His accounts of his travels inspired Darwin to board the Beagle. He advised Thomas Jefferson on the huge swathes of North and South America still controlled by the Spanish. John Muir, known as the father of the national parks, treasured his books, occasionally having to buy multiple copies because Muir’s own annotations filled the pages. Ernst Haeckel, who first coined the very term “ecology” did so as a way of summarising all the works of his hero. More things in the world are named after this one man than anyone else. And yet, aside from the name of a charismatic penguin, most people have never heard of him, including myself until I recently read a fascinating book about him, The Invention of Nature, by Andrea Wulf. His name is Alexander von Humboldt, and he is one of the most important figures in the history of conservation and the natural sciences.
Born in Berlin in 1769, to a family of good standing among the Prussian empire, Alexander von Humboldt spent his earliest years fascinated with the world around him, collecting insects and shells, labelling and ordering them diligently. His father died while the young Humboldt was only 10 years old, and though his mother had the best intentions for her 2 sons, Humboldt would later speak on the cold relationship between them. She wanted the finest education for them, and so had them taught by a plethora of Prussia’s finest tutors, including Enlightenment thinkers and prominent botanists. She had him study finance at a nearby university, hoping he would forge a career in the civil industry, which he stuck to for a short time. However, it was a meeting with Georg Foster, who had accompanied James Cook on his famous voyages, that truly inspired Humboldt.
The tales of seafaring adventure gripped Humboldt’s imagination, and before long he and Foster set off on a journey around Europe. This merely stoked the flames, and as soon as Humboldt had finished his geological studies at the Freiburg School of Mines, he set about exploring as much of Europe as he could. His mother, of course, was still determined that he would follow her plans, and so he worked with the Prussian government as a mine inspector. He was successful, but his heart lay elsewhere, and once his mother passed away Humboldt left his position, freeing him to embark on the journey he dreamed of. Relying heavily on his sizeable inheritance and his good connections with the government, he was able to secure passage to the Spanish-ruled South America for himself and Aimé Bonpland, a French botanist who accompanied him on his expedition. Together, they travelled South America, describing, discovering and classifying a wealth of plants and animals, many of which had never been classified before. They collected endless pressings and caught as many specimens as they could, before returning home with a wealth of new information and ideas, which would later be formed into a thirty-four volume series of publications known as Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Content.
Humboldt paired outstanding scientific information with an admiration for the beauty of language, and his vivid, encapsulating descriptions of the landscapes and environments of South America made for a scientific text that was adored by artists, poets, scientists and workmen alike. At a time when the scientific world and the literary world were seen as separate, composite approaches, Humboldt effortlessly brought the two fields together. There is much more to Humboldt’s work than good information and nice phrasing, however. In his works, his observations led to many remarkable realisations, predictions and the formulation of important ideas. From climbing mountains across several continents, Humboldt realised that similar plants grew at similar altitudes despite seemingly no connection from one continent to the other. He developed this thought, and from it we received isotherms, the lines still used on maps today to show points across the world that share the same temperature. Humboldt was able to compare his observations from across the world, and he began to notice a pattern, which he presented in one of his most significant contributions to science.
The Naturgemalde was a lavishly detailed, beautifully engraved depiction of Mt Chimborazo in the Andes. It contained thorough information on the atmosphere, environment and life at each level of elevation on the mountain, and from this point on the Naturgemalde formed the template on which all his comparative work could be based. As well as noticing common patterns across continents, Humboldt began to observe the connections that worked like a web across the world. He spoke of how one tree in the Amazon was essential to the life of countless organisms, effectively identifying keystone species long before such a term existed. Upon visiting a village whose river had dried up, he realised that the village had cleared the nearby forest recently, and understood that the forest had been protecting and enriching the soil that allowed for the water to reach the village. The jewel in the crown of his publications was Kosmos, a multi-volume work that set out to unify all of his prior work, and to present it with a holistic approach, bringing together many different themes and practices into a cohesive text.
His forward-thinking was remarkably prescient for pre-Darwinian times, and he wrote of his fears that mankind’s incessant desire to conquer nature and continue their own expansion would lead to irrevocable damage to the planet. He even predicted space travel, although he expressed this prediction with a warning for the damage he feared we might do to other planets. Just as importantly, he was a forward-thinker in other senses. He often spoke out against slavery, even daring to do so with Thomas Jefferson, who had slaves working in the newly-forming White House. He eschewed ideologies of race and colonialism, criticising them frequently for the negative effect they inevitably carry. He was a liberal man, who believed in the collaboration of scientists across nations for the betterment of humanity; a man who was against war and empiricism. Though he himself never made the truly revolutionary discoveries that were made by many of his contemporaries (and indeed his admirers), he was an explorer with a wonderful gift for inspiring others. He was the flame that lit the torches that would be carried by the greatest luminaries of the natural sciences. Of the many debts we owe him, perhaps the most essential is that his name is reinstated into the position of recognition and admiration that it deserves. I urge everyone to read The Invention of Nature, and to carry on Andrea Wulf’s noble task to reintroduce Humboldt to a world that’s forgotten him, so that his inspiring words can travel ever further.
An article by Aaron Mills
Animal Science degree student at South Devon College in Paignton.
Cover Photo: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-von-Humboldt
Naturgemalde picture: http://geographical.co.uk/places/mapping/item/1542-the-invention-of-nature.