Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

Page 5 of 79

Firs and pines, existing in vast numbers, and retaining a perpetual though gloomy verdure, characterize the transition from the frigid to the northern temperate zone. This last extends from the parallels of 50° to 40° north latitude, and in its southern borders, the beech, the lime, and the chestnut, mingle[Pg 27] with the trees peculiar to more southern regions. The meadows and pastures, especially those in the vicinity of the sea and in the mountain-valleys, are clothed with a brilliant verdure, which we in vain look for in the other sections of the globe.

The warm temperate zone, extending to 25°, presents in general a less beautiful vegetation; for although the heat is greater the humidity is less constant. But it is in the torrid latitudes that Nature displays all her magnificence. There the species of tribes, which in other climates are herbaceous, become shrubs, and the shrubs trees. Ferns rise into trunks equal to those of pines in the northern regions of Europe; balsams, gums, and resins, exude from the bark; aromatic fruits and flowers abound; and the savage, as he roams the woods, satisfies his hunger with the spontaneous offerings of the soil. Here also are all the climates of the globe, and almost all their productions united; for, while the plains are covered with the gorgeous vegetation of the tropics, the lofty mountains display the forms that occur in the colder regions, and the places intermediate in elevation all the graduated transitions from these to the warmest parallels.

The vegetation of the seas presents much less diversity than that of the land. It is less luxuriant, less elegant, less ornamented, and less productive of substances directly useful to man. There is also less distinction between marine plants of different latitudes; for the great currents of the ocean, and other causes, render its temperature more equable than that of the atmosphere.

The numerous and diversified forms which plants assume, their distribution over the globe, their[Pg 28] various qualities and uses, and their internal organization, are subjects which have long occupied the attention of observers. In their reproduction, growth, and maturation, phenomena are presented to us, which are well calculated to excite our admiration; and the curious and diversified apparatus of tubes and cells, in which are circulated the fluids derived from the atmosphere and the earth, although apparently more simple than that of the animal economy, affords a profound as well as an interesting subject of research.

All parts of the earth's surface, even the deep recesses of caves and mines, the snows of the polar and alpine regions, and the bottom of the sea, are more or less covered with plants. The same may be said respecting animals, which, being much more diversified in their forms and internal structure, and endowed with more wonderful faculties, lead the mind, by the contemplation of their mechanism and habits, to a nearer approach to the great Creator of all things.

From the gigantic elephant that roams among the splendid forests of the warmer regions of the earth, the unwieldy hippopotamus that plunges in the pools and marshes of the African wilds, and the timid and graceful giraffe that bounds over the sandy desert, down to the little dormouse that we find slumbering in its winter retreat, to the lemming that in congregated myriads overruns the fields of the North, or to the mole that burrows under our feet, we find an astonishing variety of beings, exhibiting forms, instincts, passions, and pursuits, which adapt them for the occupation of every part of the globe. The woods, the plains, the[Pg 29] mountains, and the sands of the sea, are replete with life. The waters, too, whether of the ocean or of the land, teem with animated beings. Scarcely is a particle of matter to be found that does not present inhabitants to our view; and a drop of ditch-water is a little world in itself, stored with inmates of corresponding magnitude.

The consideration of the anatomical structure and external conformation of the many thousands of living creatures that come under our view, would of itself occupy many volumes, were it presented in detail; and even the simplest outline in which it could be produced would require more space than can be devoted to it here. All departments of Nature are full of wonders; but this excels the rest in interest, and is proportionally more difficult to be studied; although men, contented with superficial knowledge, may fancy themselves masters of her secrets when they have merely learned to distinguish some hundreds of objects from each other.

Man, separated from all other animals by peculiarities of corporeal organization, not less than by those intellectual faculties which are not in any considerable degree participated by the other inhabitants of the globe, and who is capable of subsisting in every climate, from the arid regions of the torrid zone to the frozen confines of the poles, also belongs in some measure to the study of nature. But the consideration of man includes a multitude of subjects that do not properly belong to Natural History, in the limited sense in which we use the term. It might even be said that it embraces all human knowledge. Thus, the constitution of the human mind, and the structure of the human body, as well as its healthy[Pg 30] and morbid phenomena, together with the means of regulating the former and of counteracting the latter, may certainly be included in it.

Natural history, however, in its more limited acceptation, may be considered as comprehending the three great kingdoms of Nature,—the mineral, the vegetable, and the animal,—the sciences treating of which are named Mineralogy, Botany, and Zoology. The first of these departments of knowledge comprehends, along with the consideration of simple minerals, that of the masses produced by the aggregation of these substances, and the changes effected upon them by natural causes. Botany teaches us to distinguish and arrange the subjects of the vegetable kingdom, points out the forms and functions of their organs, investigates their internal structure, traces them in their distribution over the surface of the globe, and makes known the various properties which render them noxious or useful to us. Zoology treats of the various tribes of animals, marks their external forms, compares their various organs, describes their habits, discloses the laws which regulate their distribution over the continents and islands, arranges them into families according to principles deduced from their structure, and in general makes us acquainted with all that belongs to their history. Although it is unnecessary here to offer any extended remarks on the cultivation of the vast field which is thus opened up to us, yet, the science of animals being intimately connected with the Series of Lives which we propose to offer to the public, it may not be improper to give a short account of its origin and progress.

In the History of Zoology, four eras are marked by[Pg 31] the names of four great cultivators of that science. All knowledge of nature must have commenced in the observation of individuals, or in an intuitive perception of their properties bestowed upon the first man. We may suppose, however, that at some period not remote from the creation of the human race men were left to their own resources, when they were necessarily forced to examine the nature and qualities of plants and animals, as well as of all natural objects with which they came into contact. The son would learn from the father, and impart to his descendants a certain degree of knowledge acquired by observation. Where the art of writing was unknown, science would advance but slowly; and even where it was practised, the privilege would probably belong to individuals or families, so that the mass would still be left to their ordinary resources. Those who lived in the remote ages antecedent to the Christian era probably knew as much of natural history as the unlettered peasant of our own age and country. Whatever may have been the acquirements of the priests, the sole depositaries of science in ancient India, Chaldea, and Egypt, they perished amid the revolutions of empires. The Sacred Scriptures, however, show that Moses, who was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, had bestowed considerable attention on the animal world; but as these writings were not intended for our instruction in natural knowledge, the observations which they contain on the subject have no reference to systematic arrangement. In short, whatever may have been the knowledge possessed by the subjects of the Pharaohs, or the Hebrews and Greeks of the earlier ages, we do not find that it had assumed[Pg 32] any definite form, or constituted a body of doctrine, until the time of Alexander the Great. At this epoch the illustrious Aristotle collected the observations of his predecessors; added to them those, more extensive and more important, which were made by himself; and, although deeply engaged in the study of other subjects, succeeded in collecting a mass of facts, and in eliciting from them general principles, the accuracy of many of which might surprise us, did we not reflect that, in this department at least, he followed the true method by which the physical sciences have in our times received so vast an augmentation. He, however, stands alone among the writers of remote antiquity in this field; for, if others followed in his steps, their works have been lost.

Free Learning Resources