Long before I knew who he was, Alexander von Humboldt had exercised a major influence over me. I first encountered his name in an undergraduate oceanography lecture, when I learned about the Humboldt current that flows northward along the Pacific coast of South America. By the time I visited the Humboldt Redwoods in California, many years later, I was vaguely aware that he was among history’s more influential naturalists. It’s taken Andrea Wulf’s extensive and extremely readable biography to properly introduce me to the man behind a name that appears on maps with a frequency usually reserved for kings and queens, and to understand how much I have been influenced by a man who died more than a hundred years before I was born.
Wulf takes us from Humboldt’s youth in the lower echelons of the Prussian aristocracy, his chafing against his training as a mining engineer and his early friendship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, with whom he shared an interest in natural history. Much of The Invention of Nature is focused on the five years he spent in South America that were the making of him. He crossed little-known regions of what are now Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru and climbed so many volcanoes that he became the world’s most experienced mountaineer.
Many years ago, I made an ill-advised attempt to climb Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador. I vividly remember breathing in air so cold it hurt my sinuses while standing on a glacier that felt almost vertical. Humboldt scaled Cotopaxi long before there were such things as specialised mountaineering equipment or experienced guides. He went on to attempt Mount Chimborazo, which was then regarded as the world’s highest mountain and still is if calculated from the centre of the Earth. He didn’t reach the summit, but he got high enough to record an altitude of 19,413 feet (5917m), higher than anyone had ascended before.
His record would stand until it was beaten by Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac in a hot air balloon, possibly watched by Humboldt himself who lived in Paris at the time. Typically, Humbold was more interested in comparing his measurements of the atmosphere at different altitudes than reclaiming his record. He and Gay-Lussac collaborated in further research and gave joint lectures at the Académie de Sciences in Paris.
Throughout his South American escapades, Humboldt and his companion, Aimé Bonpland, recorded and collected every plant or animal they could lay their hands on. Had Humboldt restricted himself to climbing mountains and pressing leaves, he would have ranked among the great 19th century explorers and naturalists, but he went a step further. He described not only individual organisms but the way they grouped together. His description of Chimborazo focused not on his own adventure, but on the different groupings of animals and plants that he’d seen at different altitudes. His invention of nature, to use Wulf’s term, took him categorising organisms to thinking of nature as a system. It would take one of his many intellectual disciples, Ernst Haeckel, to coin the word Oecologie, later anglicised to ‘ecology’, but Haeckel credited Humboldt with being the first to describe the natural world in such terms.
As Humboldt started to see nature as a system, so he started to see how human activity could affect it. He saw large areas left barren by slash-and-burn agriculture practiced there, intended to grow crops for export while food was imported, mainly from the nascent USA. Worse was that the system depended on slavery and debt peonage. By the time he returned to Europe, Humboldt was almost as passionate an abolitionist as he was a naturalist.
His antipathy toward the tyranny he’d seen would catch the imagination of a young man called Simon Bolìvar whom he met later in Paris. Bolìvar was making the ‘grand tour’ of Europe that scions of well-to-do families made to sow their wild oats around the major European cities. Humboldt’s spoke to him of his love for the lands he had travelled and the people he had met, but not the Spanish overlords who he saw as oppressing and enslaving them. Bolìvar acknowledged Humboldt as one of the inspirations for the revolution he would lead against the Spanish.
While Humboldt proved to be well-tuned to the politics of South America, he appears to have been more naïve when he visited North America on the way back to Europe. As a regular guest in the White House, he became a friend of President Thomas Jefferson and freely gave his views on natural history, and also the political and agricultural systems he had found so objectionable. While Jefferson’s interest in natural history was genuine, Humboldt was also being pumped for economic intelligence. Humboldt wrote in praise of the USA’s commitment to the principles of liberty but perhaps because he did not travel in North America as he did in South America, he did not then realise that he was praising a country whose economy was as dependent on the slavery he was excoriating to a man who was himself an owner of slaves.
Humboldt spent most of the rest of his life between Paris and Berlin, where he wrote the Personal Narrative of his travels that made him one of the most admired natural philosophers in the world and introduced his ideas on natural systems that remain his lasting legacy. He spent many years trying to get permission to explore British India, which was never granted. At the age of 60, he secured permission for an expedition through Russia, which he undertook with such energy that he left his much younger travelling companions exhausted as they struggled to keep up with him. He then developed his ideas further with the multivolume Kosmos.
Humboldt’s life was extraordinary enough to be worth reading for itself, but The Invention of Nature goes further to trace his influence on later generations of naturalists. Humboldt’s Personal Narrative inspired the young Charles Darwin to embark on HMS Beagle, and he referred extensively to his copy on the voyage. As Humboldt came to see nature in terms of systems through his travels in South America, so Darwin came to look not only for plants and animals to describe but for how they interacted with each other. He would not come to describe natural selection, the system he is most famous for, until years after his return from South America but The Voyage of the Beagle contains a description of the formation of coral atolls that had not changed by the time I was introduced to the concept at about the same time as I was introduced to the Humboldt Current. The influence of Humboldt’s systemic approach is plain in the description, as Darwin was already thinking beyond what he observed and asking himself how it came to be so.
Henry David Thoreau took his own copy of Personal Narrative on his sojourn at Walden’s Pond, and spent many hours studying it. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, was a great admirer of Humboldt and freely admitted his influence.
The ubiquity of Humboldt’s name on maps and in zoological catalogues illustrates how famous he was in his day. In 1869, the centenary of his birth was celebrated with parades across the globe, from New York to Buenos Aires to his home city of Berlin. Perhaps because of the denigration of German culture after the world wars, he is no longer as famous as many of his disciples although his ideas live on.
The power of Humboldt’s invention as nature as a system is such that many of us who think in such terms today do not realise the influence that Humboldt has on us. Some years ago, I gave a series of talks about the coevolution of humans and the viruses that infect us. I tipped my hat to a number of the giants on whose shoulders I was standing, but I didn’t know that I’d taken ideas that Humboldt conceived on the slopes of Chimborazo and applied them to the human body.
Thanks to Andrea Wulf, I do now.