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Title: Natural history
Original Title: Histoire naturelle
Volume and Page: Vol. 8 (1765), pp. 225–230
Author: Unknown
Translator: Marc Olivier [Brigham Young University,]; Valerie Mariana [Brigham Young University,]
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): "Natural history." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Marc Olivier and Valerie Mariana. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2015. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Histoire naturelle," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 8. Paris, 1765.
Citation (Chicago): "Natural history." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Marc Olivier and Valerie Mariana. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2015. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Histoire naturelle," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 8:225–230 (Paris, 1765).

Natural history. The object of Natural history is as vast as nature: it includes all beings that live on the earth, that fly in the air, or that dwell in the depths of the waters; all the beings that cover the face of the earth; and all those hidden in its deepest recesses. Natural history, in its broadest sense, would encompass the entire universe; since stars, air, and meteors are included in nature, as is the terrestrial globe; and thus, one of the greatest philosophers of antiquity, Pliny, authored a Natural history under the title, history of the world, historia mundi. But the more we have gained knowledge, the more we have been driven, and even compelled, to divide it into different branches of Science. This division is not always exact, because the Sciences are not sufficiently distinct as to have no relation to one another—they unite and overlap in many points, either in generalities or in details.

Astronomy, which seems quite separate from Natural history based on the ideas that we have today of those two sciences, nevertheless is connected by the theory of the earth and would be even more closely connected if the telescope and other telescopic lenses were as effective as the microscope—this wondrous instrument that makes us discern things as inaccessible to our sight by their infinite smallness as those at a great distance. And so, if ever we were to succeed in seeing the constituent parts of the planets distinctly enough to approximate their shape, their movement, their changes, their form, etc., we soon would have the basics of their Natural history ; it would likely be very different from that of our globe, but an understanding of the one would not be unproductive for the other. It is sufficient to indicate the relation that Natural history can have with Astronomy; however, it would be chasing illusions to pursue this topic. Let us not leave our globe, it has been the cradle of many other sciences that have more to do with Natural history than does Astronomy, and it is not so easy to recognize the boundaries that separate them.

Animals, vegetables, and minerals constitute the three main parts of Natural history; these parts are of the focus of several sciences that stem from Natural history, like branches from the trunk of a tree. Let us observe this scientific tree and see what degree of strength the trunk gives to each of its branches.

The description of nature’s works forms the foundation of its history; this is the only way to distinguish each one in particular and to give a correct idea of their formation. There are two types of descriptions: incomplete and complete. In the first type, one’s only goal is to specify the characteristics of each thing until it is distinguished from others; this description is nothing more than a designation, most often quite dubious, no matter the method used to express the distinctive characteristics of each object. The works of nature are too numerous and too varied—most are only differentiated by such imperceptible nuances that one cannot hope to represent them with words, and such a portrait is most often inaccurate. As proof of this fact, one need only glance at the systems of nomenclature that have been constructed in Natural history —they are all flawed. Nevertheless, if we were to skim through the list of the authors of those systems, we cannot doubt that they would have produced accurate ones if it were possible to attain this degree of perfection in descriptions whose only object is nomenclature and which are concerned only with parts of each object. Complete descriptions reveal all objects in their entirety and not only make them unequivocally recognizable but indicate the relation between their constituent parts.

In this perspective, descriptions include the interior parts of each object as well as the exterior; they express, as much as possible, the proportions of shape and weight, the dimensions of area, and all qualities that can provide a correct idea of the formation of the principal parts of each thing. By such descriptions, one can compare one object to another and evaluate the resemblance and dissimilarity found in their conformation. One can recognize the different means that nature employs to produce the same effect, and one arrives at general conclusions, which are the most precious facts for Natural history.

The naturalist considers something only to compare it to other things; he prefers to observe the characteristics of each thing that distinguishes it from others, and he does his best to see the progression of nature in its works. The anatomist, on the contrary, contemplates each thing in and of itself. He closely observes each one of its parts in order to discover those that are least apparent, and he uses all of his abilities to identify the first material agents and all of the mechanisms that nature uses to move animate bodies.

Thus far, Anatomy has had nearly no focus apart from man, who is clearly its principal consideration, but the human body does not contain all the types of mechanisms present in the animal kingdom. In animals, there are different configurations than in man, and they have more developed parts. By comparing them to each other and to man, we will better understand man in particular and the mechanics of nature in general. This is the grand object of Comparative anatomy, which has a more immediate relation to Natural history than simple Anatomy. From the latter, one can only make observations relating to detail, whereas the former yields general results and facts that constitute the corpus of the Natural history of animals.

