graceful palm,—in the small cube of salt, not less than in the granitic mountain or the volcanic cone,—there is something of a mysterious nature, the comprehension of which would be a much more glorious achievement than any that the human intellect has yet performed. The ship that carries the adventurous merchant over the great ocean is an object worthy of our admiration; but how complicated is its apparatus, compared with the fins of the most common fish! The balloon that floats calmly in the atmosphere,—what an unwieldy instrument is it, compared with those beautiful organs of Divine workmanship by which the swallow is conveyed[Pg 19] from the equatorial to the polar lands, or pursues its prey through the pathless air!
Man, in the early stages of his existence, is drawn by an instinctive power to observe and admire nature. The love of it, too, glows in the breast of every child. We have never, indeed, witnessed the actions of men in the infancy of society, and therefore cannot estimate the influence exercised upon them by external objects; for the savages whom the European, wandering over the globe in quest of gold or knowledge, finds in the deserts or in the remote isles of the ocean, are evidently degraded beings who have degenerated from a nobler stock. But the history and traditions of most of the tribes with which we are acquainted, and especially of those inhabiting the American continent, show that at some remote period they must have possessed more knowledge than they exhibited at our first acquaintance with them. Revelation, too, assures us that man was made perfect; and philosophy has not succeeded in forming a theory to account for the physical or moral diversities exhibited by our race, approaching in consistency to that which may be drawn from the pages of the Sacred Writings.
"Man," says Cuvier, "who was cast feeble and naked on the surface of the globe, seemed created for inevitable destruction. Evils assailed him on all sides; the remedies remained concealed from him, but he had been endowed with genius for discovering them. The first savages gathered in the woods some nutritious fruits, some wholesome roots, and thus satisfied their more urgent wants. The first shepherds perceived that the stars follow[Pg 20] a regular course, and were directed by them in their journeys over the plains of the desert. Such was the origin of the mathematical and physical sciences.
"When the genius of man had discovered that it could combat Nature by her own means, it no longer rested; it watched her incessantly, and continually wrested from her new conquests, each marked by some improvement in his condition. Then succeeded, without interruption, meditating minds, which, being the faithful depositaries of acquired knowledge, and continually occupied with connecting and giving a vivifying unity to its parts, have led us, in less than four thousand years, from the first attempts of those pastoral observers to the profound calculations of Newton and Laplace, and to the learned classifications of Linnæus and Jussieu. This precious inheritance, always augmenting, borne from Chaldea to Egypt, from Egypt to Greece, hidden during periods of misfortune and darkness, recovered in a happier age, unequally dispersed among the nations of Europe, has been every where followed by riches and power; the nations which have welcomed it have become the mistresses of the world, while those which have neglected it have fallen into feebleness and obscurity."
Had man, in his original state, been cast feeble and naked on the surface of the globe, he could not have survived a single week, with all the elements of nature combined against him. His first experiment on the tiger or the asp, even his first morsel of food, might have been fatal to him. He must have been formed perfect in knowledge; or, being formed in ignorance and feebleness, he must have been protected by a power capable of controlling[Pg 21] the influences of surrounding nature. But before we proceed to offer a few remarks on the origin and progress of zoological science, it seems expedient to mark the subjects to which the attention of the naturalist is directed.
If we cast our eyes around, and survey, in a comprehensive manner, the objects which exhibit themselves to our view, we may form some idea of the occupations of those individuals who devote themselves to the examination of nature. The surface of the globe presents in part a vast expanse of water bounded by the sinuosities of the shores, and in part an undulating succession of plains and mountains. It is enveloped with an aërial fluid, which extends to a considerable height, sometimes transparent, and sometimes obscured with masses of floating vapour.
The land is diversified by slopes of every degree of inclination,—extensive plains, depressions and hollows, ridges and protuberances of various forms; the highest, however, bearing a very insignificant proportion to the earth's diameter. The waters, which cover more than two-thirds of the globe, separate the land into unequal portions, dividing it into continents and islands. Tracts of elevated ground traverse these in various directions, constituting the elongated mountain-groups named chains; which, being intersected by valleys and containing the sources of numberless streams, slope towards the adjacent countries. Other portions of the surface consist of irregularly-grouped eminences, of inferior height, interspersed with corresponding valleys. Elevated platforms are sometimes met with, and the plains and slopes are not unfrequently diversified with hills. The depressed parts of mountainous[Pg 22] regions present great diversity of form, extent, and direction, and often exhibit basins or hollows, which are occasionally filled with water.