Key Events in the History of Biological Study

Instructor: Meredith Mikell
The study of living things has a rich and exciting history. Here we will examine some of the key events in the history of biological study, their significance to the field, and the impacts of biological discoveries on humankind. At the end, you can test your knowledge with a brief quiz.

The Study of Living Things

We live on a planet covered in life, and humans have tried to understand how living things work for as long as we have been around. This knowledge has supported, and continues to support, our success as a species. Let's take a look at some of the highlights.

Ancient Biology

Greek philosophers were some of the first biologists in the west. The dialogue-based approach to education, which was the predominant means of academia at the time, forged some of the earliest means of scientific inquiry. In fact, the word biology actually comes from the Greek words, bios meaning life and logos meaning discourse!

Aristotle was one of these first biologists and pursued finding the core of human intelligence, which he concluded to be the heart. Although we now know this to be untrue, his process of study uncovered a multitude of understanding about the human body, and contributed significantly to early medicine.

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who studied human anatomy and marine science.

Aristotle also avidly studied marine animals, keen on classifying species and cataloging behaviors. His student, Theophrastus, tackled the botanical world by categorizing plants in his book, Enquiry into Plants. His work also collaborated with observations in Persia, the Middle East, and India, following the establishment of the Hellenistic Empire. These works, and those by others during this time, set a solid classification framework for other scientists to carry forward.

The Renaissance

At the crossroads of science and art are great minds, such as that of Leonardo da Vinci. His intrepid investigation of the human body through the dissection of cadavers led him to produce meticulously drawn illustrations of anatomical systems. These drawings not only advanced the field of biology, they also were invaluable to the field of medicine. Prior to da Vinci's illustrations, human anatomy diagrams were constructed using dissections of apes. In 1543, a Belgian medical student named Vesalius published De humani corporis fabrica (The Structure of the Human Body) using woodcut pictures to depict actual human anatomy, as opposed to that of other primates. This was controversial at the time, but a large step forward in biology and medicine.

Vitruvian Man, a famous work by Leonardo da Vinci, depicting the human body.
vitruvian man

17th and 18th Centuries

At this point in history, biological study primarily consisted of classifying organisms and understanding the human body on the macroscopic level. But the advent of the microscope opened up a whole new world of living things! The earliest microscopes were developed in the Netherlands in the late 16th century, but were extensively put to use throughout the 17th century when Robert Hooke identified the first cells by examining cork tissue. Dutch scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek identified single-celled eukaryotic organisms and many species of bacteria. Based off of these early observations of microorganisms, the scientific community believed that spontaneous generation was responsible for their existence.

A microscope developed by Hooke.

In the early 18th century, botanist Carl Linnaeus established the classification system that we use today in his work, Systema naturae (System of nature). This system of binomial nomenclature assigns a two-part name to species in which the genus name is capitalized and precedes the species epithet; both are italicized. For example, the scientific name for human beings is Homo sapiens. Linnaean classification follows the taxonomic categories: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. We now have added Domain as the largest category, before Kingdom. Classification of organisms can be a sticky and subjective process, and the framework was set primarily by Linnaeus and his contemporaries.

19th Century

Established scientific ideas are subject to revision and replacement as new evidence arises. This truth was particularly evident in the 19th century. French scientist Louis Pasteur performed experiments on the use of microorganisms in fermentation and early vaccination procedures, and invented the process of pasteurization, in which heat is used to kill microorganisms found in food products. In his studies, Pasteur disproved the notion of spontaneous generation, showing that microorganisms can only arise from other microorganisms.

Louis Pasteur refuted the notion of spontaneous generation while studying microorganisms.

Around the same time, British naturalist Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection in his work, On The Origin of Species, following his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle to the Galapagos Islands. He was not the first or only scientist to suggest evolution as the cause of biodiversity; Alfred Wallace had independently also proposed that evolution occurs as descent with modification. The theories of Darwin and Wallace were highly controversial at the time, but establishing the concept of evolution is considered to be the single most important contribution to the study of biology. These concepts were furthered by the works of Gregor Mendel on inheritance, for which he was considered the father of genetics.

Field notes by Charles Darwin on his theory of evolution by natural selection.

20th Century

The advancement of technology furthered biological research significantly into the 20th century, particularly with respect to understanding microbiology and genetics. In 1952, Rosalind Franklin discovered the molecular structure of the DNA double helix, though her male contemporaries Watson and Crick were credited with her discovery.

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