Alexander von Humboldt: a forgotten man of science


The revered scientist and beloved public figure during his lifetime was first to show the linkages within ecosystems. So why doesn’t anyone remember him? Jim Rountree reports.


Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859).
Ullstein bild / Getty Images

On 14 September 1869, worldwide celebrations marked 100 years since the birth of a much-loved, highly revered scientist. There were speeches and festivities in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Moscow and Melbourne. In almost every major US city, thousands attended concerts and parades.

Some 25,000 people gathered in New York’s Central Park for the unveiling of a commemorative statue and a torchlight parade. In Berlin, the man’s hometown, offices were closed for the day and 80,000 people came out in spite of the torrential rain.

It’s hard to know what’s more astounding – that a scientist could inspire such popular and passionate celebration, or that he should be very nearly forgotten today. The scientist was Alexander von Humboldt. If you’ve never heard of him, you can be forgiven – in the 150 years since his international commemoration, he has all but disappeared from the general consciousness.

Being German – Prussian in fact – hasn’t helped, not in the English-speaking world anyway. But more than this, perhaps, is that Humboldt has no single theory or equation bearing his name. Rather, he is responsible for a broad scientific concept that is now so widely accepted that it comes as a surprise to us that anyone had to think of it.

You might say that Humboldt is the father of environmental science. It was he who first developed a scientific understanding of ecosystems and how everything on the planet – living and non-living – is linked in myriad relationships.

One comparatively small innovation of Humboldt’s goes a long way to capturing the nature of his thinking, and his influence. Today, no weather report is complete without a map showing temperature zones across the country.

This simple, powerful idea of aggregating temperatures (or rainfall, or humidity or any other measurement) and displaying it graphically perfectly demonstrates Humboldt’s holism. In contrast to numerical lists of data, a map with isotherms shows the regions of temperature, and that immediately gives us insights into their causes and effects – for instance, the relationships between altitude and land cover, to winds and ocean currents, and to the life forms that inhabit these areas. Immediately we begin to comprehend our planet as a single whole comprised of interlocking systems. This is the core of Humboldt’s vision.

It’s a similar story with his Naturgemälde, roughly translated as “nature paintings”. Best known is the diagram of Chimborazo, an Andean volcano he climbed. Alongside illustrations of the changing zones of flora and fauna on each side of the mountain are data on temperature, pressure, and humidity. Again, the emphasis is on nature’s interconnectedness, the different forms of life stratified according to altitude and other physical factors.

The diagram of the Andean volcano, known as the Chimborazo Map, is the best-known of Humboldt’s Naturgemälde, providing detailed information about the plants he found there.
Zentralbibliothek Zürich

While his greatest legacy is his sweeping idea about the interconnectedness of the world, it would be wrong to see Humboldt as only a “big picture” man. Much of this work was based on measurements – lots of them. In this sense, Humboldt was pure scientist, using the best technology of the day to measure everything he could – temperature, humidity, the magnetic field, the colour of the sky. And alongside this were observations of rock and soil, the taste of the water, fungi, insects, plants, animals and people.

All of this he brought together to show the links of dependency that criss-cross the natural world, including human dependencies on that world.

But more even than all this, Humboldt, infused with the spirit of German Romanticism, made a conscious effort to keep all of his senses open – to see, smell and feel … to experience personally every aspect of the world. For him, there was no conflict between the objectivity of rigorous scientific measurement and the subjectivity of fully acknowledging – even indulging in – his emotional responses. And these were intense – unsurprising, given that he could find himself deep in a remote, dense, wet jungle one month and on the side of a volcano the next.

This likely explains a good part of Humboldt’s popularity – that he wrote of these experiences, allowing readers in Europe and the young United States to become, in their imaginations, adventurers themselves. Reading his most popular work, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the years 1799-1804, they could suffer the privations but also see the vistas, feeling something of the thrill of being the first to explore a new continent.

Certainly, this was the effect the book had on a young Charles Darwin. He was hugely influenced by Humboldt, and in many respects came to see the world through Humboldt’s eyes when, with the Personal Narrative at his side, he embarked upon his own adventures on the Beagle years later.

YOU MIGHT SAY THAT HUMBOLDT IS THE FATHER OF ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE.

Humboldt made two major expeditions in his life. The first was to modern-day Venezuela, Columbia and Peru, and then Cuba and Mexico, from 1799 to 1804. The second was to Russia in 1829. It was the former that was most influential, however, for the impact it had on Humboldt and for the influence he had on the world.

South America at the start of the 19th century was made up of colonies still firmly in the grip of Spain. Humboldt observed this with the same unique blend of objectivism and heart that he applied to the natural world. He documented statistics of production and income and recorded social conditions. And just as his insights into ecosystems now form part of the general consensus, the views he formed about Latin American society and economics seem thoroughly modern.

Colonisation was brutal and disastrous, he concluded, the treatment of indigenous peoples – wrongly characterised as savages – cruel and unjustifiable, and slavery was a particular evil. His Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, which laid out these views, along with the evidence, was widely read.

Humboldt’s protestations had a material effect on political change, helping build pressure that eventually led to the liberation of the South and Central American colonies. But they came with a price: his anti-colonial views are almost certainly the reason that the British never allowed him to travel to India, where he long wished to mount an expedition.

He wanted to gather evidence that he was confident would confirm, in a quite different part of the world, the broad ecological conclusions he had made from his observations in South America. The Russian expedition sufficed but was a consolation prize.

Viewed in hindsight, Humboldt seems very much the modern man – in many ways he could slip easily into the intellectual world of the 21st century and be quite comfortable. At the same time, he was absolutely pivotal in his own time and place.

Here was a man who counted Goethe and Thomas Jefferson as personal friends, as well as Simón Bolivar, who went on to liberate Latin America from Spain. Humboldt dominated in the world of science for decades and provided incredible influence and inspiration. As a concrete example, he was the primary inspiration that eventually led to the creation of national parks around the world.

He was also a great public communicator. As Andrea Wulf writes in The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science, in Berlin in 1827 he held free public lectures that were hugely popular.

Attendees included academics and students, royalty, members of the public from all classes, and women – in fact, they comprised half the audience. It’s likely that no such mix of people had ever gathered before, certainly not on equal terms, and all were equally enthralled and informed. It is a great testament to the democratic principles Humboldt espoused.

For Humboldt, these lectures provided the opportunity to assemble his thoughts for their final and complete expression in his magnum opus, the five-volume Cosmos, which he worked on until his death. The word cosmos Humboldt resurrected from Greek, where it means beauty and order. For him, it stood for everything in heaven and on earth.

Today we would do well to resurrect Humboldt’s legacy. He still has a lot to tell us. Here was a man who in 1830 listed deforestation, irrigation and the “great masses of steam and gas” produced by industry as posing serious problems for the planet. How sadly true has his insight proved to be.

Jim Rountree is editor of Cosmos Lessons
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