Book Reviews, Sociocultural Phenomena

Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859): The invention of nature (part 1)

It was Alexander von Humboldt who emphatically asserted as early as 200 years ago that the climate was changing as a result of human intervention in nature. He was definitely a key figure in the scientific development of the 19th century and one of the most well-known and globally influential personalities of his time. The U.S.-American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) called him «the most famous man in the world after Napoleon» and described Humboldt’s eyes as natural telescopes and microscopes.

Early environmentalist ideas

«When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, with an imprudent precipitation, the springs are entirely dried up, or become less abundant. The beds of the rivers, remaining dry during a part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall on the heights. The sward and moss disappearing with the brush-wood from the sides of the mountains, the waters falling in rain are no longer impeded in their course: and instead of slowly augmenting the level of the rivers by progressive filtrations, they furrow during heavy showers the sides of the hills, bear down the loosened soil, and form those sudden inundations, that devastate the country.» (Humboldt, 1859, as cited in Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, New York, Alfred Knopf, p. 64–65).

Alexander von Humboldt «discovered» that in nature everything is connected with everything else. He was the first modern age scientist to recognize nature as a coherent network of living beings in balance with each other. He not only decisively shaped our current understanding of ecosystems, but also demanded that nature be perceived with all senses and feelings, and not just on a purely rational level. He was moreover an ardent supporter of the ideals of the French Revolution (1789) and a staunch opponent of colonialism and oppression of any kind, especially slavery, which he denounced throughout his life. With incredible stamina, he corresponded incessantly with colleagues worldwide and wrote nearly 50,000 letters in scientific exchange. The work of countless scientists, politicians, and artists would be inconceivable without Humboldt. Throughout their lives, notable personalities, such as Charles Darwin (1809–1882), Simon Bolívar (1783–1830), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and many others referred to Alexander von Humboldt and his works. Goethe declared that Humboldt had given him so much knowledge and inspiration in a single day «as if I had lived for years.»

The UK-based German writer Andrea Wulf (born 1967) has published an outstanding book on Alexander von Humboldt: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt`s New World, 2015 (ISBN: 978-0385350662). This book is a wonderful example of an entertaining, present-day approach to such a highly complex subject. Wulf’s simple, clear, and logical structure guides us into Humboldt’s life and times. She takes us along on his fascinating travels and perilous adventures, including important background information, conditions, and political developments of the time. The result is profoundly inspiring.

Alexander von Humboldt, etching by Auguste Desnoyers

The Invention of Nature

«Humboldt was turning away from the human-centred perspective that had ruled humankind’s approach to nature (or rather: “Christian-Judean Europe’s approach” – note by the translator Adrienne Samos) for millennia: from Aristotle (384 – 322), who had written that ‹nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man›, to botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778), who had still echoed the same sentiment more than 2,000 years later, in 1749, when he insisted that ‹all things are made for the sake of man›. It had long been believed that God had given humans command over nature. After all, didn’t the Bible say that man should be fruitful and ‹replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over fish of the sea, and over fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth›? In the seventeenth century the British philosopher Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) had declared, ‹the world is made for man›, while René Descartes (1596 – 1650) had argued that animals were effectively automata—complex, perhaps, but not capable of reason and therefore inferior to humans.» (Andrea Wulf, 2015, p. 67)

Alexander had already read the books by the explorers and circumnavigators James Cook and Louis Antoine de Bougainville when he was still a youth, and he was intensely fascinated. He had a strict upbringing and was taught by tutors, together with his two-year older brother Wilhelm von Humboldt, who went on to become a cultural scientist, state theorist, diplomat, and founder of the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. His father had died at an early age, and the relationship with his mother, if existent at all, was extremely cool. From childhood on Alexander collected all sorts of plants and animals in surrounding, earning him the nickname of «little apothecary».

At the age of 25 (in 1794), young Alexander already deeply impressed Schiller (1759 – 1805) and Goethe (1749 – 1832), whom he met in Jena and Weimar. Goethe confessed that he could sometimes hardly follow Alexander once he had launched into one of his countless, witty ramblings. Alexander and Goethe shared an unquenchable interest in nature (Goethe kept about 18,000 rock samples at home); day and night they discussed philosophical and scientific issues. Schelling’s philosophy of nature, which conceived of nature as a living organism, was very much in line with Humboldt’s view: «Nature must be felt», he wrote to his friend Goethe.

Friedrich Schiller, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in Schiller`s garden, Jena

Improved measuring instruments, microscopes, and telescopes made a significant contribution at the time to investigating the laws of nature. Like floodgates opening, they gave access to previously unthinkable areas and spheres, much as is the case today with nano- and macrotechnology. The French Revolution was taking place and the first steamship had just been developed when Alexander von Humboldt was 20 years old. He dreamed of an international, enlightened, intellectual community, a Republic of Letters that would be independent of local political conditions and operate across national borders. But this was to be a long time coming—much like his eagerly anticipated exploration and discovery expeditions.


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