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All cultures depend on the natural world—plants and animals, the weather, the sun and the sea— for their sustenance. Likewise, each culture has creation stories that classify and provide ethical concepts about its place in the natural world. But not all cultures embody the multitude of universal laws, physical matter, and forms of life on Earth as Western culture does, and attempt to express it all as a single concept called nature.

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The cultural historian Raymond Williams, in his book Keywords, traces the changes in usage of the word nature in the English language from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century. He concludes that nature “is perhaps the most complex word in the language” (Williams 1976, 184).

Scholars who study the history of concepts of nature often point to Asian cultures such as China and Japan to make the distinction between Eastern and Western concepts of nature. In their essay collection, Asian Perceptions of Nature, Ole Bruun and Arne Kalland find that no Asian culture has a single term that encapsulates all of nature. Kalland and S. N. Eisenstadt say that among the Japanese, “reality is structured in shifting contexts and even in discrete ontological [relating to existence] entities, as opposed to the absolutist Western approach” (Bruun and Kalland 1995, 11). Likewise, when a researcher asked villagers in Sri Lanka if they had one word “which means things such as forests, wild animals, trees, birds, grass and flowers,” responses varied, including “thick jungle,” “sanctuary,” and “all sentient beings” (Bruun and Kalland 1995, 153).

The literature on the etymology of the word nature is complicated. A Documentary History of Primitivism, Arthur O. Lovejoy’s study of nature in Greek and Roman history, outlines the birth of the concept. The word natura meant “genesis, birth, origin.” The Greek poet Homer (c. 700 BCE), in providing a physical description of an herb, also provided its character, its “nature.” To the Greek dramatist Aeschylus (524– 456 BCE), “nature” referred to visible characteristics that are assumed to be innate. The contrast between reality (nature) and appearance occurred as well. For example, the pre-Socratic philosophers distinguished between the appearance of a couch and the true nature of a couch—the wood from which it is constructed. During this period people also came to think of nature as the entire cosmic system and its laws.

The English writer C. S. Lewis in his Studies in Words writes: “A comparatively small number of speculative Greeks invented Nature—Nature with a capital.” This invention required “taking all things they knew or believed in—gods, men, animals, plants, minerals, what you will—and impounding them under a single name; in fact, of regarding Everything as a thing, turning this amorphous and heterogeneous collection into an object or pseudo-object” (Lewis 1967, 35, 37). Clarence Glacken, in his Traces on the Rhodian Shore, reviews the force of the design argument in the history of nature from its emergence as early as the Greek historian Herodotus (484–425 BCE) through the seventeenth century CE. Conceptions of the “purposefulness in the creation—that it was the result of intelligent, planned, and well-thought-out acts of a creator,” including a sense of the fitness of nature to human needs, have been important in Western constructions of nature (Glacken 1967, 39).

From its beginning then the word nature referred to the whole material world and to intrinsic form and creative forces. One meaning of the word nature was enfolded within another. During the fourteenth century nature as “the essential quality or character of something” took on the additional sense of “inherent force.” By the seventeenth century nature as the material world overlapped with nature as intrinsic form and creative forces. Thus, nature, which refers to a “multiplicity of things and creatures, may carry an assumption of something common to all of them” (Williams 1976, 185).

People also personify and abstract nature. The ancient Greek philosophers, taking a stance that was common in paganism at the time, believed that the natural world is alive, an all-encompassing animal with both mind and soul, binding animals (including humans) and plants in intellectual, psychic, and physical kinship. Plato (428/7–348/7 BCE) in his Timaeus conceived of the soul as female. Lovejoy suggests that the Roman orator Cicero (106–43 BCE) propelled the concept of nature as goddess from the Greeks into the eighteenth century. On the other hand, Carolyn Merchant, in The Death of Nature, traces the tradition from the Neoplatonism (Platonism modified in later antiquity to accord with Aristotelian, post-Aristotelian, and Eastern conceptions) of the Roman philosopher Plotinus (204–270 CE) to twelfth-century Christianity, which placed a female nature “as more powerful than humans, but . . . subordinate to God” (Merchant 1980, 10). Nature personified as female contains a good deal of ambiguity, being seen as chaotic and destructive, as innocent and tainted, and as an expression of the divine order. C. S. Lewis argued that this personification of nature as female has been the most difficult to overcome, but many environmental historians say the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the time when nature was most rigidly confined and its long history of vitalism (a doctrine that the functions of an organism are caused by a vital principle distinct from physicochemical forces) reduced.

