Alexander von Humbolt
Friday, 23 June 2017 18:55

Godless revolutionary: the life and work of Alexander von Humboldt

Published in Science & Technology

John Green introduces the life of Alexander von Humboldt, the father of ecology who combined scientific investigation with a sense of high moral purpose. 

It is doubtful that many of the participants at the recent Paris talks on climate change will have heard of Alexander von Humboldt. Yet he is the father of ecology, and was the most admired naturalist and geographer of his age, a scientist with a conscience who Charles Darwin 'always admired and now worshiped'. His name lives on in the many species, geographical areas and institutions named after him – twelve species of animals and plants, six prominent geographical features as well as schools, colleges and even towns – probably more than any other scientist could boast of.

The great liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar said: ‘Alexander von Humboldt has done more for America than all its conquerors; he is the true discoverer of America.’ Humboldt corresponded with a whole array of Europe’s leading scientists, artists and writers, including Schiller and Goethe, who gushed: 'Humboldt showers us with true treasures.'

One can’t underestimate the impact of Humboldt’s’ observations and ideas on the direction of the young Darwin’s research. In fact, it might not be exaggerating to suggest that without Humboldt’s nudging him in the right direction, he might not have conceived his great theory of evolution quite so readily. Darwin referred to him often in his own naturalist’s travelogue, Voyage of the Beagle, and lauded him as ‘the greatest travelling scientist who ever lived…’

The real birth of ecology came about largely as a result of the early midwifery work undertaken by Humboldt in the 18th century. His aim was to achieve a holistic overview of nature: ‘each part contributes its own peculiar activity to the overall activity and the latter is subject to its special impact, so that life in each organised living thing appears as a unity, which comes about as the result of reciprocal actions and reactions of all its parts.’

Thus, individual species were not per se the subject of his studies, but the landscape as a whole, and within them the physiognomy of their plant life. Through the manner in which plant forms expressed themselves, Humboldt attempted to understand what lent specific atmosphere to what he called an ‘Erdgegend’ (what we now call a ‘biome’). This was not dissimilar to the aims of the landscape painters; in his time science and art were not as distant from each other as they are today.

He travelled throughout the continent, using every means at his disposal, including Indian canoe to navigate the Rio Negor and Orinoco, and was the first to attempt an ascent of Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest mountain. Edgar Alan Poe found Humboldt's attempt to unify the sciences a big inspiration and he dedicated his last major work, Eureka; A Prose Poem, to Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt's travels, experiments, and knowledge transformed western science in the nineteenth century. He also pioneered what is perhaps taken for granted today, namely transdisciplinary study, what he called the ‘physics of the world’. He was, though, not only a great scientist in terms of the modernity of his methods and approach to problems, but was a forerunner of our own modern-day ecological movements. Unusually at the time, he countered the idea of nature as an untamed wilderness to be conquered. He saw nature and humanity as part of a complex but cohesive holistic unity and argued that man is not necessarily the centre of the universe: ‘Here, in the interior of the new continent one becomes almost accustomed to viewing people as unnecessary to the order of nature’, he noted.

Humboldt viewed nature as a unity transformed by its own inner forces. He saw it not in a linear form, but as a network of interconnected strands. He considered landscape to be a space of dialectical interaction, both within nature and between nature and humans. Even before the concept of ecology existed, Humboldt wrote: ‘My real and singular aim is to investigate the weft and weave of all nature’s forces, to investigate the influence of dead nature on the lives of all animal and plant creations.’

He realised the value and significance of biodiversity and, already in 1822, was explaining the role of forests in maintaining the health of the planet. He wrote, in 1822, about their role in retaining water and preventing erosion. He castigates the unregulated felling of trees as catastrophic in its affect on water retention: ‘If the forests continue to be destroyed in the way the European colonisers have already done with incautious haste in some areas of America that springs will dry up or become severely depleted; already river beds are devoid of water for periods of the year and at others become raging torrents when the rains are heavy in the mountains.

