The natural sciences as we know them began some three centuries ago, and their accelerating progress has revolutionized our outlook on the physical world. If one of these predecessors of the time were to be transported into the twenty-first century he would probably be incapable of comprehending the kinds of scientific questions that are being asked today. By contrast, questions about the nature of human nature were being asked from long before the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and some of the basic problems of today would not be totally unfamiliar to our distant ancestors. They are, of course, being phrased differently now: the three key terms in the present title were either invented fairly recently (‘biology’ in 1802), or only began roughly to approximate their current meaning during the latter part of the nineteenth century. It does not follow, however, that before the emergence of this vocabulary there was no awareness of the issues to which it refers.
The aim here is to sketch a range of different approaches dominant in particular periods and to document the recurrence of certain major themes. Given the limitations of space, the coverage will necessarily be highly selective and generally simplified. The selection was governed by a focus on topics mentioned in the title, but it no doubt also refiects my personal bias. The presentation will follow a roughly chronological order, tracing the manner in which key concepts emerged and how their meanings and postulated relationships changed.