American History · biography · european history · history

Humboldt and the Natural World

“As our planet faces irreversible global heating, politicians and scientists are throwing statistics and numbers at us, but few dare to talk about our awe for nature, or the vulnerable beauty of our planet…”

-Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature, quote from “Alexander von Humboldt, an Intrepid Scientist who Re-imagined the Natural World” HistoryExtra magazine Sept 2019 edition

Climate change is an extremely important topic in our present-day world. Greta Thurnberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit this year has inspired as she became a social media sensation. It has inspired people who may not have been as well informed, including myself.  Yet, did you know the dangers of human induced climate change were recognized by one of the worlds most famous scientists as far back as 1800?

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That scientist was Alexander von Humboldt, who was born on September 14, 1769 in Berlin to an aristocratic Prussian family. By the end of his life, he had become a world superstar. It is crazy to think that a scientist had become the biggest celebrity during the 19th century. In 1869, to celebrate one hundred years since the birth of Humboldt, thousands of people gathered in celebration in multiple cities worldwide. Humboldt has the most species and places named after him. He influenced so many people during his life which included Goethe, Simon Bolivar (the revolutionary who liberated many Latin American countries), Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and the great Charles Darwin. It was Humboldt’s famous, Personal Narrative, that inspired Darwin to go on his famous journey aboard the Beagle. Humboldt was his idol. By the end of Humboldt life, he was receiving over 5,000 letters daily and many came to visit the old man in his small apartment to discuss their scientific theories with him.

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Humboldt published many scientific books throughout his lifetime and was writing up until his death at age 89. He was completing his famous multi-volume work, Kosmos.  He had traveled extensively, noticed the effects of human induced climate change, and he was one of the first scientist to view the world as a “living organism”. This means that every species and every part of nature was all interconnected. This is still the way that scientists understand the world today. Humboldt also emphasized the beauty of nature in his work. He truly loved the natural world and wanted others to appreciate, just for a moment, the pure majesty of it. His most important contribution was to create “popular science”. He brought science to the masses. He wrote for a public audience that was outside of the closed group of university scientists. He allowed the poor and women to attend his lectures, despite not being allowed/able to study at university themselves. During this era, it was believed that the poor should not be educated to avoid false ideas of a life beyond their station. Humboldt thought education was the most important opportunity anyone could have, and all should be allowed to attain it. This was likely the greatest influence that Humboldt made on science, was that is should be accessed by everyone.

As stated before, Humboldt was born into an aristocratic Prussian family. He had an older brother, Wilhelm, who by the end of life would be his closest companion. Despite their privileged background, life was not all easy for Humboldt. His father died when he was nine years old and his mother was very distant. She held high expectations for her sons and provided them with the best education. This meant a very strict education, anything less than perfection was not good enough. Humboldt was a more outdoorsy type than his brother and preferred the hands-on study of the world rather than books. Humboldt always had the itch to travel and see more of the world. The tropics held an allure to him, and he became restless while the years went by. He was fulfilling his mother’s wishes for him to attend university and attain a government position. He found a way to compromise his interests in the natural sciences by obtaining a position with the Prussian Ministry of Mines as a mine inspector at the young age of twenty-two. With this job he would travel to various mines across Eastern Europe, study the soils/rocks, and assisted with making the working conditions better for all miners. This included inventing a type of breathing mask, writing textbooks, and creating a mining school to give the workers a better education and training.

Humboldt’s big opportunity came after his mother’s passing when he was twenty-seven. He was free from the expectations that had held him back previously and was able to resign from his government job. His goal was to finally set out on a travel expedition and begin his scientific work. In the meantime, Humboldt wrote about geology, botany and mining throughout Europe and the Alps. He became involved in intellectual groups that contained intellectuals like the poet Goethe. When he moved to Paris, he met the young French scientist, Aime Bonpland, who shared his enthusiasm for travel. The problem they faced was finding a “sponsor” for their voyage, someone who would issue them a passport to travel across the Atlantic. On May 1799, Carlos IV of Spain allowed them a passport to travel to the colonies in South America if the voyage was funded by them. Humboldt was finally going on the scientific expedition he had always wanted.

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Humboldt and Bonpland would travel on a five-year journey that would take them through Venezuela, down to Lima Peru, through Mexico, and ended in the United States where Humboldt would spend time in discussions with President Thomas Jefferson. Throughout this journey, Humboldt would collect over 60,000 plant, animal, rock, and seed samples (including many new species). He would take meticulous measurements of everything and kept up to date journal entries on his travels. His work during this journey would become internationally recognized, he would lay the foundation for the sciences of physical geography, plant geography and meteorology. His measurements were more advanced than the contemporary tools. His illustrations also became famous and the captions were translated into a variety of languages. After studying volcanoes, Humboldt began to support that theory that the Earth was created through massive volcanic eruption and he discovered the idea of a keystone species (one species than an entire ecosystem depended on). Most importantly, Humboldt wanted to express the connection between all the sciences and all of nature. How everything, organic and inorganic, had a purpose and were all interconnected. He compared everything new to what he had seen in Europe previously and noted the similarities and differences.