While researching plant forms, he discovered the relationship between fall in temperature and altitude - the isotherm is his invention. Today he is considered to be the father of modern geography, meteorology, Latin American archaeology and global comparative cultural studies. The specialist branch of plant geography he also pioneered evolved into an important branch of ecology. With the rapid growth of interest and research in natural history at the time, a framework was created for evolutionary theory and geography, based on the interconnectedness between objects of a landscape.

In 1836 Humboldt sent a letter to the Duke of Sussex, the then President of the Royal Society, inviting the co-operation of the Society in the organization of a world magnetic survey. He suggested a programme for the observation of the phenomena of terrestrial magnetism which laid the foundation for the subsequent investigation of the earth’s magnetic fields.

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt was born at the Palace of Tegel, in Berlin to an aristocratic Prussian family on 14 September 1769 and died on May 6, 1859). He was the younger brother of the Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt. His father, who was an army officer, died when he was nine years old so he and Wilhelm were raised by their cold and distant mother. Tutors provided their early education which was grounded in languages and mathematics. Once old enough, Alexander began to study at the Freiberg Academy of Mines under the famous geologist A.G. Werner. In 1792, at the age of 22, he went on to become a government mines inspector in Franconia, Prussia. But a sedentary life in a mundane job were not for him. Meeting George Förster (the scientist who accompanied Captain James Cook's on his second voyage) encouraged his urge to travel. He and Förster embarked on a voyage of discovery around Europe.

His childhood had been a torture, he wrote later, in 1801, from Colombia: ‘For a young soul who was maltreated in his father’s house and forced to live in a straitened, gritty environment over 18 years, once he is granted his own freedom, everything glows and shimmers wonderfully and he can at last take in the wonders of the world.’

Humboldt’s inner restlessness and long periods spent travelling abroad were also undoubtedly not unrelated to the fact that he was probably gay. In the Puritan and staid environment of late 18th century Prussia being a homosexual would have been a precarious if not dangerous existence. By spending long periods abroad, he could lead a gay life with relative impunity. He destroyed many of his personal letters, so we have no first-hand proof, but circumstantial evidence leaves little doubt of his homosexuality.

His mother died, when he was 27, leaving him a substantial income from the estate. This became his means of escape from Prussian provincialism. He could have used this new wealth to enjoy a hedonistic and dissolute life, but instead he dedicated himself to an exploration of the world - his life’s ambition. The following year, he left government service and began to plan travels with Aimé Bonpland, the French botanist. The pair decamped to Madrid, where they were able to obtain special permission and passports from King Charles II to explore South America.

Once arrived in the continent, Humboldt and Bonpland were overwhelmed by its exuberant fauna and flora and were able to study these and the topography of the continent in detail for the first time. In 1800 Humboldt mapped over 1700 miles of the Orinoco River. This was followed by a trip to the Andes and an ascent to the summit of Mount Chimborazo (in Ecuador), then believed to be the highest mountain in the world. They didn't quite make the summit, but managed to climb to over 18,000 feet. While on the west coast of South America, Humboldt measured and discovered the Peruvian Current, which, despite objections of Humboldt himself, was given the name Humboldt Current. In 1803 they explored Mexico, where Humboldt was even offered a position in the Mexican cabinet but declined the honour. The pair was persuaded to visit Washington DC staying there for three weeks, in which time Humboldt had several meetings with Thomas Jefferson and the two became good friends.

In 1804 he sailed back from the Americas to Paris and while resident there wrote up his field studies in thirty volumes. He stayed in France for 23 years and while there carried on a lively exchange with other European intellectuals on a regular basis. He supported and worked with leading scientists, including Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, Justus von Leibig, Louis Agassiz, Matthew Fontaine Maury and, most notably, the Frenchman Aimé Bonpland, with whom he conducted much of his scientific exploration.

Humboldt's fortunes were ultimately exhausted by his travels and the costs of self-publishing his reports and he was forced to seek some form of regular income. As his fame had, in the meantime, spread far and wide, he was invited to Russia by the Tsar and there undertook an in-depth exploration of that country and described, for the first time, discoveries such as permafrost. He recommended that Russia establish weather observatories across the country. This was carried out in 1835 and Humboldt was able to use the data to develop the principle of continentality - that the interiors of continents have more extreme climates due to a lack of moderating influence from the ocean.

