Alexander von Humboldt, Enlightenment Ambassador: a Reflection on Andrea Wulf's "The Invention of Nature"

Andrea Wulf’s 2015 biography The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World garnered so much critical attention—nearly all of which was resoundingly positive (with the exception of Elizabeth Kolbert’s snooty and unaccountably small-minded review in The New Yorker)—that soon after I first started reading it I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. Wulf’s prose builds up to a stylistic flourish now and again, usually helped along with an apt quote or two from Humboldt himself, but if the earliest pages were any indication, the rest of the book promised to make for some pretty dry reading, an occasional scene of high adventure notwithstanding. After making some further headway, though, I found that Humboldt’s story was having a slowly incremental effect on me, as all the best stories do, of cumulative enchantment.

No more than about a third of the way in, I’d learned to appreciate Wulf’s writing, which now seemed not so much dry as scholarly, in the best sense of the term, sober and precise, but never fussily academic. I ended up reading most of the book in prolonged bouts culminating in eye strain coupled with an urge to venture out into some unmapped wilderness.
Andrea Wulf

By the time of Humboldt’s death in 1859, just months before the publication of Origin of Species, historical currents in his native Prussia and elsewhere around the world were sweeping the various fields of science along in the direction of ever greater specialization. But Humboldt’s career followed a wholly separate course, and his writings would form the headwaters for a few currents of their own, less traveled and far less conspicuous perhaps, but evident to anyone taking the time to step back and savor a more panoramic view of scientific progress.

In his autobiography On the Move, the late neurologist, author, and science enthusiast Oliver Sacks describes Humboldt’s moment in history as a “sweet, unspoiled, preprofessional atmosphere, ruled by a sense of adventure and wonder rather than by egoism and a lust for priority and fame” (330). That same sense of adventure and wonder probably still launches innumerable careers today, but it too seldom survives the travails of graduate training and the harsh realities within the institutional bureaucracy most scientists are daily forced to negotiate. For these erstwhile budding explorers, there could probably be few greater delights than being reminded of the earliest upwellings of the passion that would lend shape to their lives, and books like The Invention of Nature offer a welcome opportunity to reconnect with that font of inspiration which, in more innocent and uncomplicated times, set them on the path.

            Ironically, though, Humboldt himself would have scoffed at the suggestion that he lived in a time when scientists could forgo petty politicking and pleading for funds. Though he was born to a wealthy family, he began his career as a mine inspector because his mother saw no practical benefit in financing any of the journeys to far-flung regions he was so eager to embark upon. It was only after her death that he finally traveled, at the age of 27, to South America for the expedition that would make him famous all over the world, but not before costing him nearly all of his inheritance. For a second act, Humboldt planned to climb the Himalayas, where he could compare measurements he’d made in other mountain ranges in various regions, most notably in the Andes. But this expedition would never take place because the East India Company was all too familiar with Humboldt’s widely read condemnations of Spanish colonial rule in his writings about South America. Not until he was nearly in his sixties would he finally go on one more journey of exploration, this time through Russia as far as the Mongolian border. He died back in his hometown of Berlin, though, after living for years on a generous stipend granted to him by the king, in exchange for which he was made to take on, much to his annoyance, the duties of a courtier.

This isn’t to say that Humboldt’s life was entirely without anything that might satisfy our modern nostalgia for the romantic adventures of bygone eras. What you discover reading about his journeys, though, is that the sense of almost spiritual exultation he experienced at various points during his travels was as much a product of his unique view of the natural world and its inhabitants as it was of the actual places he explored and the people he met there. In his mid-twenties, Humboldt was greatly influenced by his impassioned exchanges with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was in turn greatly influenced by Humboldt. The two were introduced at Alexander’s older brother Wilhelm’s house in the small university town of Jena in 1794.

Today, Goethe is a towering figuring in German literature, but he was also an avid student of philosophy and science. Though the arts and sciences are Balkanized in modern universities, Goethe saw each as a path to greater understanding of the other. As Wulf explains,

Goethe insisted that objective truth could only be attained by combining subjective experiences (through the perception of the eye, for example) with the observer’s power of reasoning. “The senses do not deceive,” Goethe declared, “it is judgment that deceives.”  
This growing emphasis on subjectivity began radically to change Humboldt’s thinking. It was the time in Jena that moved him from purely empirical research towards his own interpretation of nature—a concept that brought together exact scientific data with an emotional response to what he was seeing. Humboldt had long believed the importance of close observation and rigorous measurements—firmly embracing Enlightenment methods—but now he also began to appreciate individual perception and subjectivity. Only a few years previously, he had admitted that “vivid phantasy confuses me,” but now he came to believe that imagination was as necessary as rational thought in order to understand the natural world. “Nature must be experienced through feeling,” Humboldt wrote to Goethe, insisting that those who wanted to describe the world by simply classifying plants, animals and rocks “will never get close to it.” (36)

What we tend to forget today, however, is that most Europeans of the 18th and early 19th centuries had no desire to get close to nature, which to them represented an absence of all that was Godly and civilized. The natural world was something to be brought to heel, tamed, cultivated, its bounty mercilessly extracted to optimize yields and maximize profits. Nature as a source of beauty and a place of refuge, as we’re more apt to see it today, was a revolutionary idea, one that would be further promulgated by some of Humboldt’s most renowned followers like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. 

