Story: Life sciences

Page 1. Beginnings, 1769–1900

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The life sciences, known collectively as biology, cover all the studies of living things. These range from the chemical processes of cells, to the interactions of living organisms with their environment.

Until the mid-20th century the life sciences were often grouped together as ‘natural history’. In the 20th century scientists tended to become more specialised, and biology split into many different disciplines.

A world view based on whakapapa

Early Polynesian settlers made profound changes to New Zealand’s natural environment, burning off areas of forest and hunting some species (such as moa) to extinction. They also developed a deep knowledge of the natural environment. People, plants, animals and natural features such as awa (rivers) and maunga (mountains) were all seen as descendants of the gods. All were connected by whakapapa – lines of genealogical descent.

The earliest European naturalists

The first to bring European scientific methods to New Zealand were the naturalists on James Cook’s 18th-century voyages of exploration: Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander, Johann and Georg Forster and Andreas Sparrman. In subsequent years more scientists made exploratory voyages from the settlement of New South Wales in Australia.

Some early missionaries were also accomplished naturalists, in particular the botanist William Colenso. The settlers arriving from the 1840s included some keen amateur naturalists who recorded and collected plants and animals while exploring.

Early naturalists often sent specimens back to Britain or Europe to be identified and named by experts such as the botanist Joseph Hooker and the zoologist Richard Owen.

Scientific institutes and museums

In the mid-19th century settlers with scientific interests began setting up philosophical institutes, organisations where members could present and discuss scientific papers. The New Zealand Institute, founded in 1867, was a body that published these papers and the proceedings of local institutes.

In 1861 two ‘provincial geologists’ were appointed: Julius Haast in Canterbury and James Hector in Otago. Both had strong interests in botany and zoology.

In 1865 Hector became Colonial Museum director, based in Wellington. He employed John Buchanan as museum botanist and draughtsman.

In the 1860s and 1870s Auckland, Canterbury and Otago all established provincial museums. Haast was the first director of the Canterbury Museum, while Frederick Hutton, a geologist and zoologist, was appointed director of Otago museum.

The first director of Auckland Museum, from 1868 to 1874, was Thomas Kirk, a botanist. He had worked as chief conservator of forests from 1885 to 1887 and wrote many important botanical works. His successor, Thomas Cheeseman, museum director from 1874 to 1923, was another eminent botanist who carried out many field expeditions and wrote numerous works, including the 1906 Manual of New Zealand flora.

The Otago evolution debate

In 1876 Dunedin’s Otago Institute was the scene of a series of debates on Darwinian evolution. Anglican Archbishop S. T. Nevill attacked the scientific validity of evolution, but provincial geologist Frederick Hutton made a successful defence of Darwinism. In newspaper columns theologian William Salmond argued Darwinian evolution was incompatible with Christianity. Hutton, a sincere Anglican, countered that evolution and religion could be reconciled. The politician and staunch free-thinker Robert Stout agreed with Salmond that Christianity and Darwinism were mutually exclusive, but wanted Christianity rejected.


Frederick Hutton was appointed professor of natural science at Otago University in 1877, but in 1880 moved to Canterbury College to become professor of biology. The new university college of Auckland appointed a biology professor in 1883. Victoria University College employed a biology lecturer in 1903.

The Darwinian revolution

The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species in 1859 pushed evolution to the forefront of scientific, social and religious debates. Most of New Zealand’s leading scientific thinkers rapidly adopted the idea of biological evolution of plants and animals, and, despite initial controversy, most New Zealanders were able to reconcile Darwinian evolution with their religious beliefs. This may well have been easier in a young country without entrenched religious or scientific establishments.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Life sciences - Beginnings, 1769–1900', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 7 December 2023)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014