Major Concepts of Biology: Natural History

Each section of Biology 105 follows a different theme, according to the interests of the instructor. The theme of this section is natural history. Natural history is one of the oldest branches of science, so old that in our day it has largely been broken up into smaller specialties. Traditionally, natural history is the study of animals, plants, and the earth: the study of nature in all its diversity. Many specialized sciences have spun off from natural history in the last two hundred years: genetics, physiology, ecology, comparative anatomy, evolution, mineralogy, paleontology, and so on. But we will follow the traditional range of the subject, the one that is most accessible to non-scientists, and investigate the basic diversity of living things around us, where and how they live, and how they are related to one another.

We are going to begin as local naturalists, learning some of the plants and animals that live in our local environment, with the help of “field trips” out the back door and Kricher’s Ecology of Eastern Forests. Most people walk through their lives in a daze, never noticing the great natural diversity all around them. In this class we will learn a little about that diversity so that your daily experience of the world will be richer. Once we have learned to recognize a few local species, we will go on to some general scientific concepts and principles that can be seen all around us every day: adaptation, ecological succession, forest stratification, systematics, dispersal, variation and inheritance, population growth, nutrient cycling, and others, studied with help from Kricher and from the historical perspective provided by Tort’s Darwin and the Science of Evolution.

Meeting Time and Place

Tuesday/Thursday 6:00–7:15 p.m. in Eberhart 250.


Dr. Robert J. O’Hara (rjohara@uncg.edu). Office hours: Tuesdays 2:00–5:00 p.m. in Eberhart 118 or any other time by appointment or chance (but not right before class, please). You’re always welcome to talk to me about anything relating to our class or to academics generally. E-mail messages are also welcome. If you’d like to find out more about my interests you can visit my webpage (rjohara.net)


Please note that this class will not be drawn straight from a textbook: the texts and maps will supplement material given in lectures and in our walks out the back door. If you only read the texts you will not do well, if you only study your lecture notes you will not do well, and if you only look at things outside you will not do well; you must study both the texts and the lecture notes and the things we see outside to be successful. Specific pages to emphasize in the texts will be announced in class. The texts and maps below are available only in Addams Bookstore on Tate Street. I have not ordered any copies through the Campus Bookstore.

Requirements, Grading, and Exams

Attendance is essential; we will not be covering material chapter by chapter in a textbook, but will be using the texts to supplement lectures and outside observations. If you miss a class you are responsible for finding out from another student what you missed. Grades will be based on three in-class exams that will cover material in the lectures, our “field trips” out the back door, and the texts. The exams will count 30%, 30%, and 40% of your final grade. Unexcused absences from exams will result in a grade of zero for the exam missed; exams may only be made up if written documentation is provided from a doctor; any makeup exams will be in essay format. Grades will be assigned on the standard scale of 90’s = A’s, 80’s = B’s, 70’s = C’s, 60’s = D’s, and <60 = F. The grades will not be curved. See my teaching webpage (rjohara.net/teaching) for some general tips on studying for this and all courses.

Third Exam Question

The last question on the third exam will be to reproduce from memory the following quotation, which concludes Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). It summarizes the modern natural historian’s view of the world and is often quoted. We will practice it everyday at the beginning of class, so learning it will not be difficult. This question will be worth 5% of your final grade.

It is interesting to contemplate 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, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, 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.


Most weeks we will have a Poem-of-the-Week that will relate to the natural history subjects we are talking about. A separate handout with the texts of these poems will be provided. Here’s a poem for the first week, about the need to pay attention to the natural world (very apt). It is William Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us” (1807):

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Expected Schedule

15/17 January — Natural history and Peabody Park
An introduction to the course and the campus. Readings: the main page of the Peabody Park website; Kricher pp. vii–ix. Poem-of-the-week: “The world is too much with us.”

22/24 January — Where are we?
Latitude, longitude, altitude, and magnitude. Readings: your topographical map and atlas; Tort pp. 30–31. Poem-of-the-week:On first looking into Chapman’s Homer.

29/31 January — Why is it so cold outside?
The seasons and the solar system. Readings: your atlas; Kricher p. 5; the Great Globe itself. Poem-of-the-week:Answer, July.

5/7 February — What time is it?
Yesterday, and the day before, and the day before, and the day before, and… Readings: Tort pp. 1–55. Poem-of-the-week:Some drill and bore the solid earth.

12/14 February — Our neighbors
The plants and things out the back door. Readings: Kricher ch. 1; review Tort pp. 13–25. Poem-of-the-week:Tree at my window.” FIRST EXAM: 14 February (Happy Valentine’s Day!). [Study Guide]

19/21 February — Neighbors and relatives
The two biological fields of ecology and systematics and how they think about the world. Readings: Tort pp. 116–117 and the figure on p. 125. Poem-of-the-week:John Ray, Master of Arts.

26/28 February — My life as a tree
The structure of our native oak-hickory forests. Readings: Kricher ch. 3. Poem-of-the-week:A forest hymn.

5/7 March — Spring
What happens in the spring. Readings: Kricher ch. 6; Peabody Park website spring page. Poem-of-the-week:Poisoning pigeons in the park.

19/21 March — Summer
What happens in the summer. Readings: Kricher ch. 7; Peabody Park website summer page. Poem-of-the-week:Summer sun.

26/28 March — Fall and winter
What happens in the fall and winter. Readings: Kricher ch. 8; Peabody Park website fall and winter pages. Poem-of-the-week:To Autumn.” SECOND EXAM: 28 March. [Study Guide]

2/4 April — Dead bodies and dirt
The recyclable world. Readings: Kricher ch. 8. Poem-of-the-week:The Groundhog.

9/11 April — Fitting in
Adaptation and the argument from design. Readings: Kricher ch. 5; Tort pp. 86–87; review Tort pp. 21–24. Poem-of-the-week:Design.

16/18 April — All about sex
Genes, chromosomes, inheritance, making babies, and making too many babies. Readings: review Tort pp. 58–59. Poem-of-the-week:How many flowers fail in wood.

23/25 April — The entangled bank
Natural selection and the history of life. Readings: Tort pp. 60–73; the paragraph that you should know by now. Poem-of-the-week:So careful of the type?

30 April / 2 May — Going global
Urb and orb. Poem-of-the-week:When I behold the havocke and the spoyle.

Tuesday, 14 May — Third exam, 7:00 p.m.–10:00 p.m. [Study Guide]
This exam time is scheduled by the Registrar and can not be changed.

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