            Today, it’s much easier to imagine nature as so many gently meandering streams cascading from mountaintops overlooking scenic vistas, because we’re seldom at the mercy of a region’s climate or native inhabitants. Wulf writes about how “Humboldt wished that he had a ‘third hand’ to fend off the mosquitoes,” as he traveled along the Amazon collecting specimens and taking measurements, because “he always felt that he had to drop either his sextant or a leaf” (69). With all these first-hand experiences, his vision of the natural world was more complicated than the idylls we can’t help envisioning whenever we see pictures of places like Yosemite or Victoria Falls. Yet the connection between our environment and our inner state was unmistakable. He would go on to explore this relationship in depth in books written some time after his journeys in South America. Wulf writes,

In Views of Nature Humboldt showed how nature could have an influence on people’s imagination. Nature, he wrote, was in a mysterious communication with our “inner feelings.” A clear blue sky, for example, triggers different emotions than a heavy blanket of dark clouds. Tropical scenery, densely filled with banana and palm trees, has a different effect than an open forest of white-stemmed slender birches. What we might take for granted today—that there is a correlation between the external world and our mood—was a revelation the Humboldt’s readers. Poets had engaged with such ideas but never a scientist. (133)

Humboldt was more open to investigating this type of communion than his fellow scientists because, as his brother once said of him, his mind was made “to connect ideas, to detect chains of things” (87), but also because, largely inspired by Goethe, connections between seemingly discrete forces and elements were exactly what he’d set out on his expedition to discover.

            Humboldt came to appreciate these connections as never before atop Mount Chimborazo, an inactive volcano a hundred miles south of Quito in what is today the country of Ecuador. This climb would represent a turning point in Humboldt’s life, an experience that both Wulf’s biography and his own writings return to frequently. Having reached an altitude of 19,143 feet—a mere 1,000 feet from the peak—Humboldt took in his surroundings. Wulf writes,

As he stood that day on Chimborazo, Humboldt absorbed what lay in front of him while his mind reached back to all the plants, rock formations and measurements that he had seen and taken on the slopes of the Alps, the Pyrenees and in Tenerife. Everything that he had ever observed fell into place. Nature, Humboldt realized, was a web of life and a global force. He was, a colleague later said, the first to understand that everything was interwoven as with “a thousand threads.” This new idea of nature was to change the way people understood the world. (87)

This concept of interconnectedness broke with the tradition of such figures as Carl Linnaeus, who saw the world as more like a complex timekeeping device. Following Goethe, Humboldt was now seeing the earth as a living organism. The parts of one watch are interchangeable with those of another, but each part of an organism grows along with all its other parts; you can’t remove or replace one without impacting all the others.

            What likely stands as Humboldt’s biggest scientific discovery emerges from this more holistic way of thinking about the world. On the lookout for hidden connections all throughout his journeys in South America, he compared whatever he saw, as systematically as he could, with what he’d observed during his travels through Europe. In the process, he became the first to notice a pattern; the various plants growing at different altitudes resembled those at similar altitudes on mountains in distant parts of the world, and they also corresponded with plants at particular latitudes of the globe. Wulf explains,

For Humboldt, the days they had spent travelling from Quito and then climbing up Chimborazo had been like a botanical journey that moved from the Equator towards the poles—with the whole plant world seemingly layered on top of each other as the vegetation zones ascended the mountain. The plant groups ranged from the tropical species down in the valleys to the lichens that he had encountered near the snow line. Towards the end of his life, Humboldt often talked about understanding nature from ‘a higher point of view’ from which those connections could be seen; the moment when he had realized this was here, on Chimborazo. With ‘a single glance’, he saw the whole of nature laid out before him. (88)

What Humboldt was describing are what we now call isotherms, bands across the globe where similar climates lead to similar types of vegetation. Just as climate varies with distance from the equator, it also varies with distance from sea level. “Instead of placing plants in their taxonomic categories,” Wulf emphasizes, “he saw vegetation through the lens of climate and location” (89).

            This marked the beginning of our investigations into what one of Humboldt’s acolytes, Ernst Haeckel, would coin the term ecosystem to describe. Even more revolutionary than Humboldt’s idea that all aspects of nature are organically interconnected was his insistence that humans must be incorporated into these systems as well. The unsettling implication was that by cultivating land and harvesting its resources, people were setting in motion a cascade of consequences that could be devastating over time.

