Biology, study of living things and their vital processes. The field deals with all the physicochemical aspects of life. The modern tendency toward cross-disciplinary research and the unification of scientific knowledge and investigation from different fields has resulted in significant overlap of the field of biology with other scientific disciplines. Modern principles of other fields—chemistry, medicine, and physics, for example—are integrated with those of biology in areas such as biochemistry, biomedicine, and biophysics.
Although modern biology is a relatively recent development, sciences related to and included within it have been studied since ancient times. Natural philosophy was studied as early as the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indian subcontinent, and China. However, the origins of modern biology and its approach to the study of nature are most often traced back to ancient Greece. While the formal study of medicine dates back to Pharaonic Egypt, it was Aristotle (384–322 BC) who contributed most extensively to the development of biology. Especially important are his History of Animals and other works where he showed naturalist leanings, and later more empirical works that focused on biological causation and the diversity of life. Aristotle’s successor at the Lyceum, Theophrastus, wrote a series of books on botany that survived as the most important contribution of antiquity to the plant sciences, even into the Middle Ages.
The many branches of biology
Although there are only four unifying principles, biology covers a broad range of topics that are broken into many disciplines and subdisciplines.
On a high level, the different fields of biology can each be thought of as the study of one type of organism, according to “Blackie’s Dictionary of Biology” (S Chand, 2014). For example, zoology is the study of animals, botany is the study of plants and microbiology is the study of microorganisms.
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Within those broader fields, many biologists specialize in researching a specific topic or problem. For example, a scientist may study behavior of a certain fish species, while another scientist may research the neurological and chemical mechanisms behind the behavior.
There are numerous branches and subdisciplines of biology, but here is a short list of some of the more broad fields that fall under the umbrella of biology:
- Biochemistry: The study of the chemical processes that take place in or are related to living things, according to the Biochemical Society. For example, pharmacology is a type of biochemistry research that focuses on studying how drugs interact with chemicals in the body, as described in a 2010 review in the journal Biochemistry.
- Ecology: The study of how organisms interact with their environment. For example, an ecologist may study how honeybee behavior is affected by humans living nearby.
- Genetics: The study of heredity. Geneticists study how genes are passed down by parents to their offspring, and how they vary from person to person. For example, scientists have identified several genes and genetic mutations that influence human lifespan, as reported in a 2019 review published in the journal Nature Reviews Genetics.
- Physiology: The study of how living things work. Physiology, which is applicable to any living organism, “deals with the life-supporting functions and processes of living organisms or their parts,” according to Nature. Physiologists seek to understand biological processes, such as how a particular organ works, what its function is and how it’s affected by outside stimuli. For example, physiologists have studied how listening to music can cause physical changes in the human body, such as a slower or faster heart rate.