Medicine is a branch of Natural history derived partially from Anatomy. We will never have a good theory in Medicine unless we manage to make a corpus of Natural history, for we will never know the inner workings of man if we do not know the different conformations of animals. We would make much more rapid progress in practical medicine than we have thus far by establishing Comparative medicine and Comparative surgery for animals as a Comparative anatomy.

Botany is one of the principal and most extensive branches of Natural history , but in skimming the works of Botanists, one sees that this branch has been reduced by an excessive ramification that robs it of almost all of its substance. The nomenclature of plants, which is but a little part of their Natural history, seems to have been the main focus of Botanists. They have only applied themselves in most cases to the fabrication of names. See Botany. The meaning of names and the explanation of terminology are at the base of all the sciences. These fundamentals are perhaps more necessary in Botany than in all other sciences because the number of plants is so great that without this precaution there would necessarily be ambiguities and error in the application of their names. It would therefore be necessary for Botany to have a vocabulary that encompasses the names and complete descriptions of all known plants, which would serve as an interpreter for all authors. Whatever method one were to use for the organization of such a work, it would be more useful than all of the systems that have ever been created for the methodic distribution of plants. By means of the complete descriptions contained in this vocabulary, we would assuredly find in it the name of all plants that we would encounter. We have not been able to do this with the methods of nomenclature, because they contain only incomplete descriptions that are insufficient for recognizing all of the plants described by those methods. It may also be that once this vocabulary has been established, it would force Botanists to renounce their chimerical claim of following in their systems the unintelligible order of nature, which can only be understood by the Creator.

By reducing the nomenclature of plants to its proper limits, relative to the rest of Botany, we will see that the most difficult and important part of this science is not to name plants, but to understand their properties, to know how to cultivate useful ones, to destroy those which are harmful, and to observe their conformation and all the parts that make up the plant kingdom. This is how far Botany and the Natural history of plants reach. Thus, Botany contains a great part of medical topics that are contained in their entirety in General natural history, since this science includes not only plants but also all animals and minerals that have medicinal properties. These properties are so precious that Naturalists must join all of their knowledge with that of Doctors in order to discover the properties. Thus far, chance has played a greater role than the light of the human mind, but in performing experiments on animals, in subjecting them to the effects of certain plants, we would find in these plants properties beneficial to man. This discovery would be far less difficult, if only we had the elements of a comparative medicine established on animals in both a state of health and a state of illness. Oh, what new properties would we not have discovered in plants relative to the Arts if the Botanists had spent the time in experimentation that they have spent in appellation! The things whose properties are known will not lack in names; country folk know the names of all the plants that help or hurt them, and they know them better than the Botanists, being nearly the only ones who are concerned with their cultivation.

The first ideas humans had about Natural history were, without a doubt, those of Agriculture and of the raising of animals. We started with the cultivation of plants and the breeding of animals that could be used for food. After providing for our necessities, we applied ourselves to research that resulted in the birth of the sciences. After much work and meditation, and with the passage of centuries, we elevated these sciences to a high degree of perfection. It is surprising that in the face of so many and varied discoveries, Agriculture has made little progress. See Botany. We plow and sow more or less in the same manner as we did centuries ago; nevertheless, one cannot doubt that there exist more fruitful methods of plowing and sowing. The art of forestation has only become known in our time. What research could be more important than that which contributes to the fertility of the earth, and the multiplication of the basic necessities of men! Those are the topics most worthy of Naturalists, of the learned of any kind, and of good citizens. Therefore we cannot applaud enough the efforts of those who spend their time researching the nature of soils, bettering the plough, preserving grains, purifying or protecting seeds from disease, raising up forests, naturalizing foreign trees, etc.

Agriculture has details that deserve the attention of Botanists, the knowledge of which they can perfect through their general knowledge of plants with greater success than people whose knowledge is limited to their own field. The cultivation of vegetables and fruit trees and the art of grafting are worthy of a Botanist’s attention, as it is possible to vary production and to increase through cultivation our collection of riches in this domain. We can alter the properties of vegetables to the point of making them better and different from themselves in several aspects: we can create fruit that has never before grown on earth. The nomenclators of Botany will say, “Batavia lettuce is no more than a variety of wild lettuce and Cressan pears are nothing but a variety of wild pear.” But these varieties are real goods for which we should thank the hard-working and inventive men who have procured them for us; whereas the systematic appellation of a useless plant is in itself but vain knowledge and the definition of a new kind of plant is but an illusion.

