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OF all the studies which have employed the industrious or amused the idle, perhaps Natural History deserves the preference; other sciences generally terminate in doubt, or rest in bare speculation, but here
every step is marked with certainty, and while a description of the objects around us teaches to supply our wants, it satisfies our curiosity.
The multitude of Nature's productions, however, seems at first to bewilder the inquirer, rather than excite his attention; the various wonders of the animal, vegetable, or mineral world, seem to exceed all powers of computation, and the science appears barren from its amazing fertility. But a nearer acquaintance with this study, by giving method to our researches, points out a similitude in many objects which at first appeared different; the mind by degrees rises to consider the things before it in general lights, till at length it finds Nature, in almost every instance, acting with her usual simplicity.
Among the number of Philosophers, who undaunted by their supposed variety, have attempted to give a description of the productions of Nature, Aristotle deserves the first place. This great philosopher was furnished by his pupil Alexander, with all that the then known world could produce to complete his design. By such parts of his work as have escaped the wreck of time, it appears that he understood Nature more clearly, and in a more comprehensive manner than even the present age, enlightened as it is with so many later discoveries, can
boast. His design appears vast, and his knowledge extensive; he only considers things in general lights, and leaves every subject when it becomes too minute or remote to be useful. In his History of Animals, he first describes man, and makes him a standard with which to compare the deviations in every more imperfect kind that is to follow. But if he has excelled in the history of each, he, together with Pliny and Theophrastus, has failed in the exactness of their descriptions. There are many creatures described by those Naturalists of antiquity, which are so imperfectly characterized, that it is impossible to tell to what animal now subsisting we can refer the description. This is an unpardonable neglect, and alone sufficient to depreciate their merits, but their credulity and the mutilations they have suffered by time, have rendered them still less useful, and justify each subsequent attempt to improve what they have left behind. The most laborious, as well as the most voluminous Naturalist among the moderns is Aldrovandus. He was furnished with every requisite for making an extensive body of Natural History. He was learned and rich, and during the course of a long life indefatigable and accurate. But his works are insupportably tedious and disgusting, filled with unnecessary quotations and unimportant digressions. Whatever
learning he had he was willing should be known, and, unwearied himself, he supposed his readers could never tire; in short, he appears an useful assistant to those who would compile a body of Natural History, but is utterly unsuited to such as only wish to read it with profit and delight.
Gesner and Jonston, willing to abridge the voluminous productions of Aldrovandus, have attempted to reduce Natural History into method, but their efforts have been so incomplete as scarcely to deserve mentioning. Their attempts were improved upon some time after by Mr. Ray, whose method we have adopted in the History of Quadrupedes, Birds, and Fishes, which is to follow. No systematical writer has been more happy than he in reducing Natural History into a form, at once the shortest yet most comprehensive.
The subsequent attempts of Mr. Klein and Linnæus, it is true, have had their admirers, but as all methods of classing the productions of Nature are calculated merely to ease the memory and enlighten the mind, that writer who answers such ends with brevity and perspicuity is most worthy of regard. And in this respect Mr. Ray undoubtedly remains still without a rival; he was sensible that no accurate idea could be formed from a mere distribution ofanimals in particular classes ; he has therefore ranged them according to their most obvious qualities; and, content with brevity in his distribution, hasemployed accuracy only in the particular description of every animal. This intentional inaccuracy only in the general system of Ray, Klein and Linnæus have undertaken to amend, and thus by multiplying divisions, instead of impressing the mind with distinct ideas, they only serve to confound it, making the language of the science more difficult than even the science itself.
All order whatsoever is to be used for the sake of brevity and perspicuity; we have therefore followed that of Mr. Ray in preference to the rest, whose method of classing animals, though not so accurate, perhaps is yet more obvious, and being shorter, is more easily remembered. In his life time he published his Synopsis Methodica Quadrupedumet Serpentini Generis, and after his death there came out a posthumous work under the care of Dr. Derham, which, as the title page informs us, was revised and perfected before his death. Both the one and the
other have their merits, but as he wrote currente calamo, for subsistence, they are consequently replete with errors, and though his manner of treating Natural History be preferable to that of all others, yet there was still room for a new work, that might at once retain his excellences, and supply his deficiencies.
As to the Natural History of Insects, it has not been so long or so greatly cultivated as other parts of this science. Our own countryman Moufett is the first of any note, that I have met with, who has treated this subject with success.
However it was not till lately that it was reduced to a regular system, which might be in a great measure owing to the seeming insignificancy of the animals themselves; even though they were always looked upon as of great use in medicine, and upon that account only have been taken notice of by many medical writers. Thus Dioscorides has treated of their use in physic; and it must be owned, some of them have been well worth observation on this account. There were not wanting also those who long since had thoughts of reducing this kind of knowledge to a regular form, among whom was Mr. Ray, who was discouraged by the difficulty attending it; this study has been pursued of late, however, with diligence and success. Reaumur and Swammerdam have principally distinguished themselves on this account ; and their respective treatises plainly shew, that they did not spend their labour in vain. Sincetheir time several authors have published their Systems, among
whom is Linnæus, whose method being generally esteemed, I have thought proper to adopt. He has classed them in a very regular manner, though he says
but little of the Insects themselves. However, I have endeavoured to supply that defect from other parts of his works, and from other authors who have
written upon this subject; by which means it is hoped, the curiosity of such as delight in these studies, will be in some measure satisfied. Such of them as have been more generally admired, have been longest insisted upon, and particularly Caterpillars and Butterflies, relative to which, perhaps, there is the largest catalogue that has ever appeared in the English language.
Mr. Edwards and Mr. Buffon, one in the History of Birds, the other of Quadrupedes, have undoubtedly deserved highly of the public, as far as their labours have extended ; but as they have hitherto cultivated but a small part in the wide field of Natural History, a comprehensive system in this most pleasing science has been hitherto wanting. Nor is it a little surprising, when every other branch of litera. ture has been of late cultivated with so much success among us, how this most interesting department should have been neglected. It has been long obvious that Aristotle was incomplete, and Pliny credulous, Aldrovandus too prolix, and Linnæus too short to afford the proper entertainment, yet we have had no attempts to supply their defects, or to give an history of Nature at once complete and concise, calculated at once to please and improve.
How far the author of the present perforinance has obviated the wants of the public in these respects, is left to the world to determine; this much, however, he may without vanity assert, that whether the system here presented be approved or not, he has left the science in a better state than he found it. He has consulted every author whom he imagined might give him new and authentic information, and painfully searched throngh heaps of lumber to detect falsehood; so that many parts of the following work have exhausted much labour in the execution, though they may discover little to the superficial observer.