By then, Humboldt had already documented evidence of this kind of environmental degradation at Lake Valencia in what’s today northwestern Venezuela. Farmers had felled countless trees to clear the surrounding land, and they’d diverted several of the streams feeding into the lake to irrigate their crops. In only a few decades, the dense forests surrounding Lake Valencia had disappeared, the water level had declined dramatically, and already the soil was depleted. The planters’ response was to continually move their fields westward. “Forest very decimated” (57), Humboldt noted in his diary. He even went on to speculate about how the same type of deforestation all over the world could lead to unforeseen and possibly dramatic transformations. “As Humboldt described how humankind was changing the climate,” Wulf contends, “he unwittingly became the father of the environmental movement” (58).

It wasn’t merely for his environmentalism, however, that generations of readers would come to idolize him. The Invention of Nature tracks the major events of Humboldt’s life in mostly chronological order, with chapters focusing on important periods in his career interspersed with chapters on some of the scientists, artists, environmentalists, and revolutionaries who took up one or another of his myriad mantels. While this approach to organizing the biography results in some repetitiveness, it also lays bare the remarkable similarities among all of these men’s lives. You might even say a biographical template emerges from all the juxtapositions: the solitary youth of the misunderstood misfit romantic, the worryingly intense passion for nature, the wanderlust leading to a perilous but fateful adventure, the earthshaking epiphany whose reverberations can still be felt after over a century. The Darwins, the Thoreaus, the Bolivars, the Muirs—all variations on the same set of themes.

             Yet, despite her emphasis on Humboldt’s heroic stature among his many followers, Wulf’s portrayal leaves plenty of space for her subject’s less than admirable characteristics. He was a legendary speaker and lecturer, for instance, but he often couldn’t shut his mouth to save his life. Wulf recounts a famous anecdote in which Humboldt invited a celebrated pianist to play for a gathering at his house, only to shout over the music as he lectured to the audience. (“‘It was a duet,’ the pianist said, ‘which I did not sustain long’” [238].) But one of the most pleasant surprises to be found in The Invention of Nature is just how admirably humanistic this early nineteenth century Enlightenment figure was. Beginning in his early days as a mine inspector, Humboldt showed great concern for the safety and working conditions of the men he encountered, and he would be even more appalled by the treatment he witnessed of indigenous peoples in South America. Wulf writes,

For Humboldt colonialism and slavery were basically one and the same, interwoven with man’s relationship to nature and the exploitation of natural resources. When the Spanish, but also the North American colonists, had introduced sugar, cotton, indigo and coffee to their territories, they had also brought slavery. In Cuba, for example, Humboldt had seen how ‘every drop of sugarcane juice cost blood and groans.’ Slavery arrived in the wake of what the Europeans ‘call their civilization’, Humboldt said, and their ‘thirst for wealth’. (106)

Especially since World War II and the coming to light of atrocities committed by Nazi scientists, many scholars have come to see science and the Enlightenment more broadly as inseparable from the worst excesses of racist colonialism. For the modern reader, it may be a shock to learn about an early scientific explorer who wasn’t given to discounting the humanity of anyone whose ancestors weren’t European, having instead imagined some wandering sadist performing experiments with arcane instruments resembling miniaturized medieval torture devices, cutting and poking whatever parts and appendages got in the way of fitting all of humankind neatly into the racial hierarchy. Humboldt was instead such a devotee of Enlightenment principles that he felt the failure of The French Revolution to establish a lasting republic and the persistence of slavery in the U.S. as crushing disappointments all throughout the latter part of his life.

            It’s easy for postmodernists today to imagine that their concern for the racially and economically disadvantaged sprang into life sui generis as a reaction to the inherently oppressive forces of history. But the principles that have proven most effective in combatting injustice, those constituting our modern conviction that human rights are universal, in reality find their source in the same Enlightenment stream as the scientific principles that have so radically transformed our civilization over the centuries, the same stream, incidentally, out of which flows the environmentalist principles underlying our determination to deliver the planet safely into the hands of future generations.

The lessons of history often highlight the smugness and complacency with which we view our forebears. With all the amenities our technological advancement affords us the luxury of taking for granted, along with all the ready knowledge that seems so obvious soon after someone else provides it for us, we can’t help feeling superior to people from earlier periods. Yet we also can’t help feeling nostalgic for a time when our precious maps had yet to be drawn, our revolutionary breakthroughs had yet to be made, and our moral advances had yet to be accomplished. As Sacks wrote about Humboldt and some of his earliest followers,

They were all, in a sense, amateurs—self-educated, self-motivated, not part of any institution—and they lived, it sometimes seemed to me, in a halcyon world, a sort of Eden, not yet turbulent and troubled by the almost murderous rivalries which were soon to mark an increasingly professionalized world. (330)
Oliver Sacks at Machu Picchu

By the time he wrote these lines, Sacks was probably well aware of all the diseases and all the wars—all the truly murderous rivalries between nations and men—that were ravaging the world during Humboldt’s lifetime. I like to think too that Sacks may have had an inkling that to many of his readers he was himself a modern reincarnation based on the same template which harks back to that halcyon world. The reality, we know too well, was far more complicated, to be sure. But Humboldt’s age wasn’t entirely unworthy of our romantic longing for a time of innocent exploration fueled by our ever-so-human sense of adventure—no more than our own anyway. 

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