The Origins of Modern Knowledge and Understanding of the Natural World

I believe that we, as humans, are living in an amazing and exciting time in terms of knowledge and understanding of the natural world around us. Technology has been developed to allow for many complex investigations into the workings of the natural world and its many components, which grant us an insight into the relationships between species and their environment. There is still so much to learn, however we have come so far since wildlife was first observed.

Aristotle was one of the first people to study zoology in the way that we are familiar with, and some argue that his work was the emergence of the zoological sciences. He classified animals into those with blood, and those without (what we now call vertebrates and invertebrates), and ordered organisms in terms of their perfection (a concept that contributed to the scala naturae or the Great Chain of Being). Of course, now we understand that this is not at all a scientific method to organising life, however it demonstrates the foundations to developing the understanding of relationships between species.

A fine example of Aristotle’s initiative are (much to the interest of ornithologists) his investigations into stages of embryo development in bird’s eggs. He dissected eggs at different stages of development to try to understand the order by which different organs developed, proving previous theories that all of the organs were already there but just grew in size. He noticed that the heart was first to develop, however this is actually incorrect; what he was actually observing was the spinal cord, but his belief was that the most important organs develop first. He believed the heart was the ‘seat of thought’ (rather than the brain which we now know to be where thought processes occur) so to him the fact that it developed first was the most logical. Although there was this slight anatomical error, his theory of an ‘order of development’ was correct, and accepted centuries later as fact. Although this is incredible as it is, his real contributions to zoological science was his classification of animals into groups according to their behaviour and similarities in physiology. He did this through observation and dissection, and although now his classification seems confusing to modern zoologists, his systematic approach is very impressive accounting for the lack of equipment which he had.

William Turner MA was an English natural historian and early ornithologist, among other things, who published the Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est, brevis et succincta historia which both discussed principals made by Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, and also added accurate descriptions and behaviours of birds from his own studies. This was also the first book published that was solely dedicated to birds- pretty cool! This book was published in 1544, 473 years ago- how far we have come since then in our knowledge of wild birds is incredible. There are few speculations now about the lives of birds (although there are still many un-investigated species), with the dawn of technology such as satellite tags and the ability for us ourselves to travel across the globe to understand changes in population due to migration.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology utilise citizen science on a large scale, with data collected from citizen scientists all over America. According to the Lab’s website, ‘more than 400,000 people contribute to the Cornell Lab’s citizen science projects each year’; that is such an amazing statistic! This data can then be used by the scientists and researchers based at the Lab to determine the effects of habitat loss, pollution, and disease on wild bird populations within the U.S. What makes this relationship between bird enthusiasts and scientists even more interesting is that the findings from investigations where data was collected through citizen observations can be found on the Lab’s website. My favourite feature which demonstrates just how extensive the citizen science data is collected by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the eBird Range Map. eBird is an initiative like the UK’s Birdtrack, and the data collected allows everyone to see the distribution (global) of individual species.

To think that humans have come from speculating on the activities of wild birds to knowing global distributions at the click of a button is mind boggling. As a young naturalist myself, I can’t imagine a world without the information we have, and feel excited to be a part of the conservation and further research taken as a result of these data sets. I hope that other young people reading this article also feel this way, and please do check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website to see more of their work. The recipient of the Cameron Bespolka Young Birder’s Scholarship to visit the Lab this year will get to see first-hand some of the exciting projects being worked on currently. When I visited last year I was taken aback by the awesome Macualay Library of natural history audio, video and photographs- started by Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Arthur Augustus Allen, and now added to by citizen scientists across the world, this is yet another tool from the Cornell Lab which is vital for research worldwide. I wonder what Aristotle would think were he alive to see the studies of wild birds now…


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