by Jamie Henzy
Scientists at one time shared the title of "natural philosophers", and largely spoke the same language. As their techniques grew in sophistication, they set as their goal nothing less than the building of a giant tower of Knowledge of all Nature. When God saw this blatant display of hubris, she struck their tongues so that their speech could no longer be understood to one another, and they scattered far and wide to found their individual disciplines, then sub-disciplines, then sub-sub-disciplines, in a never-ending fractal cleavage.
Andrea Wulf's The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World stirs a wistfulness for the last days before scientific Babel: when learned people of various inclinations met regularly at philosophical salons to discuss the latest findings in a variety of fields; when amateur naturalists, driven only by their passion, spent evenings together eagerly poring over the latest works in botany, geology, or mathematics; when a scientist could be so well known that newspapers never tired of running stories of his exploits, and children dreamed of following in his footsteps, and cities on multiple continents shut down to celebrate the centennial of his birth.
Humboldt was born into a Prussian aristocratic family in 1769, the younger brother of Wilhelm von Humboldt, who achieved renown as a linguist, philosopher, and founder of the University in Berlin. The brothers' private tutors exposed them to an Enlightenment palette of knowledge. Alexander believed Wilhelm was the true academic, while he himself sought stimulation in the woods and meadows nearby, where he stoked his love of nature, collecting rocks, plants, and insects. His twenties were steeped in German Romanticism, mostly through his friendship with the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. When Humboldt's older brother, Wilhelm, introduced the twenty-five year-old Alexander to Goethe − then in his mid-forties and a literary giant − Goethe was immediately taken by Humboldt's intellectual exuberance, which he found infectious. He especially loved Alexander's passion for the natural sciences, saying, "In eight days of reading books, one couldn't learn as much as what he gives you in an hour." In fact, whenever the young man visited, Goethe appeared to drop everything to spend as much time as possible with Alexander. The two men would launch into a frenzy of activity, reading natural history books together and discussing "art, nature, and the mind" during long walks; braving the freezing cold to attend dissections of corpses at the local university (the low temperatures kept the cadavers "fresh"), or exploring "animal electricity" by attaching the nerves of severed frog legs to various metals.
Not only did these encounters stimulate Goethe's own work (many people thought the Faust character was modeled on Humboldt), they molded Alexander's approach to science. Central to German Romanticism was the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, whose ideas the two men discussed at length in the intellectual salons they frequented. Kant rejected a strict dualism between the objective and subjective worlds, believing that the order we perceive in nature does not exist in and of itself, but is imposed by the human mind. Moreover, the rational mind alone is inadequate for truly understanding nature; instead, one has to respond with one's entire being, emotionally and aesthetically. Alexander absorbed this idea, writing to Goethe that, "nature must be experienced through feeling." Taking a poke at classifiers, he added that simply fitting each specimen into its taxonomic box was not enough. This view was in line with Kant's assertion that facts could only be understood within the context of a structure, in the way that a brick acquires deeper meaning when considered as part of a building. These ideas so deeply impressed Alexander that he burned with a desire to experience the vastness of nature through these new lenses. He spent a frustrating five years obsessively seeking an expedition to join, blocked at nearly every turn by the political realities of the French Revolutionary Wars. In 1799, he finally convinced the king of Spain to grant him permission to explore the Spanish territories of South America, for the purpose of collecting specimens of the flora and fauna and other useful information for the king. In letters written to friends prior to the voyage, however, Humboldt described his own goal: to discover how "all forces of nature are interlaced and interwoven."
Humboldt had no intention of simply traipsing the landscape, waxing poetic about the plants and animals. His aesthetic approach was paired with a firm belief that discernment of nature's patterns required the meticulous gathering of large amounts of information. In addition to collecting vast numbers of plants, insects, rocks, and animals, he obsessively measured everything: temperature, altitude, humidity, and magnetism. He even had an instrument to measure the blueness of the sky (a cyanometer). He then considered all these data points in comparison to one another. This approach led Humboldt to discover patterns of vegetation at similar latitudes on different continents and to describe the concept of isotherms. His measurements of the magnetic field demonstrated that the true equator is some 500 miles south of the geographic equator; his comparisons of flora and fauna even led him to be one of the first to offer evidence that South America and Africa were once contiguous.
Humboldt's observations extended to the indigenous peoples of the continent, who beguiled him with their sophisticated knowledge of the vast array of plants, animals, and geography of the landscape. He found their languages conceptually rich enough to convey the ideas of any European book, and noted their somewhat bemused reactions to many of his questions, which he imagined struck them as simplistic. Although a member of the aristocracy at the height of imperialist times, his travels convinced him that colonialism was founded on greed that raped the earth and debased indigenous peoples. His use of detailed measurements to discern overall patterns allowed him to see how deforestation and diversion of water for irrigation devastated the landscape, leading him to develop a theory of human-induced climate change. Throughout his life he was outspoken in his abhorrence of slavery and was particularly saddened when, despite its abolition in many other countries, it continued in the US—a country he otherwise idealized, even taking time to travel there to meet Thomas Jefferson in 1804, a fascinating encounter given a full chapter by Wulf.
