‘Ray may be justly regarded as the founder of modern zoology …’ Gregory 1910

From earliest times man has tried to classify animals. In the beginning it was important to decide whether animals were edible or not. The bible divides animals into ‘cloven hooves’ which are clean (i.e. edible) and ‘uncloven hooves’ which are inedible (Leviticus II).

Ray, like Aristotle before him, worked on the basis that everything fell into one of only two categories. Ray was to take this method of classification much further by dividing creatures firstly into vertebrates and invertebrates (Sanguinea and Exanguia) and then sub-dividing even further using much greater detail. This is known as dichotomous analysis, but we realise today that even a system this detailed had its drawbacks. For example, with eight levels of classification for dogs and cats, such as claws, teeth, round head (cat) or longer head (dog); Ray wrongly classified a fox as a dog.

Nevertheless his synopsis of Quadrupeds and Serpents published in 1693, was ‘the first truly systematic arrangement of animals since the days of Aristotle …’ (Dr. Pulteney). This reflected the groundwork of dissection he carried out at Cambridge. After his death a long account of the anatomy of the porpoise, which he dissected in 1669, was presented to the Royal Academy together with a paper based on his experiences during his European travels when he worked on human anatomy in Padua during 1663-4.

The accounts of these experiments and other writings suggest he was concerned with the then controversial theories such as whether animals were capable of conscious awareness and intelligence. He specifically rejected the idea of all animals being spontaneously created in the beginning and looked at the problems of how each species evolved. Those theories formed the basis of Charles Darwin’s work on the theory of evolution.

Following in his footsteps …

The study of animals is called zoology, today we have zoos, wildlife parks and natural history museums where we can see animals close up. We also have film and television which show animals in the places they live.

In Ray’s day he had to travel widely to find specimens to write about and study.