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Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

Humboldt would experience earthquakes and climbed volcanoes such as Pico del Teide, Cotopaxi, and the daunting Chimbarzo. Though he may not have made it all the way up, he claims to have climbed some 5,000m (about 16,000 ft). He also experienced the culture and saw the effects of Spanish colonization first hand. He used his writings to bring attention to the conditions of slaves and indigenous people. He always was a staunch supporter of abolition. Most importantly, he spoke out about how the changes humans had made to the natural world would affect ecosystems forever.

At Lake Valencia in Venezuela, Alexander von Humboldt, first developed his theory of human-induced climate change:

When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in American 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 and 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.”

The problems the locals had been having was the water levels were decreasing, the forests undergrowth (mosses, brushwood and root systems) had disappeared and caused soil that could not retain water. The dryness of the land caused difficulties for planters and yielded less crop. As the planters moved to find more land, the forests in their paths were destroyed. The soil would also become dry due to the lack of trees blocking the sun. Humboldt could see the connection between all these things. Deforestation was, and still is, a big issue. Humboldt had seen this when he was in the mining business in Europe. He attempted to even suggest ways on reducing the need for timber during the mining process. Humboldt could already see that deforestation would have terrible consequences for future generations. His contemporaries were not seeing all the ways ecosystems were interconnected. They believed that the timber industry and “taming the wilderness” had a positive impact on the environment.

Humboldt was the beginning of the environmental movement. Humboldt listed three ways humans were affecting climate: deforestation, “ruthless irrigation”, and the “great masses of steam and gas” that were created due to the industrial revolution.

Today, Lake Valencia, is suffering from algal blooms which is caused from the dumping of wastewater from the urban/agricultural land uses. Per the wiki page, almost 60% of the native fish species were killed off between 1960-1990. It is not used as a tourist or recreation area. Humboldt’s predictions did prove to be true.

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After some time spent in Mexico and the United States of America, Humboldt returned home with his scientific haul after five years. He would begin a decades long process of compiling the information gained on his travels, studying the specimens that were brought home and would begin writing the 34 volumes of Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent / Essay on the Geography of Plants. This would be published in multiple languages and would include his own illustrations. It was in these writings he expressed his views of the beauty of nature and its connections. With his writings, Humboldt painted a picture of South America and used a poetic style to transport his readers. To encourage his readers to use their imagination and take in the majesty of nature. He wrote Views of Nature and his Personal Narrative (which inspired the great Charles Darwin) for a popular audience rather than the scientific elite, as he believed that everyone had a right to an education and that it was crucial for a happy society.

Later in life (1827), Humboldt gave free scientific lectures at the university in Berlin. Due to his celebrity status since his return to Europe, hundreds of people showed up and listened intently to his research, theories, and experiences. People showed up to the lectures from the highest classes to the common laborer. I found it interesting that almost half of the attendees were women! Free lectures that were opened to all members of the public was not typical in the scientific community. Again, this shows Humboldt’s dedication to offering opportunities for everyone and not just the elite. He wanted to inspire others and share knowledge.

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Pico Del Tedio, Canary Islands

Humboldt would eventually travel to Siberia as he had the opportunity to inspect the mines and advise the government about the proper mining techniques. Humboldt also used this time as an opportunity to complete his research and come full circle with his theories that the world was interconnected. He would have a chance to view and study the mountains of Central Asia. In particular, he studied the Altai Mountains along the Chinese border. Though almost 70 years old, he impressed his companions with his enthusiasm and energy. After obtaining the data from Asia, Humboldt felt as if he had enough to write his ultimate work, a work that he had begun all the way back in 1799 when he journeyed to South America. For the next 25 years, until his death, Humboldt would be consumed writing Kosmos. He would complete four volumes in his lifetime, and it was translated into nearly all European languages. 20,000 copies were sold in Germany in the first month of release. The fifth volume lay unfinished as Humboldt passed away at 90 years old in 1859. It would later be published posthumously.

 Kosmos was an ambitious work as Humboldt connected everything about our universe together, from the stars in the sky to the volcanoes on the surface, to the molten core of the Earth. He expressed his lifelong theory that all organic and inorganic things were connected. He created a “portrait of nature” and I believe that is what most of the readers truly enjoyed about his works. He took them on a journey, showed them the beauty of nature, and they felt like they were traveling right with him. They were following Humboldt up the rocky slope of the massive Cotopaxi, along the banks of Lake Valencia, and through the tropical jungles of the Amazon.

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Why has Humboldt been forgotten today, despite his celebrity? He was the man who inspired Charles Darwin! Humboldt brought together all the disciplines of science in his works to support his theory of nature’s inter connectivity. As the years went on, science became more specialized and individualized which pushed Humboldt’s vision to the side. There was also the effect of the World Wars on society. An anti-German sentiment swept through many nations, especially the United States, which caused the German-born Humboldt to fall out of style and many of his books were burned. Today, Humboldt may be making a comeback as his theories were advanced for his era and his predictions of climate change are quickly coming true. I hope to live Humboldt’s 160 year old vision of the world and take a step back to really enjoy the beauty of nature.




The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldts New World by Andrea Wulf

Aimé Bonpland; Alexander von Humboldt. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Year 1799-1804 — Volume 1

“Alexander von Humboldt, an Intrepid Scientist who Re-imagined the Natural World” by Andrea Wulf. HistoryExtra magazine Sept 2019 edition

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