HumboldtAcross the street from the southeastern corner of the Museum of Natural History is the Naturalists’ Gate to Central Park. Besides it is this massive bust of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the great German explorer, naturalist, and geographer. The bronze was unveiled on the 100th anniversary of his birth as part of the world-wide celebrations of his life and achievements, for he was then probably the best known scientist of his day. He was actually born before word “scientist” was even coined and in many ways he was actually the  last natural historian.

Charles Darwin, who would eclipse Humboldt in fame, was an avid follower. He took the multiple volumes of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative on board HMS Beagle. It was a small ship, and Darwin had to ask the Captain’s permission to bring the extra volumes. Humboldt? But of course. Darwin also bought Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Charles Lyell was also very much influenced by Humboldt. Darwin’s reading material were lights to the fuse of his thinking. (I unlock three original pieces of Darwin’s writing in this Jstor Daily piece.)
UnknownHumboldt himself was influenced by Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, whose proto-evolutionary views Humboldt and Goethe devoured in the 1790s. All these connections, and others to Bolivar, Thoreau, Perkins, Muir, Haeckel, are nicely elucidated in Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.

In high school I wrote a report about Humboldt, so I’ve long known something about him. (In fact, I can’t remember any other papers I wrote in college or graduate school.)

Wulf makes a bold argument that Humboldt, who has largely been forgotten in the English-speaking world, is the founder of our modern environmental sense of the world as an interconnected web of life. (The world ecology, from oecologie, was coined by the Humboldt-inspired Haeckel from the Greek for housekeeping.) In addition to all his other observations about South America, Humboldt noted the effects of deforestation and argued that humans influenced the climate. He was a polymath, his politics were in the right place, and he insisted on the unity of imagination and science (the Romantics, who downplayed the science, ran with him on the poetry side). Science, of course, has become so specialized that it’s hard for any one person to grasp it all today. We rely on popularizing writers to decipher the jargon of the journals. Wulf’s history is wonderfully readable.

By the way, when Darwin finally met his hero, he hardly got a word in edgewise. Humboldt was famous for talking a blue, no, an ultraviolet, streak. The Kosmos, as he named his culminating work, was bursting out of his head, evidently all the time (he seems tireless: at 60 his was charging around Siberia).

Cosmos is from the Greek for order and beauty ~ that is, the universe, as we perceive it.

1 Response to “Humboldt”

  1. 1 elwnyc February 21, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    I attended a fascinating lecture by Andrea Wulf who discussed Humboldt’s accomplishments and his still-existing fame in the non-English-speaking world. Since I was only aware of the Humboldt current, it was a real eye-opener.

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