Nature in Modern Times

Carolyn Merchant locates “the death of nature” in the rise of mechanical philosophy. Such thinking is associated with the philosophers Francis Bacon (1561– 1626) in England and Rene Descartes (1597–1650) in France. These men, critical of organic worldviews in which the world is personified as a forceful, living body, viewed nature as passive, inert matter that is acted upon by physical laws that are set in motion by a clockmaker deity. One result of the Scientific Revolution was that female nature was transformed “from an active teacher and parent . . . [to] a mindless, submissive body.” That body was submissive first to God and then through God to humankind (Merchant 1980, 190).

Natural historians, strongly influenced by the explanatory power of mathematics and physics, continued to search for stable order in the rapidly increasing numbers of animals and plants that resulted from the voyages of discovery from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. The Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) created the first universally accepted system for organizing the members of living nature in an arrangement that apparently revealed God’s design. Continuing a Greek tradition, however, Linnaeus viewed change in nature as fundamentally cyclical, always returning to the same starting point.

Mechanical philosophy located nature in mathematically based laws that play out in the physical world, in which the Earth can be understood through “a series of deductions from abstract premises” with little consideration for final causes and less interest in the abundance of life (Glacken 1967, 406). Although Linnaeus participated in the urge to render a nature ordered by abstract laws, he also inspired the rise of natural history by giving naturalists tools to organize their botanical discoveries. The obsession with documenting and organizing the abundance of life derives as well from a group of writers, many of them influenced by Linnaeus, who returned to classical ideas of organic nature, argued for final causes and design in nature, and sought them in observations of the sensory world. The Englishman John Ray (1627–1705), the leading natural theologian, in his The Wisdom of God in the Works of Creation (1691), emphasized the interrelatedness of animals, plants, and habitats as evidence of a wise creator. Naturalists who came later continued to investigate the intricacies of relationships in nature even as they moved away from the argument from design.

One of the most persistent characteristics of nature throughout the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries was the law of subordination. Lovejoy, in his The Great Chain of Being, outlines the belief that the deity appointed each species a fixed place in an eternal chain of being from the lowliest maggot through humans to God. The task of natural history was to fit new discoveries into the appropriate link in the chain. The environmental historian Donald Worster, in his Nature’s Economy, traces the history of nature as both a sacred and an economic system from the Greek word for “house” (oikos) through its amplification to refer to household management, the political “oeconomy” of human societies, and nature’s economy. Thus, Linnaeus, in his essay, “The Oeconomy of Nature” (1749), describes nature as the “earth household” in which God is the “Supreme Economist” who rationally ordered the cosmos and “the housekeeper who kept it functioning productively” (Worster 1985, 37).

By the beginning of the nineteenth century two scientists—the English geologist Charles Lyell (1797– 1875) and the German geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859)—began a discovery process that swept away the singular chain and the stable taxonomy (scientific classification) and led to questions about the role of a designing deity. In their footsteps walked the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809– 1882), who discovered a basic key to understanding the history of nature. Benefiting from Lyell’s understanding of the age of the Earth’s crust and its history of sometimes-violent change and from Humboldt’s discoveries of geographical diversity and mutual dependency in plant groupings, Darwin sailed to the New World, arriving in 1835 at the Galapagos Islands, an isolated archipelago off the coast of Ecuador in South America. The creatures that he saw there were very like and yet very different from South American species. His observations led him to develop the theory that isolation, chance migration, and fit with a specific environment lead to the evolution of new species.

The English economist Thomas Malthus’s (1766– 1834) An Essay on the Principle of Population gave Darwin the mechanism for evolution: the elimination of the weak and the survival of the fit. Darwin called this mechanism “natural selection.” When he published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the objectified view of material life of the mechanical philosophers, as well as the eternally fixed singular chain of being of the natural theologians, was challenged by a world that Darwin called “an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth.” The result was nature that, although partaking of universal, unchanging physical laws, had a distinctive history: “whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (Darwin 1964, 489–490).

