Possibly the best naturalist of the 17th century, John Ray was born in 1627, the son of a blacksmith. A scholarship permitted him to attend Cambridge where he studied Hebrew and Latin and hoped for someone to teach him about nature. In fact, he often had to teach himself, but he did this well. Years later, after an appointment at Trinity and an ordination, Ray turned down the promise of a comfortable life. After the Restoration, Charles II's Act of Uniformity required an oath of loyalty that Ray wasn't willing to give. Instead, he left Trinity and depended on the generosity of friends for nearly two decades, finally moving into his mother's house after her death.
Ray's wandering lifestyle wasn't an easy one. At one point, he had to hitch an ignominious ride in France on a fish cart, after the French king ordered Englishmen out of the country. But Ray's decision to stand by his principles provided an unforeseen opportunity; during his three-year trip to the European Continent, he immersed himself in museum visits and botany — and became an expert on Mediterranean fish. He eventually produced a massive body of work on plants, but botany didn't encompass all of Ray's work. He also broke new ground in the study of fossils.
Today, the organic origin of fossils isn't even a matter of debate, but this wasn't always the case. As science historian Martin J.S. Rudwick has pointed out, fossils used to be defined as anything dug up or found lying on the ground. While fossils included some clearly organic remains, other so-called fossils were crystals, and in between was a whole range of fossils that were much harder to identify.
Ray went to his grave unable to convince himself one way or the other about the origin of fossils. He considered the possibility that some fossils belonged to life forms that no longer existed, but suggesting extinction was tricky business in his time due to theological beliefs. A deeply religious man, he cited the eye — in humans and animals — as evidence of a supremely talented designer. Among his many writings, not surprisingly, was a work on proverbs. Given his religious beliefs, it would make sense for Ray to accept the common notion that the earth was made specifically for people. Instead, he repudiated the idea:
It is generally received opinion that all this visible world was created for Man [and] that Man is the end of the Creation, as if there were no other end of any creature but some way other to be serviceable to man . . . though this be vulgarly received, yet wise men nowadays think otherwise.
Ray may be admired as much for the theories he rejected as the theories he proposed. His writings on natural history gave no space to Centaurs. (Unfortunately, other "implausible" creatures like armadillos and wolverines didn't merit mention, either.) One supposition of his time was that fossils were the seeds of organisms that simply never sprang to life, but this just didn't strike Ray as logical. Why would mere seeds look so much like the real thing? Likewise, he rejected the notion that fossils embedded in mountains had been placed there by the biblical flood. He recognized that floodwaters covering the entire planet would require the sudden appearance and subsequent disappearance of a tremendous amount of water, and this didn't fit with what he understood of natural law. He also repudiated spontaneous generation, but his reasons were more complicated than a simple lack of evidence or logic:
For if this Point be but cleared, and it be demonstrated that all Creatures are generated univocally by Parents of their own Kind, and that there is no such Thing as Spontaneous Generation in the World, one main Prop and Support of Atheism is taken away . . .
Ray was an innovator in the field of natural history. He collaborated with Francis Willughby to compile works in the field, several of which Ray published after Willughby's death, such as The Ornithology of Francis Willughby published in Latin in 1676, and in English in 1678. Describing more than 300 bird species, the book remained a milestone in ornithology centuries later. Ray also contributed substantially to the field of taxonomy. Before Linnaeus developed his system of binomial nomenclature, Ray realized that naturalists needed a naming system that transcended language — by using common names in local tongues, savants of different nationalities were organizing their catalogues of plants and animals in completely different ways. It was Ray who proposed naming species in Latin. He also developed a general scheme for plant classification, but unlike the Linnaean system, which concentrated on reproductive organs, Ray's was based on overall form and structure. He classified plants as having either narrow or wide leaves. These categories were later supplanted by Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, who classified plants as either monocots or dicots. Botanists still use this classification system today.
On a more pedestrian (but practical) front, he even developed an ingenious method of separating fossils from their surrounding matrix for closer study: He would build a fire on the beach, pile the rocks he found in the flames, then pull them out with a pair of tongs and plunge them into the water. Sometimes the fossils cracked, but usually, they neatly separated from the rock.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated April 30, 2010