In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Natural History Tradition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals

Ecology The Natural History Tradition
Michael P. Branch, Johanna R. Landis, William V. Lombardi, Sarah Nolan, Andrew B. Ross
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0077


The natural history tradition emerged from ancient philosophy and over time became more scientifically oriented, eventually developing into an increasingly literary and aesthetic mode of engaging with the natural world. Observing, understanding, and representing nature are its scientific and artistic aims. In the ancient world, the study of natural history focused on humans’ material and spiritual relationships to nature and the environment. In recovering classical texts such as Ptolemy’s Geography and Aristotle’s Physics, Renaissance natural historians worked to advance the field through technological and scientific developments. The revival of classical thought was pervasive throughout the Renaissance, and texts that have revolutionized Western natural history rely heavily on these earlier works to frame their arguments. Natural history during the Enlightenment, in both Europe and America, was defined by the impulse to identify and taxonomize species, which resulted in natural history becoming more globally unified in its conventions and practices. Fueled by the novelty of North American plants, animals, and landscapes, early American naturalists utilized European natural history approaches to categorize their findings, yet American natural historians were more engaged with fieldwork than their European counterparts. Fieldwork fueled the growth of global species collection and exchange, as many American naturalists sent species abroad to patrons and scientific societies throughout Europe. Nineteenth-century natural history marked a moment in which the tradition began to shift from religiously driven studies of the natural world to increasingly scientific approaches. Subsequently, natural history further bifurcated into professionalized and amateur scientific study. Developing theories documenting the evolution of species and the process of natural selection emerged in the mid-19th century, further contributing to natural history’s split into specialized scientific study and the more literary, aestheticized genre of nature writing. Additionally, a latent nationalism undergirded many natural history projects during this period, especially among American naturalists responding to Old World paradigms. 20th-century natural history followed the trajectory of literary nature writing by recording observations in local environments, which in turn resulted in an increase in writing concerned with environmental protection and conservation. Throughout the trajectory of this tradition, natural history has focused on observing, ordering, and recording the natural world and the human relationship to it.

General Overviews

These texts provide critical introductions to and analyses of the field of natural history and its trajectory over time. Though not comprehensive in its scope, Smallwood 1967 is foundational to the development of the critical analysis of natural history. Jenkins 1978 and Patterson 2007, on the other hand, attempt to provide comprehensive coverage of natural historians and their works. Several of these texts, especially Bown 2002 and Farber 2000, place developments in natural history into historical and cultural contexts. Bates 1990 connects the natural history tradition to other fields of science, while Lyon 2001 links early American natural history with literary nature writing. Although many of these texts identify and analyze well-known figures and concepts in natural history, Edwards and De Wolfe 2001 brings to light the significant, yet often ignored, contributions of women to the field.

  • Bates, Marston. 1990. The nature of natural history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Defines natural history and explains how it relates to other areas of scientific study. Language and concepts are accessible to nonscientists.

  • Bown, Stephen R. 2002. The naturalists: Scientific travelers in the golden age of natural history. New York: Barnes & Noble.

    Focuses on 18th- and 19th-century British and American natural historians, including Alexander von Humboldt, William Bartram, and John Kirk Townsend. Places these naturalists’ work in the context of political, historical, economic, and cultural events to chart a trajectory of the field’s development.

  • Edwards, Thomas S., and Elizabeth A. De Wolfe, eds. 2001. Such news of the land: U.S. women nature writers. Hanover, NH: Univ. of New England Press.

    This collection of critical essays examines the contributions of women to the natural history and nature writing traditions. Essays employ literary, historical, and anthropological approaches to consider both specific authors and larger trends in women’s participation in and shaping of natural history writing.

  • Farber, Paul Lawrence. 2000. Finding order in nature: The naturalist tradition from Linnaeus to E. O. Wilson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Traces the development of the natural history tradition from the Enlightenment to the 20th century. Provides historical context for several facets of natural history, including classification systems, the rise of zoos and museums, and the theory of evolution. Geared toward a general reader.

  • Jenkins, Alan C. 1978. The naturalists: Pioneers of natural history. New York: Mayflower.

    Using both text and images, this book provides a comprehensive study of natural history in the Western world. Tracks the trajectory of changing attitudes toward the natural world as shaped by naturalists from Aristotle to 20th-century writers.

  • Lyon, Thomas J. 2001. This incomparable land: A guide to American nature writing. Minneapolis: Milkweed.

    Provides a detailed history of the genre (including helpful taxonomies and chronologies), from early European encounters with America to the late 20th century. Contextualizes and analyzes canonical figures including Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and John Burroughs.

  • Patterson, Daniel, ed. 2007. Early American nature writers: A biographical encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

    Profiles fifty-two early American nature writers and naturalists, including John and William Bartram, John James Audubon, and Henry David Thoreau. Also includes primary and secondary bibliographies on each featured author, as well as a “Further Reading” section.

  • Smallwood, William Martin. 1967. Natural history and the American mind. New York: AMS.

    Examines American natural science, its European roots, and the cultural context from which it grew. Although not comprehensive in its coverage, this foundational text gathers and analyzes some hitherto uncollected material on early American natural historians and their work. Reprint of 1941 edition.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.