Nature in The Age of Ecology

Nature, in gaining history, regained some of the vitality that it had lost under the reign of mechanical philosophy. Darwin took the Linnaean conception of a stable chain of being and put it in motion through competition and co-adaptation. The historian Donald Worster emphasizes the shift during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to an imperfect nature— communities of competing lives that are contingent along axes of space and time. The ecologist Paul Sears situates Darwin’s centrality to ecology in his observation that “environment had from the beginning built itself into the very form and organization of all forms of life” (Sears 1950, 56). Scholars generally credit the German zoologist and comparative anatomist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) with coining the term oecologie (by 1893, ecology) in 1866. Worster agrees with Sears that Haeckel grounded the web of life in Darwin’s theory that the economy of nature is governed by relationships that derive from the struggle for existence.

The lack of a designer did not imply that no order exists in a nature that is conceived of as ecological. During the early twentieth century botanists and plant geographers in the United States and Europe gradually discovered in plant communities a changeful, active nature. By the 1930s this nature was defined most forcefully in the work of the U.S. botanist Frederic Clements (1874–1945). He argued that nature is dynamic but that change occurs in patterns of “successional development” over time. Innovation through competition is progressive in the sense that a specific habitat “begins with a primitive, inherently unbalanced plant assemblage and ends with a complex formation in relatively permanent equilibrium with the surrounding conditions” (Worster 1985, 210).

Both ecology and the earlier natural history understated the roles of inorganic forces in the creation and maintenance of life. Under the ecosystem concept that was developed by the British botanist Arthur George Tansley (1871–1955) in 1935, mechanical philosophy returned through twentieth-century thermodynamic physics as a powerful approach to constraining nature. Uniting living and nonliving aspects of the world under the processes of energy flow emphasized nature’s processes as historical while repudiating the organic community posited in Clements’s version of nature. Nature as ecosystem is as linear as nature as climax community, but time moves toward entropy (gradual decline into disorder) rather than toward progress. As Donald Worster describes it, “the ecosystem of the earth, considered from the perspective of energetics, is a way-station on a river of no return. Energy flows through it and disappears eventually into the vast sea of space; there is no way to get back upstream” (Worster 1985, 303). Both Clements and Tansley, however, assume a predictable trajectory in natural history. Historical nature by the end of the twentieth century had acquired randomness, chaos, and chance.

The ecologist Daniel Botkin’s Discordant Harmonies posits an organic nature, a “living system, global in scale, produced and in some ways controlled by life” (Botkin 1990, 189), which may be modeled through computer programs, uniting Clements and Tansley, but with a critical twist. Nature abstracted is essentially ambiguous, variable, and complex; time is not singular but rather a sheaf whose arcs and marks are defined by probability, “always in flux, changing over many scales of time and space, changing with individual births and deaths, local disruptions and recoveries, larger scale responses to climate from one glacial age to another” (Botkin 1990, 62). In the twenty-first century nature has a radically contingent history that is particularly troublesome in light of the role of nature in human history.

Nature and Humans

Exploring the other side of the equation—how to place nature in history—requires considering the place of humans in nature. Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore covers the preindustrial history of humans and nature. He posits that throughout time the West has regarded the natural world with several questions, all arising from the sense that the Earth is an inherently habitable place for humankind. Is this Earth apparently so fitting an environment for organic life, “a purposely made creation”? What is the influence of the Earth’s climates, physical terrain, and continental configuration, that is, the environment in which life is embedded, on the shape of human culture and on individual health and morality? Finally—and coming increasingly into play from the eighteenth century to the present—in what manner have humans through their artifice acted as “geographic agents” changing nature “from its hypothetical pristine condition” (Glacken 1967, vii)?

Much of people’s attempt to describe the history of nature has centered on the first issue—on teleological aspects of nature. Although the idea of nature as a product of design arose independently of the concept of environmental influence, each reinforced the other. Organic life (including humans and their cultures) was seen as adapting to “purposefully created harmonious conditions” (Glacken 1967, vii). Human artifice, distinct from “first” nature and exemplifying the human place in the chain of being just below the Creator, constituted a “second” nature cultivating and adding improvements to the design. From the Greeks until the eighteenth century Western conceptions of nature in human history portrayed it as the world out there to which humans adapt—but part of that adaptation is to order nature. Human creations of second nature, through domesticating animals and hunting, through cultivating crops and digging canals, settled wild lands. However, until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such activity assumed an inviolate stability in first nature.