A high point of his adventures in South America, however, was just that − the peak of Chimborazo, a volcano in present-day Ecuador. Humboldt and a small team climbed to within 1000 ft of Chimborazo's 20,548 ft peak, gloating in the knowledge that they had outclimbed the French explorer, Charles Marie de la Condamine (mentioned in Elio's blog), who had made it to a paltry 15,000 ft on a peak in the Andes in the 1730s. On the harrowing jaunt up the mountainside, described so engagingly by Wulf, Humboldt collected heaps of plant specimens. His analysis of their distribution at different altitudes led to his Essay on the Geography of Plants, which emphasized life as an interconnected whole while nonetheless packing in details, measurements, and statistics. Appealing to the imaginations of his readers, many of whom were non-scientists, he beautifully depicted his multitude of data on a three-by-two-foot color fold-out. The illustration, referred to as the Naturgemälde, ("Painting of Nature") was based on Kant's structure, revealing the relationships among the many parts. Humboldt dedicated Essay to Goethe, who so admired how it incorporated all the ideas they had developed together that he excitedly read it several times within the first week of receiving it.
Humboldt was a staunch proponent of the communal practice of science, insisting that it is best advanced through free-flowing communication and sharing of ideas and data. He would undoubtedly have favored open access publishing! He also firmly believed in the duty of scientists to share their passion for their subjects not only with other scientists, but also with the general public, asserting that "civilization can be characterized by how it broadens our ideas, making us perceive the connections between the physical and the intellectual worlds." In addition to his Essay on the Geography of Plants, he wrote other popular book-length essays and narratives, combining stories of his many adventures (including a trek across the Russian steppes and Mongolia) with detailed scientific descriptions. His final work was a five-part compendium, published between 1845 and 1862, addressing nearly all fields of natural science. He named it Cosmos, and people could not get enough of it, in Europe and North America alike. Edgar Allen Poe's last poem, Eureka, was inspired by Cosmos and dedicated to Humboldt, and Walt Whitman kept a copy on his desk while writing Leaves of Grass.
One young man who was particularly inspired by Humboldt's work was Charles Darwin, who said that, "nothing ever stimulated my zeal so much as reading Humboldt's Personal Narrative." Wulf devotes an entire chapter to describing the profound influence of Humboldt's ideas on Darwin, including Darwin's passion for being a naturalist and, more importantly, his ability to focus on details while simultaneously considering the overall patterns into which they fit − key to his formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Even Darwin's writing style was shaped by his deep familiarity with Humboldt's prose, long passages of which he had practically committed to memory. The famous "entangled bank" metaphor from Origins, in fact, mirrors a passage from Personal Narrative that Darwin had highlighted in his copy.
Wulf contends that the most famous piece of American nature writing, Henry David Thoreau's Walden, came about largely through Humboldt's influence. In the early drafts of Walden, Thoreau had focused on a critique of American culture, but had not yet figured out how nature fit into his thesis. It was as if he knew nature's message was profound, but was unable to decipher her language. While these drafts incubated, Thoreau read Humboldt and was inspired in a way that recalls the transformation described by Helen Keller when the world suddenly opened to her in a new way after she made the connection between the signing on her palms and the objects in her world. Humboldt caused Thoreau to "look at Nature with new eyes," and he excitedly applied these eyes to the woods around him, collecting and measuring, while responding aesthetically and with the whole of nature in mind. The result was a final draft of Walden that was quite different from the first two, in which nature shone as living poetry, its message shimmering in the details of the cycling of the seasons.
Other influential figures inspired by Humboldt include the conservationist, George Perkins Marsh; the environmentalist, John Muir, and the German zoologist and artist, Ernst Haeckel, each given a chapter by Wulf. By the time he died at age 89, Humboldt had become so admired and respected that news of his death was somberly announced all over the world in headlines and full-length obituaries. His home city telegraphed London that, "Berlin is plunged in sorrow," and his funeral procession there included tens of thousands of admirers. On the centennial of his birth in 1869, cities on multiple continents held huge celebrations and parades, some even shuttering businesses for the day. Over time, however, he inexplicably faded from the public consciousness, perhaps a victim of his own success: did he so inspire so many young naturalists that they quickly overshadowed their source, as an oak trees to acorns? It's a mystery.
The Invention of Nature is not only a joyful recounting of a fascinating life, but a reminder of the value of a unified vision of nature. Humboldt's life calls to mind the Jewish Kabbalah story regarding the creation of the world: Vessels holding the divine light of creation shattered, and a million fragments of light were scattered and trapped in the objects of the physical world. The challenge to humanity is to collect these pieces and restore their unity, in this way repairing creation and perfecting the world. Humboldt appears to have brought his entire self to a similar task, examining the shiny fragments of data and restoring them to their place within the web of Nature. His last words as he lay weakened in bed, watching rays of sunlight dancing on the walls, sublimely convey the solace this passion gave him: "How glorious these sunbeams are! They seem to call Earth to the Heavens!"
In addition to being an Associate Blogger for STC, Jamie is a postdoctoral researcher and part-time teaching faculty at Boston College.
Wulf, Andrea. 2015. The invention of nature: Alexander von Humboldt's new world.