The cultivation of ornamental flowers and trees belongs to Botany, as do the other parts of Agriculture, and may have its own kind of usefulness independent of the innocent amusement that it provides. Florists know how to distinguish from among tulips of different colors, they recognize those whose seeds will produce variegated tulips, and they anticipate the changes in color that will occur each year in those breeds. If we had thoroughly studied this successive order of natural tints in flowers and if we had carefully observed the leaves of holly and of other trees with variegated leaves, we would be able to extract new ideas for the mixing of colors in the arts, for the changing of those colors, for the fading of their tints, etc. Such knowledge would be all the more certain because it would correspond to the operations of nature. The cultivation of flowers requires great care and attention. One must be attentive to the nature of each plant in order to prevent the diseases to which it is subject and in order to prevent the plant from deteriorating. That done, one is able to recognize, so to speak, the different qualities of their temperament, their hereditary diseases, and other specifics of the plant kingdom.

Knowledge of that kingdom is the highest goal of Botany. In order to reach that goal, it was necessary to start with a detailed examination of all the parts of plants; this is a kind of anatomy more simple than that of animals, but which requires the same degree of meticulous attention to research and the same precision in its procedures. Some great observers have made rapid progress. The invention of the microscope gave them the means to discover the least visible parts of plants. Through the anatomical exposition of all plants, or at least those that differ in their conformation, we would shed new light on the mechanism of vegetation. We have already made great discoveries regarding the development of seeds, the growth of plants, the suction of roots and leaves, the flow and evaporation of sap, the reproduction of vegetables, etc. However, there is still much knowledge to be desired in all areas of Botany. All such knowledge must contribute to the advancement of the science of the vegetable economy; even though it is less complicated than the animal, it has thus far been no better developed. The more these two sciences advance, the more we will find connections between them. We already know that bones are formed by periosteum, like wood by bark. We can compare the sap of plants to the blood of animals, or at least to the liquid that replaces it in those creatures that do not have blood. Plants take their food by the suction of roots and leaves, just as animals do by their mouths or by the sucking parts that serve as mouths. Plants have digestions, secretions, evacuations, etc. They have distinct sexes as manifest in the organs involved in forming, fertilizing and nourishing the embryos which are the seeds of plants. And finally, the polyp has as much in common with plants as with animals.

Animals and plants have much more in common with one another than they do with minerals. The structure of minerals is simpler; their makeup is less complex. Consequently, it is easier to describe them and to distinguish them from one another in order to create an overview of their Natural history. The body of this History consists in the description of mineral formation, and it is inseparable from the theory of the earth, as we owe the name mineral to all the parts that compose the globe. The Natural history of minerals includes the enumeration of their uses and of their properties as well, but their exact definition can only be found through Chemistry.

This science begins where Natural history ends. The naturalist searches for all of nature’s works at its very heart: he cautiously lifts the veil that covers them; he observes them with an attentive eye, without daring accost them with reckless hand; if obligated to touch them, he always fears deforming them; if forced to penetrate the interior of a body, he dissects it with regret; and he only destroys its unity in order to better understand its bonds and to have a complete idea of its inner structure as well as its outer form. The chemist, however, only sees the workings of nature in the processes of art: he decomposes all natural productions, he dissolves them, he breaks them, and he subjects them to fire in order to displace even the smallest molecules of which they are made in order to discover their elements and their first principles.

Blessed is the century in which the sciences are sufficiently perfected as to make each part of Natural history the object of other sciences, all of which contribute to the happiness of man. There is reason to believe that Natural history has been the basis of all of these sciences and that it preceded them, but its origin is hidden in the mists of time.

In the present century, the science of Natural history is more cultivated than ever. Not only do most educated people study it seriously or as a hobby, but there is also a taste for this science in the general public which every day is becoming stronger and more widespread. Of all those who work on Natural history or who study these matters, only some observe the works of nature and reflect upon their observations: their goal is to perfect science and to know truth. Others gather the same works of nature and admire them: their goal is to exhibit all those wonders and to see that they are admired. The latter group contributes perhaps just as much to the advancement of Natural history as the former, since its members facilitate observation by assembling the works of nature in those cabinets that multiply day by day, not only in our capitals, but also in the provinces of all the states of Europe.