As nature itself began to develop a contingent history during the modern era, humans began to recognize their role as agents of geographic change. Human history—emerging during the Renaissance out of a growing self-consciousness about the power of human control over nature and pushed by the belief that such power distinguishes humans from the rest of nature— became a narrative about harnessing the elements (through arts such as alchemy, which was a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of base metals into gold) and transforming the landscape for aesthetic and economic purposes. Just as the Age of Exploration contributed to an emerging sense of nature’s history, it also offered comparative evidence of the interactions between human history and natural history. In addition to new animals and plants, the discovery and exploration of the New World offered an aspect of nature seemingly untouched by human artifice. Glacken says that by the eighteenth century the French naturalist George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788), relied on the contrasts between Europe and the Americas to construct his history of the Earth as ultimately “seconded” by the history of human striving. Buffon, who little appreciated the wild, uninhabited places on Earth, saw second nature as both an improvement of first nature and an improvement of human civilization.

Agents of Geographic Change

In the New World the importance of modern humans as agents of geographic change was more obvious. Early commentators such as the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm (1716–1779) noted that settlers were replacing old environments with new and raised questions about their impact on first nature and whether second nature improved the prospects for human habitation. Industrialization in the United States and Britain accelerated the transformations of nature, sharpened the distinctions between city, country, and wild places, and dislocated increasing populations from labor on the land to labor inside factories.

Romanticism, a transcontinental philosophy that granted privilege to first nature as an organic force in human history, made the most influential critique of people’s attempts to second nature. Where Buffon argued that Earth history is improved by the shift from first nature to second nature, the U.S. Romantic transcendentalist and nature writer Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) countered that Earth has its own history, which humans destroy by seconding nature. For the Romantics people who embedded themselves in first nature—returning at least to the countryside and at best to more untrammeled spaces—countered what the Romantics viewed as the growing dominance of mechanical philosophy and its attendant materialism and repression of the innate spirit in life.

Another key figure in the effort to place nature in history was a contemporary of Thoreau—the U.S. scholar George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882). Environmental historians widely credit Marsh’s Man and Nature: or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864) as the first comprehensive analysis of the harmful effects of human modifications on nature. Marsh compared soil erosion and forest destruction in Vermont with degraded environments in the Mediterranean basin and histories of land and resource use in Europe and Asia and concluded that “man [sic] is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discord” (Marsh 1965, 36). Marsh urged his contemporaries to be cautious in seconding nature, always to consider what must be learned from the priorities of first nature.

However, Marsh’s image of people as disturbers of a pristine nature raises one of the most controversial meanings of nature for contemporary environmental history. Marsh and Thoreau, like many people of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, make sharp contrasts between a world of nature “out there” and people. The question of people’s place in nature has been answered ambiguously for the past two thousand years. One of the dangerous ambiguities about nature is that it may both contain and exclude people. During the nineteenth century critics of industrialism often argued, as Marsh and Thoreau do, that the artifices of people had shifted from improvement to destruction and were not seconding but rather were disturbing nature’s history. People and their artifices then become unnatural, alien to nature. Similarly, during the early twentieth century two key figures in the age of ecology, Clements and Tansley, disagreed on the role of people in nature, with Clements making a sharp distinction between the disturbance brought by the plow and presettlement prairie biota (the flora and fauna of a region) and Tansley arguing that people can make ecologically sound changes by their artifices.

The U.S. environmentalist Aldo Leopold said that the twentieth century would require an ecology-based “land ethic” that “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such” (Leopold 1949, 204). Marsh, Clements, and Thoreau shared Leopold’s view.

This controversy over the role of nature in human history continues into the twenty-first century. Most fundamental is the question of whether one may speak of a nature as existing free from human modification. Raymond Williams says that “we have mixed our labor with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back or separate either out” (Williams 1980, 83). Drawing on Williams, the historian William Cronon suggests that the trouble with wilderness is its erasure of the history of human striving from natural history, and the historian Richard White poses nature in contemporary times as an “organic machine”—a symbiotic meld of natural processes and human artifices (White 1995, ix). But for Williams the second nature that people have created is socially repressive, materialist, and polluted— toxic for humans and the rest of the organic world. The historian J. R. McNeill’s Something New under the Sun reinforces the troubling reciprocity between recent understanding of the history of nature as not only changeful but also unpredictable and the disruptive forces of human history. McNeill says that during the twentieth century people took a planet whose future was uncertain and made change even more volatile, primarily through technological and economic imperatives, thus creating a “total system of global society and environment . . . more uncertain, more chaotic than ever” (McNeill 2000, 359). Indeed, the most pressing global issue for the twenty-first century is the environmental future.


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