Having introduced natural history (naturalism-1), perhaps I should go on to explain the limits of the methods of Natural History and its usefulness.
Species Surveys and Hypothesis Confirmation
Perhaps the most obvious use of natural history is as an initial glimpse into the biodiversity of an area, as well as the overall structure of the ecosystem. Since it lacks specific controls allowed for by experiments (which are associated with Naturalism-sense 2), using these observations to formulate tentative hypotheses are useful, but these tentative hypotheses cannot be tested under the heading of “natural history.” This does not mean, however, that observations cannot be used to verify a hypothesis which has already been tested. To quote John Endler:
“Laboratory populations serve as models of nature, and help to test specific predictions or conjectures about the way nature works; but without extensive knowledge of natural selection in the wild, we have no idea how relevant experiments or theory are to the evolution of modern populations.”
Indeed, Endler was pointing out that artificial constructs which demonstrate evolution under similar conditions as found in nature are only models. For better confirmation of these hypotheses, we need observations in nature. Observations of the feeding behavior of Agkistrodon contortrix and A. piscivorus would have seriously helped me out when I started on a research project my sophomore year of college. I could have quickly formulated a much better hypothesis on their relative strike behaviors. This brings me to my next point.
The Unseen Curiosity
Natural history serves another interesting purpose: finding unusual behaviors which serve as initial hypotheses for experimentation. These observations serve as useful “pattern detection” where correlations can be first detected. These patterns may not be obvious in a laboratory setting where specific things are being studied for a very well understood reason. When someone is instead focusing on all aspects of a specific individual organism, these traits or behaviors are noticed and (hopefully) recorded.
Or Naturalism-sense 2
Rather than playing the semantic game and arguing about words, I will instead try to simplify a moderately complex issue rather than obfuscate it, as has been my experience with epistemological philosophers. Naturalism, in the sense I am referring here, can be referred to as scientific naturalism (naturalism-sense 2a).
Scientific naturalism is all about explaining the natural world through natural mechanisms. This includes utilizing scientific fields to understand epistemology from a naturalistic perspective and utilizing the extensive body of scientific data to illuminate philosophic questions. In other words, explaining “how we know what we know” in terms, not only of pure logic, but in terms of how we are convinced of certain ideas. In this sense, epistemological naturalism (naturalism-sense 2b) and scientific naturalism (naturalism-sense 2a) are quite distinct. Naturalism-sense 1 certainly feeds into Naturalism-sense 2a, insofar as observations of the natural world can help in the formulation of ideas concerning the causal relationships found in nature. Epistemological naturalism derives its explanations from data derived through scientific research. To make this tangle a bit less compounded, let me explain it this way:
Scientific naturalism involves restricting assumptions to those which have been demonstrated through experimentation or to very basic assumptions. These assumptions are, themselves, subject to review based upon new evidence.
Scientific naturalism does not end here, though. It allows one to withhold judgment about an idea until sufficient evidence has been gathered to reach a conclusion. One may consider possibilities, and even hold a working hypothesis to be more likely to be accurate than any other based upon existing lines of evidence. A good example of this is the fiasco over “science and religion are compatible.” I have heard the adherents of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) state the two have nothing to do with each other. The scientific naturalist, however, holds that all beliefs are held subject to the same standard of evidence.
Natural history and Methodological naturalism
Of these two, methodological naturalism, postulating natural causations for all observations, is much more broad in spectrum, encompassing all experimental sciences. Natural history, however, not being an experimental science, is not strictly methodologically naturalistic, although a perspective from methodological naturalism allows for more specific insights into and greater support for those observations made under the realm of natural history. Natural history, while operating within methodological naturalism, developed such theories as evolution by natural selection and elucidating the modes of speciation.