Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), was, to put it in a nutshell, a thinker of quite staggering profundity and breadth, one of the greatest of his era; a remarkable polymath and an original one to boot. Some might call him a scientist, and his contributions there were path-breaking. But he also engaged with the world aesthetically, responding emotionally to what he observed and conveying those responses in his writing. Landscape bore multiple meanings for him: an object of awe and also something demanding understanding. He was a political animal, at least in thought if not in action, espousing the liberal causes of his time. He was read by Darwin, Lyell and Haeckel, but also by Goethe, Wordsworth and Robert Southey and he influenced them all. Later American philologist George P Marsh and British archaeologist Richard Muir would fall under his spell; so there is a sense in which conservationism, theory and practice, in the United States was sprouted in the ungrateful sands of Prussia. He was an altogether remarkable thinker.
But as Andrea Wulf notes in this timely, beautifully written and composed biography, there is an immense contradiction at the heart of his story. On the one hand, he was celebrated in his time as an intellectual giant, covering a vast swathe of human experience, directly observed; his public lectures attracted huge crowds; the centenary of his birth in 1869 was marked by quite massive celebrations in the capital cities of Europe; his name lingers on in place names around the world—an ocean current off the Pacific coast of Latin America, a glacier in Greenland, four counties and thirteen towns in North America, a university in Berlin, and numerous mountain ranges in the Americas. His name will be familiar to botanists through the three hundred or so species named after him. Yet it is a name that today will register with few, even while it can defensibly be said that his work was one of the major foundations for major advances in thinking about nature and our relation to it. This is a book that underlines how odd this is, reminding us of his importance and situating him in the circumstances of the time that helped give birth to such a powerful imagination.
He was a political animal, at least in thought if not in action, espousing the liberal causes of his time. He was read by Darwin, Lyell and Haeckel, but also by Goethe, Wordsworth and Robert Southey and he influenced them all.
He was born in 1769 into high social circles in Prussian Berlin, circumstances which would both work to his advantage and against which he would also rebel. It provided the resources necessary to support his travel, his research and his publication activity; but it had a political environment which was not always congenial to the sort of liberal intellectual atmosphere which he not only required but demanded. From an early age he showed a profound desire to travel, to observe the world, particularly but not only, its natural features and forces. Early on it was Germany—still not yet a unified country—that would be the scene of his travels as a mines inspector: an experience that would stimulate his interest in geology. Later it would be Latin America, particularly its more tropical latitudes and to a much lesser but still significant degree Russia.
He was a child of the Enlightenment. His singular contribution would be not just the invention of nature as an organic entity of interrelated parts, each part incomprehensible when abstracted from its relations with others, as indeed in Andrea Wulf’s sub-title; but viewing it from the standpoint of how as an ensemble of parts it varied over the earth’s surface, and always in the context of wider connections. In Humboldt there is a compelling sense of nature as a web of relations. In his path-breaking work on plant geography, plants were to be seen as ensembles: grouped together by region rather than abstracted from their wider contexts for taxonomic purposes, as had been the convention. The idea of food chains was central to his thinking—more connections therefore. And while Linnaeus had recognized the chain of relationships between successive eaters and eaten, it was Humboldt who observed the bloody struggle for life through which balance in the food chain was attained, disturbed, and re-established—an understanding that would later impress Darwin.
The earth itself was an organism. Humboldt was fascinated by volcanoes and their distribution. Did the fact that they tended to cluster and align one with another suggest subterranean connections, something that would, of course, be ultimately verified. The distribution of the continents attracted his attention. Similarities in plant species between Latin America and West Africa suggested to him that at some time the continents might have been joined: another extraordinarily prescient idea in light of what we now know. Human interventions disturbed natural connections creating new geographic forms to be puzzled over and investigated. The falling water levels of lakes could be attributed in part to diversion of the water flowing into them for purposes of irrigation: shades of the Aral Sea!
Humboldt’s curiosity about the world was seemingly boundless, stimulating an urge to travel to distant places, to experience their particularity directly, to observe and then to interpret. The part of the world that he will be forever associated with is Latin America, particularly Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela, as we know them today. Later he would travel to Russia. It was the romance of places that seemingly propelled him: the desire to visit and explore and experience and then explain the sharpest of geographical variations, whether those between the tropics and the more temperate latitudes of which he was most aware; or between the forests and grasslands of the tropics—not just the Venezuelan jungle, therefore, but the Llanos as well. His vision of space was three dimensional; in Latin America he looked and observed all around him, up to the highest of mountains. What struck him as he climbed progressively higher in the Andes was how the succession of plant life and human use of the land was a transposition of variations over space where there were no mountains to disturb the geographic ordering. Everything would then be measured and reduced to some sort of pattern awaiting interpretation. Temperature variations would be expressed through the innovation of the isotherm or line of equal temperature – a central concept in modern climatology. This then led him to ponder why they were not always parallel to lines of latitude, since the earth was supposed to get cooler as one went from the tropics to polar latitudes and this in turn gave rise to ideas of marine and continental influence. Central Russia was colder in winter and warmer in summer than Asia’s maritime margins because it was far from the modifying influence of the oceans.
In short, and of all the academic fields with which we are now familiar, Humboldt would be regarded today as most closely associated with geography. He is, in fact, regarded as one of the founders of the modern field and he was no stranger at meetings of the geographical societies of the time. Humboldt’s approach to the world then underlined the significance of geography as a very visual pursuit: how one observes difference through travel and one is stimulated to investigate; the interest in landscape; the desire, so evident in Humboldt, to experience things at first hand.
