Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

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Among the Romans, by whom the sciences were carried from Greece to Western Europe, there must have been many naturalists of considerable attainments; but the only writer of that nation whose descriptions have come down to us is Pliny the Elder, who flourished under Vespasian. His books on natural history are compiled from the writings of others, and may be considered as a general collection of all that was known in his time. Although he must have possessed opportunities of observing the many rare animals that were brought from all parts of the world to Rome, it does not appear that, by original observation, he added much to the mass of facts; still he may be viewed as marking the second epoch in the history of zoology, more especially as his works supplied the materials out of which naturalists in later ages have constructed their systems. As to Ælian, a Greek writer, whose treatise was also a[Pg 33] compilation, his merits were much fewer, and his absurdities more numerous than those of his predecessor. Both were fond of the marvellous, but he was eminently addicted to falsehood.

During the long ages of barbarism that succeeded the destruction of the Roman empire all the sciences were lost. On the revival of learning some feeble efforts were made to rescue natural history from its degraded condition; and at the commencement of the sixteenth century appeared several works on fishes, by Paolo Giovio, Pierre Belon, Rondelet, and Salviani. Belon wrote on birds also, and his observations are remarkable considering the period at which he lived. Conrad Gesner, a physician of Zurich, in his History of Animals, presented a compilation, arranged in alphabetical order, of all that the ancients had left on the subject; and Aldrovandi, after the labour of sixty years, left behind him an immense work on natural history, comprising no less than fourteen folio volumes. In the seventeenth century, we find our own Ray and Willughby among the most successful students of nature. Besides these celebrated individuals, there were others, such as Jonston and Redi, who laboured in the field of zoology; but perhaps the most original authors of this period were Swammerdam and Reaumur, whose minute observations, in entomology especially, have not been excelled in accuracy by those of any subsequent writers. It was not, however, until the middle of the eighteenth century, that a new era was formed by the labours of Linnæus, who was the first to collect all the known productions of nature, to class them according to simple principles derived from the observation of[Pg 34] facts, and to invent a nomenclature at once efficient and comprehensive.

Since the time of that philosopher natural history in all its branches has been cultivated with extreme ardour. The writers of this period have been numerous beyond those of any former epoch; and as anatomical investigation was successfully applied to the study of zoology, while the objects known were immensely increased, it was soon found that the classifications of the great reformer of the science were in many respects deficient, and that he had frequently associated objects which have too little affinity to be grouped together in the same class or order. The Systema Naturæ, in place of forming a complete catalogue of all the objects of nature, "became," to use the words of an accomplished author, "a mere sketch of what was to be done afterwards. Even more recent naturalists touched with a timid hand upon the natural grouping of the highest branches of the science, and it was reserved for a mighty genius of our own time to open the path to us, and to smooth the difficulties of that path, by precisely determining the limits of the great divisions, by exactly defining the lesser groups, by placing them all according to the invariable characters of their internal structure, and by ridding them of the accumulations of synonymes and absurdities which ignorance, want of method, or fertility of imagination, had heaped upon them."[A] This "mighty genius," it is almost unnecessary to add, was the illustrious Cuvier, who, although by no means the only great, and possibly not even the[Pg 35] greatest zoologist of his time, may, if we are disposed to mark an epoch by a single name, be selected for that purpose. But even this celebrated writer has, in his Règne Animal, merely presented a sketch, leaving to others the task of completing the various departments. They who think otherwise forget that the generic and specific characters of the systematist, necessarily condensed, are very inadequate to convey any other than the most superficial knowledge of the diversified objects of nature.

These, then, were the men who progressively reared the structure of zoology. Aristotle was a universal genius; but with respect to natural history he is to be looked upon chiefly as a zoologist. Pliny was a collector of every thing known in his time, whether true or fabulous, that related to animals, minerals, and plants. Linnæus arranged all the objects of nature. He was perhaps greater as a zoologist than as a botanist, although, in the latter capacity, his labours have been more highly appreciated, because there have been more cultivators of the science of plants, of which the study requires less laborious investigation, and to many persons is more attractive. Lastly, Cuvier, an original genius, an acute observer, and an accurate reasoner, profiting by the accumulated knowledge of ages, remodelled the system of zoology, and, in his Règne Animal, arranged the series of animals according to principles elicited from the investigation of their structure and relations.

The present volume includes the lives of the more eminent zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnæus. Those who succeeded the latter will furnish ample materials for another.[Pg 36]

It is scarcely necessary to remark, that these volumes may either be considered as complete in themselves, or as introductory to a general and particular description of the various tribes of animals. A work on this most extensive subject is a great desideratum in English literature,—not that books on this department of science are wanting, but because we have none that present a continuous view of the families end species of the different classes, at once intelligible to the student of nature, attractive to the general reader, and free from that meagreness of phraseology necessarily peculiar to the composers of systematic catalogues.

It is not now required of us to point out the advantages that might result from the establishment of natural history as a branch of popular education. These advantages have been repeatedly pressed on the notice of the public; and, although the system has not been as yet adopted, the time cannot be far distant when the elements of mineralogy, botany, and zoology shall be taught in our schools, along with those branches of knowledge which at present occupy the field, to the exclusion of others not less adapted for the improvement of the youthful mind. "To constitute such pursuits a prominent part of elementary education," says a popular writer, "would without doubt be erroneous: it is, however, certain that none are more eminently fitted to fill the minds of youth with admiration of the numerous contrivances and proofs of design afforded in every part of the creation, and to inspire them with exalted conceptions of the Supreme Being."[B] We are[Pg 37] of opinion, notwithstanding, that they ought to occupy a distinct place in elementary education, because they possess many important recommendations, of which those mentioned are certainly not the least. The study of nature may be pursued in any degree, as a relaxation from other studies, as a pleasing occupation invigorating alike to the mind and the body, or as a science capable of calling into action the noblest faculties of man, and of affording employment to intellects of even a higher order than any of those who have hitherto acquired distinction in the walks of literature. Natural history has already to boast of an Aristotle, a Ray, a Reaumur, a Linnæus, a Haller, a Hunter, and a Cuvier. What other science can rank abler men among its cultivators? And, as is remarked by one of the most eminent naturalists that this country has produced, the late president of the Linnæan Society, "How delightful and how consolatory it is, among the disappointments and anxieties of life, to observe science, like virtue, retaining its relish to the last!"

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