The great number of these cabinets of Natural history clearly demonstrates the public’s taste for this science; these cabinets can only be formed by painful research and at considerable expense, for the price of natural curiosities is presently quite high. Such a use of time and money presupposes a desire for knowledge in Natural history, or at least a desire to exhibit one’s taste for this science, which is affirmed by example or emulation. In the last century and in the beginning of this century, there were many more coin cabinets than now: today, we prefer to assemble cabinets of Natural history rather than cabinets of experimental physics. If this trend continues, many people may one day prefer cabinets of Natural history to large libraries. But everything is subject to vicissitude, and the empire of fashion extends even to the sciences: the taste for the abstract sciences succeeded the taste for the sciences of antiquity; after that, experimental physics was more cultivated than the abstract sciences; presently, Natural history interests the public more than experimental physics and any other science. But will the reign of Natural history also come to an end?

This science will necessarily last as long as the physical sciences, since Natural history forms their foundation and gives knowledge of their materials. Its aim is as curious as it is important: the study of nature is as appealing as its works are wondrous. Natural history is inexhaustible; it is equally capable of challenging the brightest minds and of entertaining and amusing those who are occupied with other responsibilities and those who are trying to avoid the boredom of an idle life. Natural history keeps such people occupied with amusing, simple, interesting, and varied research with readings that are as pleasing as they are instructive. Natural history provides exercise for both body and mind; we are surrounded by the works of nature of which we ourselves are the most beautiful part. One can undertake the study of this science at all times, at all places, and at all ages. With so many advantages, Natural history, once understood, must always be honored and sustained. The more dedicated we are to its study, the more attractive it will become. This science will make great progress throughout our century, since public taste is drawn to it and since example and emulation, combined with pleasure and use, ensure the advancement of Natural history .

In the abstract sciences, for example in Metaphysics, one solitary man endowed with superior genius can advance at great leaps—with no outside help—because he can take from his own mind the facts and results, the principles, and the consequences that establish the science. But in the physical sciences, and especially in Natural history, one gathers facts only through long and difficult observations: the number of necessary facts for this science surpasses the immense number of nature’s works. One man alone is therefore incapable of such a grand work. Several men over the course of a century or all the inhabitants of a nation would not suffice. It is only through the cooperation of several nations over centuries of time that it is possible to gather the materials of the History of Nature. While a crowd of observers assembles them over time, a few great geniuses appear and organize them, but they are few and far between. Those great men are too rare! Blessed is the century that produces one of them in its course! Even then, the success of his meditations depends on the accuracy of facts assembled by the observers who preceded him, and the merit of his works may be erased by future observations. The greatest work of the human mind is to combine known facts, to extract correct results, and to imagine a system that conforms to the facts. This system appears to be the system of nature, because it includes all of the knowledge we have of nature; however, a newly discovered fact changes the order of things, nullifies the conclusions, destroys the preceding system, and gives new ideas for a new system whose own sturdiness depends on the number of or the importance of the facts that form its base. But we must not believe that we will never have a true system because we will never gather all of the facts; the principal ones are sufficient to guarantee the truth of a system and to insure its durability.

We have in Natural history fairly good works of descriptions, observations, and systems that can facilitate a profound study of this science; however, there are many books from which to choose, and it is very advantageous to follow a good method in the study we intend to make, as much by reading books as by inspecting the works of nature. We will never know a nation as well by reading the best history book that could be written about it as we would by living among that nation and by observing for ourselves its genius, its customs, and by witnessing its government. So it is with Natural history : the most precise descriptions, the finest observations, the most ingenious systems do not give as accurate an idea of nature’s products as does the presence of the real objects. But we cannot see, observe, and ponder everything. Philosophers cover this lack. They guide us; they enlighten us by systems founded on specific observations, built by the force of their genius. In order to understand and judge these systems, in order to know of their error or truth, in order to see in them the image of nature, one must have seen nature itself. One who looks at nature for the first time through the eyes of a naturalist will be astonished at the immense number of its works and will become lost in their variety. But who would dare undertake to visit the entire surface of the earth in order to see the products of each climate and each country? Who would commit to descend into the depths of all quarries and mines, to climb all the highest peaks, and to sail all of the seas? Such obstacles would discourage the most enterprising and would force them to give up on the study of Natural history.

