Alexander von Humboldt
I have just finished reading a magnificent book by Andrea Wulf entitled The Invention of Nature; the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of Science. The author took the view that contemporary science and scholarship was ignoring the work and influence of someone we should never forget. As a physical geographer, I had not forgotten him, just misplaced him on my library shelves at home, but I needed reminding of his significance in natural science and conservation.
Humboldt was a Prussian born in 1769 and died in Berlin in 1859. His long life involved exploration, scientific measurements, enormous amount of collecting, writing and discussions with key scientific, government and political figures of the period. Wulf’s book shows why his life and ideas remain important today as his thinking helps us see nature as a connected whole. Although much of his work is neglected today, his name lives on in the names of plants, animals, towns, rivers, parks, glaciers, the MareHumboldtianum on the moon, and of course the great current off the west coast of South America. Over the past few weeks I have asked many colleagues if they had heard of Humboldt; there were mostly blank expressions except for the name of the current!
So what was it that made this man such an international celebrity noting that on the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1869 there were commemorative events in various cities throughout the world, including speeches in his honour in Adelaide and Melbourne, and a grand parade in New York to honour a man “whose name no nation can claim”. By 1969 he had been forgotten, or had he? There may have been no public events, but behind so much of the thinking of geographers, ecologists, and environmentalists, and even climate change impact science, lie the ideas of this man.
For 5 years he and his companions explored the northern Andes and central America. He climbed to great heights, measured and collected along the way, showed connections between river systems, met with local folk and tried to understand the impact of past civilizations and current exploitation of the land following colonial settlement and expansion. He was the first to take ocean temperature measurements of the current now named in his honour. But what came out of all this, and later travels in Russia, was the concept on the inter-connectedness of nature, Cosmos, by which the earth is seen as “ a natural whole animated and moved by inward forces”.
This pre-dated James Lovelock’s idea of Gaia by 150 years! Through his prolific writing and incredible network Humboldt was able to permeate the thinking of natural science at a time when most were heading in the opposite direction, that is to focus on specific components of chemistry, physics, botany and zoology. He was the consummate communicator using art and language to portray the way land and marine systems are composed of interacting elements all with various levels of interdependence. This was best shown in his graphic depiction of climate and vegetation zones in the Andes stemming to a large degree from his climb of Chimborazo in Ecuador.
The power of Wulf’s book is the way she demonstrates how Humboldt has influenced, directly or indirectly, other great scientists and even political leaders like Thomas Jefferson and much later Theodore Roosevelt. Charles Darwin met with Humboldt and was so influenced by his work that it became a major part of his reading material on the Beagle. Darwin would expand on the ideas of the older man in the Origin of Species. But there were others who had absorbed Humboldt’s works. In the USA there was Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh and John Muir, and much later Rachel Carson. All these had enormous impact on society and environmental thinking leading to establishment of great national parks such as Yosemite, but also to changes in public policy on land and in the sea. One person who I learnt more about from this book was Ernst Haeckel, who gave us the term ecology. He studied radiolarian collected off the Italian coast and from those observations and inspired by Humboldt’s and Darwin’s concepts, he brought together art, ecology and nature. His diagrams of radiolarian even influenced architecture. The chapter in the book on him was an eye-opener for me.
I am in awe of these scientific giants of the 19th century. They achieved so much from their travels and their ability to synthesise and communicate information. But it was their ability to see the beneficial links between science and society that enthrals me. This is what we must continue to strive for as we engage with many who want to walk away or ignore the adverse impacts of environmental change.
Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect Bruce Thom’s thoughts and reference where appropriately: (c) ACS, 2016, posted 25th January 2016, for correspondence about this blog post please email firstname.lastname@example.org.