Ento. 101: Prelude

(Edited 8 November, 2013)

I have included a history section in my course because I think history is important, and because all too many text books in the sciences fail to show how our knowledge today was built up on what others have done in the past.

The following sub-sections of ‘Ento. 101 Who?’ dealing with the history of entomology were not as easy as I imagined they would be. What was to be a brief overview quickly found me bogged down in history – a sweet bog, but disorderly. As far as I could determine, a thorough, systematic history of entomology has not been covered  in any way – anywhere – offline or on. Few courses or textbooks that I came across even broach the subject and a search on the web does not improve matters. Search “History of Entomology” and most results return either 19th century texts or references to parochial entomologists. To get clues for a better understanding of the entomological big-guns of ages past, I had to begin at the Timeline of Entomology at Wikipedia and the 1829 edition of the London Encyclopaedia, Vol. VIII.

I have broken this ‘Ento. 101. Who?’ section up into 4 subsections, just to help me get on with it without faltering for too long between posts. The prelude (below) will briefly cover the vague beginnings of humanity’s interest in insects. The next subsection (almost complete) will cover over 2000 years of history since Aristotle, showing the roots of scientific entomology. The third subsection, from the 18th century to  the end of the 19th century will be more general, dealing with the wave of entomologists involved in systematics and classification and on to those who began to make new discoveries in the areas of behaviour, distribution and evolution. The final subsection will cover the discoveries of the 20th century to the present, and I may delay this subsection until later when I have a better grasp of modern entomology. And, as is usual, the parameters of any section or subsection may change at anytime as I learn more!


Egyptian faience scarab, 712-342 B.C.E.

i. The Prelude – before Aristotle

Before humankind was capable of documenting anything, we were likely, as hunter-gatherers, to have developed a good understanding of what insects were good to eat, what insects provided food indirectly (such as bees) and what insects to avoid due to painful or even deadly consequences. We can imagine that we could  identify the various insect pests that lived on our bodies and began crawling through our hair. In the agricultural stage of humanity’s development we would have been concerned with the pests that infested grain or vegetables and those that damaged fruit trees and fruit. Before long we were using bugs to make textiles, dye fabric and to provide medicine . All which goes to say that the first undocumented interest that humankind took in insects actually a sort of applied entomology.

Besides practical reasons, insects also became sources of inspiration for art and religion. Beetle elytra in particular were for decoration and in Egypt  the Scarab was linked to Kephri, the god of the rising sun.

In the next section of Ento. 101 Who? I will  look to when we first began documenting an empirical interest in insects  – and for that we must to Aristotle.

Next: Ento. 101 Who?- II – Aristotle to the end of the 17th century.


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