Alexander von Humboldt: Naturalist Extraordinaire

It has been a while since I wrote a blog post. As a retiree, you’d think I would have lots of time, and I do. But I also have lots of activities, admittedly combined with a tendency to procrastinate more than I should (and perhaps waning motivation). One of those activities is to read books. Some time ago I read a book that really influenced me profoundly, particularly because I was so ignorant of the subject of that book. The book was Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World”.

Cover of Andrea Wulf’s book about Alexander von Humboldt

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806.

I highly recommend this book to any biologist or naturalist. What I write below doesn’t even scratch the surface of this remarkable man, so Wulf’s captivating book is a must read. If you can’t plow through Wulf’s massive book, you should at least read the entry about Humboldt in Wikipedia.

The name Humboldt is quite familiar to most of us, because Humboldt was in his time the most celebrated scientist of all. Consequently his name is attached to numerous places, animal and plant species, and geographical features. Examples are the Humboldt squid, the Humboldt penguin, Humboldt’s lily, and the Humboldt current. There are several universities, including Humboldt State University in California, and eight communities in the US bear his name. In fact, he has more recognition in this way than any other human being. At the centenary of his birth, Humboldt was celebrated throughout the world with parades and numerous initiatives in support of science. How is it possible that such a prominent scientist seems all but forgotten today?

Announcement of centenary celebration of the birth of Alexander von Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt was born 1769 in Berlin, Germany, and he died there four months short of his 90th birthday. Not unlike Charles Darwin, he had a propensity for going his own way early on, worrying his mother and older brother about his future prospects. He dreamt about being an explorer early on, and after many delays, in part because of the Napoleonic war, eventually managed to get support for an expedition to South America 1799-1804. Like Darwin’s voyage on the beagle, this experience became the foundation for his remarkable scientific exploits.
To make a long story short, Humboldt’s impact on natural sciences has been immense. He was the first to view nature holistically. In other words, he was an ecologist long before the discipline really existed. He also saw the impact of human exploitation on nature, including effects on climate. In other words, he warned about climate change almost 200 years before we started paying attention! He was also the first to suggest continental drift as he suggested that Africa and South America had once been attached. He laid the foundation for biogeography with his “Naturgemälde”, showing the zonation of plants with elevation, and that the types of plants he saw when climbing Chimborazo (while risking life and limb), a 6,268 m high mountain in Ecuador (as a curiosity, when measured from the center of our planet, it is the highest mountain on earth) were consistent with what he had observed in Europe.

Alexander von Humboldt’s Naturgemälde.

Humboldt published prolifically throughout his long career. One of the books he produced, “Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of the New Continent during the years 1799-1804.“ inspired Darwin and thus, Humboldt indirectly influenced the career of Darwin. Interestingly, Humboldt also was ahead of his time in that he was interested in uniting science and art. He spent lots of time with poets like Goethe and Schiller, and Goethe, in particular and Humboldt influenced each other quite profoundly (interestingly, Humboldt is not mentioned in the Wikipedia entry above).
Today, Humboldt is more or less forgotten outside of South America and Germany. This may in part be due to anti-German sentiment in the wake of two world wars. Andrea Wulf’s book is a timely attempt to restore him to his rightful place in history. His name may not be prominent now, but his influence on science is.


About cinnabarreflections

B. Staffan Lindgren is Professor Emeritus at UNBC. Living in Nanaimo, BC. Jack of all trades trying to stay relevant.
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