But this is also, and obviously, a very limiting sense of Humboldt. As with other enlightenment thinkers it is not so easy to compartmentalize his thought. Adam Smith was as much moral philosopher, historian and social thinker as he was an economist. Kant gave lectures in geography. David Hume was fascinated by the question of property: where it came from and the practical as well as moral problems that it generated; Rousseau was philosopher, social theorist and inventor of the modern autobiographical form. This, of course, was before the reforms of the university that would produce the modern academic division of labor. Holistic thought flourished and by examining the work of people like Humboldt its enduring possibilities become clearer.
Humboldt’s approach to the world then underlined the significance of geography as a very visual pursuit: how one observes difference through travel and one is stimulated to investigate; the interest in landscape; the desire, so evident in Humboldt, to experience things at first hand.
Appropriate to a holistic vision, Humboldt’s view of the world was to a considerable degree dialectical. He had no concept of the contradictions through which the world changed, but the dynamism of the world was certainly something he took for granted. Nothing was static; change was universal. Everything for Humboldt was related to everything else, but not in a simple mechanistic sense whereby the different components retained their identity regardless of their connections; rather plants were what they were in virtue of their wider ecological relations: stuff circulated through them. There was a sense in which they internalized their relations to the soil, to insects and to other plants as part of themselves. These ideas were in the air at the time in the form of Friedrich Schelling’s philosophy of nature. They influenced Goethe and they would influence Hegel.
The principles of change and movement would then be of central importance to Darwin as he developed his ideas. He thought of the possibility of organisms changing and necessarily in virtue of their relations to features of their ecological context. Darwin was impressed by Humboldt’s thinking long before he set out on the Beagle, and in fact took the write-up of Humboldt’s Latin American expedition—the seven-volume Personal Narrative—along with him; a book that he admitted had ‘stirred up … a burning zeal’ Humboldt was foundational for Darwin’s thinking. Humboldt had asked questions about plant and animal geography that impressed Darwin: not just the recognition of climate-dependent variation suggesting the environmental adaptation of species, but also how there was variation within particular climatic belts. Why, for example, were tigers only found in India? Humboldt had even recognized and puzzled over commonalities between species—the alligator and the lizard, the cat and the tiger.
Humboldt was an acute and critical observer of seemingly everything: primarily the natural world, but the human one too as in his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. His expedition to Latin America left in him an enduring disgust for slavery and the colonial world. He was vigorous in his critique. All peoples were the equals of one another; there were no superiors and inferiors. This made him sensitive to what is now known in the social sciences and humanities as the problem of positionality and the sorts of Eurocentric framings that it can lead to. Rather he was intrigued by indigenous peoples and far from seeing them as barbaric as was indeed the common European understanding of the time, he was curious about their customs, their accomplishments, their understanding of nature and of its differences, their navigational abilities, their altogether remarkable environmental understanding.
He despised colonialism, the environmental havoc created by the Europeans and their exploitation of the indigenous peoples. Curiously he was alert to the dangers of the circuits of commodity exchange into which they were being induced. The replacement of subsistence crops with those that could be sold, like indigo in the Lake Valencia case or sugar in Cuba, exposed the population to the risk of starvation. Like Jefferson he saw dangers in moving beyond societies that were agrarian in their emphasis—so something of the French Physiocrats and their glorification of a life on the land.
Humboldt’s work conveyed a sense of how different Latin America was from Europe, giving the revolutionaries a sense of having their own distinct place in the world and one of which they could be proud. Bolivar knew him, admired him and was inspired by him. Humboldt, said Bolivar, “had done America more good than all of the conquerors.”
A logical consequence of his antagonism to colonialism was his support for independence movements in Latin America. Conversely his work conveyed a sense of how different Latin America was from Europe, giving the revolutionaries a sense of having their own distinct place in the world and one of which they could be proud. Bolivar knew him, admired him and was inspired by him. Humboldt, said Bolivar, “had done America more good than all of the conquerors.”
In short, Humboldt made a huge difference to the intellectual life of his day and far into the 19th century, and to some extent to the political as well, including the American conservation movement. But, as Andrea Wulf explains, he also had his circumstances, circumstances that he had to exploit if he was to develop his thinking in the way that he did, and this sheds light on how the savants of the day operated and the immense gulf that separates them from the intellectual world of today. Most crucially he was born into circles of the rich and powerful. His family had money and enjoyed connections with the upper echelons of the Prussian state; connections that would help facilitate his extensive travels. Once he had created a reputation for himself those connections kicked in again, and he benefited from a substantial annual pension from the King of Prussia who saw Humboldt as an embellishment of the kingdom. His travels in Russia would be funded by the tsar. This is not to argue that money was never a problem for Humboldt; but nevertheless not only was he able to travel and observe, he could then pick and choose the sites where he would work up his ideas and get them published. Paris was his center of gravity: a major pole of attraction throughout his adult life, and far more than his native Berlin which he found oppressive. Like London it had scientific societies and institutions but it was also unmatched in its day for the liberality of its intellectual environment. Nowhere in Europe had religion been put so much on the back burner ; rational investigation flourished. And there again, he too became a pole of attraction: Humphrey Davy, Charles Babbage, William Buckland the geologist, and Charles Lyell, a geologist who would influence Darwin, the German statistician Gauss, all came to pay homage. Paris was the center of the intellectual universe and part of the reason for that was that Humboldt was there.
But for the most part he is absent from the minds of the present. In a finely drawn outline of a life that was filled with activity, with meetings, with far-reaching observations and brilliant imaginings, Andrea Wulf has made a wonderful contribution to rectifying that. Humboldt’s life is one to be savored and to be shared as she makes so plainly clear in a compelling book that is as readable as it is enlightening about someone to whom we all owe an immense intellectual debt.