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Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Why von Humboldt’s vision is still relevant today


Gerald SchmitzAndrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature:
Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
(New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)

I turn 64 on June 6 and it’s made me think of the Beatles song When I’m Sixty-Four with its plaintive refrain, “will you still need me, will you still feed me.” The 6th is also the deadline by when, following the Supreme Court decision legalizing “medical aid in dying” (the polite euphemism for doctor-assisted suicide or euthanasia), government legislation to that effect must be passed.

Rather than dwell on the morbid, I’ve found inspiration in something much more life-affirming. I was born in Humboldt, Sask., one of 13 towns in North America named after Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). At age 65 he began work on his most influential multi-volume work Cosmos. (Maybe my best intellectual years are still ahead?) When he died nearing 90 he had just finished a fifth volume and was the most famous scientist and naturalist the world had ever known.

Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature is a work of prodigious research (110 pages of fine-print endnotes and bibliography) that restores the significance of Humboldt’s vision to our understanding of the natural world. An intrepid explorer driven by scientific curiosity, he was also passionate about encouraging a “love of nature.” Conceiving of nature as a complex dynamic web of life he “saw the earth as one great living organism in which everything is connected.” Observing the consequences of deforestation in South America, he was the first scientist to document harmful human-induced effects on climate.

Humboldt was raised in a wealthy aristocratic Prussian family with his older brother Wilhelm. He was a restless brilliant loner (apart from a few intense male friendships), animated by a love of knowledge that fused scientific method with artistic imagination. Observing and classifying was insufficient to a holistic appreciation of the nature of things. A large inheritance enabled his scientific pursuits. In 1799 he was granted permission by the Spanish king to visit Spain’s vast possessions in the Americas, leaving behind a Europe soon to be convulsed by the Napoleonic wars.

Accompanied by a young French scientist, Aimé Bonpland, Humboldt arrived first in Venezuela and would spend the next few years exploring the region’s rainforests, river systems, and mountain ranges, often enduring extreme, even life-threatening conditions. Humboldt was a liberal idealist who had been inspired by the American and French revolutions. He was a harsh critic of colonial exploitation, slavery and the dispossession of indigenous peoples (all prevalent in the Spanish Americas) which he linked to environmental despoliation. As Wulf writes: “Humboldt was the first to relate colonialism to the devastation of the environment.” Nature must be respected, not conquered. Following a further year in Mexico, Humboldt was able to share his ideas with President Thomas Jefferson, a fellow polymath and kindred spirit.

When Humboldt returned to Paris in 1804 he found it a congenial hothouse of scientific and intellectual inquiry despite Napoleon’s increasingly autocratic rule and imperial ambitions. He threw himself into a frenzied dissemination of his findings. It was there he met Simon Bolivar, the future “liberator” of Hispanic America (who would also develop dictatorial tendencies once in power). Humboldt’s books, Views of Nature and the seven-volume expedition account Personal Narrative, became bestsellers, and an inspiration for the young Charles Darwin to undertake his own voyage of discovery. Humboldt reluctantly moved to Berlin for several years but returned to Paris in 1807 where he would spend the next 15 years. His fame continued to grow throughout the era of Napoleonic conquests (including wars with Prussia) and ultimate defeat. His Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain was first published in several volumes in French between 1808 and 1811 at a time when the Spanish American colonies were in the throes of revolts and civil strife.

Humboldt was always firmly on the side of independence, freedom of thought, indigenous rights and the abolition of slavery. But as he became disillusioned by the unfortunate aftermath of revolutionary politics in France and elsewhere, he focused his energies on a wide range of scientific subjects. His public lectures on these were a phenomenal success. By middle age, however, be had used up most of his fortune and needed the income from a retainer to the Prussian King Wilhelm III who drew on his encyclopedic knowledge while ignoring his liberal views. Bowing to his royal benefactor, Humboldt returned to Berlin in 1827, although he chafed under the restrictions imposed by his service to the court.

Humboldt was always eager to embark on new explorations. He went to London, where his brother Wilhelm (the founder of Humboldt University) was a Prussian diplomat, seeking permission from the British East India Company to travel to the Indian subcontinent, but it was never granted. He turned instead to the Russian empire and in 1829 was allowed to travel into Siberia. Ignoring orders to go no further than Tobolsk, his quest for wild places took him all the way to the Altai mountains in the far east bordering Mongolia and China where he could compare observations with those he had made in the Andes decades earlier.

In Wulf’s words: “Russia was the final chapter in his understanding of nature . . . Humboldt wrote about the destruction of forests and humankind’s long-term changes to the environment. When he listed three ways in which the human species was affecting the climate, he named deforestation, ruthless irrigation, and perhaps most prophetically, the “great masses of steam and gas” produced in industrial centres. No one but Humboldt had looked at the relationship between humankind and nature like this before.”

For 12 years Humboldt laboured on his masterwork Cosmos before the first volume was published in 1845 propounding a holistic understanding of all creation in constant evolving interconnection and flux. A worldwide bestseller, it also made no mention of God. In Humboldt’s universe nature was enough of a wonder in itself. A second volume, described as a “voyage of the mind,” appeared in 1847. These made a profound impression on contemporaries, notably Darwin then working on The Origin of Species, and in America Henry David Thoreau. The revolutionary uprisings that swept across Europe in 1848 revived liberal political hopes but proved ephemeral. Instead over the next decade an aging Humboldt concentrated on producing further volumes of Cosmos.

The last chapters of Wulf’s book show Humboldt’s posthumous influence on key figures in an emerging environmental movement. In America George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature in 1864 decrying how through deforestation and industrialization humans were becoming agents of environmental destruction. The German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, a fervent Darwinian, developed the concept of “ecology” as part of a scientific and aesthetic exaltation of the natural world. Another American, the Scots-born John Muir, who travelled in Canada during the civil war years, found the divine in nature through his explorations of California’s Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Valley. His numerous publications argued passionately for the protection of wilderness, helping to inspire the creation of national parks. He co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892.

Although Humboldt faded from prominence in the 20th century (anti-German sentiment in the wake of world wars was also a factor), Wulf makes a compelling case that his legacy — his “interdisciplinary approach to science and nature,” his great achievement in making “science accessible and popular” — is more relevant than ever. “His concept of nature as one of global patterns underpins our thinking.”

As Nathaniel Rich writes in The New York Review of Books, “Wulf makes Humboldtians of us all,” for which this Humboldt-born reader has found another reason to be grateful.