Historiography and the Cultural Study of Nineteenth-Century Biology

Historians, the good ones, mark a century by intellectual and social boundaries rather than by the turn of the calendar page. Only through fortuitous accident might occasions of consequence occur at the very beginning of a century. Imaginative historians do tend, however, to invest a date like 1800 with powers that attract events of significance. It is thus both fortunate and condign that Abiology@ came to linguistic and conceptual birth with the new century. Precisely in 1800, Karl Friedrich Burdach, a romantic naturalist, suggested that his coinage Biologie be used to indicate the study of human beings from a morphological, physiological, and psychological perspective.i Many other neologisms of the period (and Burdach issued quite a few) were stillborn or survived only for a short while. Biologie, though, fit the time, and with slight adjustment received its modern meaning two years later at the hands of the Naturphilosoph Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus. In his multi-volume treatise Biologie, oder Philosophie der lebenden Natur (1802-1822), Treviranus announced: AThe objects of our research will be the different forms and manifestations of life, the conditions and laws under which these phenomena occur, and the causes through which they have been effected. The science that concerns itself with these objects we will indicate by the name biology [Biologie] or the doctrine of life [Lebenslehre].@ii Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, also in 1802, employed the term with comparable intention.iii In the work of both of these biologists, the word became immediately associated with the theory of the transmutation of speciesCa new term in recognition of the new laws of life. Treviranus thought the progressive deposition of fossils..
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