But we have found the means to shrink and flatten the surface of the earth for the benefit of Naturalists. We have assembled individuals of each species of animals and plants and samples of minerals in cabinets of Natural history. In them, we see the productions of all the countries of the world—an abridgment of all nature so to speak. Its works present themselves in multitude to the eyes of the observer. He can approach, without pain or fear, the wildest and most ferocious of animals; birds stand still; and the spoils of the rivers and seas are spread everywhere. We see even the smallest insects; we discover the internal formation of animals by considering the skeletons and other internal parts of their bodies; we simultaneously see the roots, the leaves, the flowers, the fruits, and the seeds of plants; and we have pulled minerals from the bowels of the earth for display. Whoever is filled with a desire to learn, must in this regard consider himself fortunate to live in a century so favorable to the sciences, and he will feel imbued with a newfound zeal for the History of Nature.

We can gain a rudimentary understanding of this science in the cabinets of Natural history , but we will never acquire a full knowledge there because we cannot see nature there in its living and active form. Whatever care is given to the appearance of animal cadavers and remains, they are but a feeble representation of living animals. Can we compare dried plants to those that embellish our countryside with the beauty of their leaves, flowers, and fruit? Minerals are better maintained in cabinets than vegetables and animals, but there is such a small sample of each mineral that one cannot appreciate the immense volume of rocks, earth, metals, etc., nor can one appreciate their position or composition. The naturalist can therefore see but a sketch of nature in cabinets of Natural history, but one that is sufficient to give him an overview and guide him in selecting the objects of his research. After considering them in cabinets, it is appropriate to learn the description and history of objects from a well-chosen book before observing them in their natural setting. This preliminary study facilitates observation and makes one notice many things that would go unnoticed at first sight. Once we have observed a few objects in their entirety and in their natural setting, we must return to books, and read a second time the articles related to the things just seen. Upon this second reading, we are in a better state to understand the true meaning of passages that might have seemed unclear or ambiguous. Next, upon returning to the cabinets, we gain even more light on the same things; there, we can see them presented or prepared in a manner that reveals features that are not apparent in their natural state and original environment. This is the place we must preferably frequent as often as possible, in order to see the same things in different times, under different conditions, and from different points of view in relation to the object of our study and the things associated with or surrounding it.

The principal facts of Natural history are built on the relations between things and on the differences and similarities found between the products of nature. The naturalist must compare them to each other, observing their properties and conformation. He must distance them or bring them closer together in order to recognize the substance and the essential and characteristic form of each material being. He can only achieve his goal by making long and difficult combinations, which will always be faulty if he only takes into account the relation that one product of nature has with all other products. These combinations are the object of meditation for naturalists, and they determine the specific method that each author adopts in the composition of his books and the order that we follow for the arrangement of a cabinet of Natural history. But this art of combining and this ill-conceived methodic order are pitfalls that are difficult for beginners to avoid and which they can only escape with great effort once they have committed themselves. This is a tempting pitfall: we want to trace in a book the order of nature and the nuances of its creations, and by distributing them in a cabinet, we claim to follow that order and to conform to a natural system, believing we have arrived at the highest point of perfection. Indeed we would have, if this system truly conformed to that of nature. I do not know if the human mind is capable of such a discovery, at least it appears to be far from it. Thus far, we have made but a brief part of the observations that must precede such a discovery. We have been content to combine the characteristics taken from differences and similarities found in the products of nature as considered from only one of their constituent parts or properties. We have consequently made methodical divisions and distributions of all of nature’s works, whereas we should observe each of these beings in its entirety and in each of its parts, compare each aspect between them, and make all the remaining necessary combinations to obtain general results that would embrace and make manifest the order of nature. See Method .

All methodic division that is only founded on particular results is therefore faulty and may be proven wrong by new and more elaborate combinations and by more general results. In the study of Natural history, we must not rely too much either on the reading of books or the viewing of cabinets: they only present us with a poorly formed image, since the objects of nature are badly distributed therein. Nevertheless, it is a great advantage to see these objects assembled. Their distribution, although basically incorrect, is based on combinations and results that teach us the relations that various parts of some of nature’s products have among themselves; furthermore, these methodic divisions ease the memory and seem to clear up the chaos caused by the works of nature when we look at them with confusion. But, we must never forget that these systems are founded entirely upon the arbitrary conventions of men and that they do not correspond with the unchangeable laws of nature. If we followed them with blind trust, they would lead to error at every step. They are but unfaithful guides, which we must leave behind as soon as we have gained enough light to direct ourselves.