The History of Life: Prelude

I thought I might write a series on the history of biology from prehistory to the present day. It might take a while…

However, perspicacious students of history will note that the very first sentence contains a fallacy, so some words might be necessary.

Biology did not exist as a separate discipline of study from other fields of science (or natural philosophy) until the nineteenth century, give or take. To say I will present the history of biology is to say I cast back upon the past the categories and prejudices of the present, and this, as any first year history student knows, is the Original Sin of History. It is called Whiggism, presentism, or modernism. It presumes that our categories, etc., are the categories of all time, and this is a grand mistake. For a start, we see through the blinders of our own time, which is neither universal nor necessarily correct. This is why history (as a discipline) is constantly rewritten, not only as new evidence comes to light, but as we shift our perspective. As much as I revere the careful scholarship of historians from, say, the nineteenth century, their way of doing history is not ours, and while we can learn from them, we are not bound by their prejudices and categories either.

The mistake also lies in the presumption that our time, our science, and our social expectations are the culmination of history (as the Whigs of the eighteenth century believed of themselves). Many scientists do believe this – it is almost a prerequisite for doing science. If one does not make absolute progress, why do science at all? This is a much-debated topic in the philosophy of science and of history. When scientists write histories, they often belittle the researchers of the past. This is not new either. Galileo belittled Aristotle for his physics (when a careful reading of Aristotle suggests he was not so silly as John Philoponus, on whom Galileo relied, made him out to be). But those who went before know less than those who come later if science is accumulative, and there is no sin involved in ignorance when knowledge is not yet available. And if science is not accumulative, then the past thinkers may have been as smart as present thinkers (for any given present moment). Both are to be found in the past and present.

So to avoid this narrowness of vision, I will be initially fairly broad in my definition of biology, of life, and of science. For this reason, many of the thinkers we will visit and inspect will be rather different from the overburdened laboratory worker of today; there will be religious figures, philosophers, and artists in there. And why should this surprise us? Science is not something only those who have been trained in a university course can do or has been done. Indeed, for many of the subdisciplines of modern science, no such degrees were in existence until relatively late. In the “professional discipline” sense, biology is barely over a century old.

I will only infrequently address the history of medicine, for two reasons. One is that I know very little about it, especially in the past few decades, and to cover it would take me years of study and make this a very long series (longer than it will be anyway). The other is the fact that in biological terms, human biology is a very small part of biology, as any veterinarian will tell any medical doctor who cares to ask them. Human beings are one of possibly ten million multicellular species on earth (let alone those that are extinct, and not even looking at single celled species, which probably outnumber them by many orders of magnitude).

So let us begin by asking what is life? Is it something that, naively, we must think of as a different order of being than the inanimate? Many people even today think so. Some even think life presents physics a Hard Problem akin to the Hard Problem of Consciousness that some philosophers think challenges the view that everything is physical. Like most positions in history of ideas, this has deep roots. Nothing is new under the sun, as the Preacher noted. But there are new combinations of ideas, and occasionally something truly new does appear in the mix of issues and ideas we call science.

It is not necessarily the case that we have always separated humans from other life. Indeed, in most pre-urban societies, I believe that this has been quite the opposite, and is likely to have been the default view prior to the separation of intellectual society from subsistence foraging. In short, after the agricultural revolution in the Middle East around 12 thousand years ago, we started to see “nature” as something other than the human world. And we saw “life” as something we had in common with other beings, but which we added to with our mental capacities, a view that is only now starting to evaporate, at least in leading science if not philosophy and religion.

Living things are things which grow and reproduce, and this has been known since recorded ideas began. Animals (the very name gives it away – things that have anima, or moving powers) are able to exhibit motion and behaviours. This is the problem of biology – what makes living things live? Moreover, it is known that in reproduction, progeny resemble parents (mostly). This is what makes life interesting. Lava does not form very similar shapes. But children relive their parents. This is something all people know. For us to begin, this is enough. We will revisit the question of what life is later. In the meantime, I have some thoughts here, here and here.


Asimov, I. (1965). Short history of biology.

Bodenheimer, F. S. (1958). The history of biology: An introduction. London, Wm Dawson and Sons.

Harvey-Gibson, R. J. (1919). Outlines of the history of botany. London, Black.

Jacob, F. (1973). The logic of life: a history of heredity. New York, Pantheon Books.

Magner, L. N. (2002). A history of the life sciences. New York, Marcel Dekker, Inc.

Miall, L. C. (1911). History of Biology. London, Watts & Co.

Nordenskiöld, E. (1946). History of biology: a survey.

Overmier, J. A. (1989). The history of biology: a selected, annotated bibliography. New York, Garland Pub.

Sachs, J. V. (1890). History of Botany (1530-1860). Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Serafini, A. (1993). The epic history of biology. New York, Plenum.

Singer, C. J. (1959). A history of biology to about the year 1900: A general introduction to the study of living things. London, Abelard-Schuman.

Thomson, J. A. (1899). The science of life: an outline of the history of biology and its recent advances. London, Blackie.

5 thoughts on “The History of Life: Prelude

  1. This should be good.
    My brief excursions in Latin make me think that anima means lifeforce, soul or spirit. I think along the lines (probably misrepresented to me via a process like chinese whispers that seems to be the case of everything I’ve learnt of history via ) of Aristotle that all living things had some basic ‘soul’ (not that imaginary immortal soul, just more a living force), and hence animals or animate. Is that vitalism?

  2. Animals (the very name gives it away – things that have anima, or moving powers) are able to exhibit motion and behaviours.

    I am reading Timaeus, and was struck by how God creates the cosmos as an “animal” — but of course it is; it contains the moving circles of the stars and planets.

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