The scope of this work may be described as the representation of the unity amidst the complexity of nature, an attempt to unify the various branches of scientific knowledge. Humboldt's work was by and large a synthesis of Kantian views of unity of natural phenomena. Drawing together the methods and instrumentation of the discrete sciences and with inspiration from German Romanticism, Humboldt sought to create a compendium of the world's environment.

He left us 47 volumes in total, containing all his publications, including 29-volumes on his travels in the South American tropics. This contained 1400 engravings and was the most wide-ranging and expensive work that had ever been published by a private academic. On top of that, he bequeathed us over 450 essays and reports published elsewhere and around 50,000 letters.

His quantitative work on botanical geography was foundational to the field of biogeography. He was the first to discover the connection between temperature and ecology and developed the first isotherm map, containing lines of equal average temperatures. During his expeditions in the Americas and Europe, he recorded and reported on magnetic declination. He was also one of the first to propose that the lands bordering the Atlantic Ocean were once joined (South America and Africa in particular).

What singled Humboldt out as a scientist of a special bent was that he combined scientific investigation with a high moral sense. Nature and morality were for him two sides of the same coin. He was truly a man of the enlightenment, inspired by the French Revolution and its demands for freedom, equality and fraternity.

His views on religion, on race and colonialism were far ahead of his time. One of his fundamental beliefs was that ‘everyone is equally destined to enjoy freedom’; science and politics were for him indivisible. Even in his primarily scientific writings he defended human rights, excoriated racism and slavery and called for all human beings to have equal rights. Such attitudes were still seldom in the late 18th century. He was a fierce advocate of rights for indigenous populations and of all races. Welcoming the French Revolution, he wrote in a letter in 1798: ‘If there is only one blessing - the extermination of the feudal system and all aristocratic prejudice under which the poor and nobler classes of people have suffered for so long - it will have been worthwhile.’ He castigated the social system prevalent in Europe at the time as ‘the barbarism of our feudal system which keeps the peasants in abject destitution’.

In his praise of the Aztecs for their astronomical and other attainments of civilisation, he castigates previous authors who described them as ‘barbaric’ – ‘These authors view all human conditions as barbaric that don’t fit the image of the culture they have imagined from their systematic ideas,’ he wrote, ‘We can’t allow the validity of such crass differentiations between barbaric and civilised nations’.

He despised colonialism, particularly after witnessing the ravages it caused to the indigenous population in Spanish-ruled South America. In 1802, he wrote from Colombia: ‘The idea of a colony is in itself an immoral one,’ he writes, ‘the idea of country obliged to pay tribute to another, a land in which one is only allowed to reach a certain level of wellbeing and in which diligent industry and enlightenment are only allowed up to a certain point…Every colonial government is a government of suspicion…and the larger the colony, the more committed European governments become in their political vindictiveness and the greater the immorality of the colonies becomes. How inhospitable European cruelty makes the world!’

The forms of Christianity he witnesses in his travels caused him to despise its practice in the colonies. In a letter from Peru, in 1802, he described graphically the appalling cruelties carried out by Catholic missionaries in Latin America: ‘the present missionaries are a class of people who under the guise of helping the Indios, forcefully take their possessions and make them believe it a sin to complain about it. No religion preaches immorality,’ he admitted, ‘but what is certain is that of all existing ones the Christian religion is the one under whose the mask people are made the most unhappy. The Indios are treated like the Africans: if they are not exactly beaten to death, it’s said, they are living well.’

He was also well aware that his radical views had made him extremely unpopular among the ruling elite in Europe despite his high standing as a scientist and intellectual. In a letter to a friend in 1852 he wrote: ‘I have, yes, during recent years, become an unpopular person; and would have long been sent into exile as a revolutionary and author of the ‘godless’ Kosmos if this had not been hindered by my position with the King. For the Pietists and Christian pamphleteers I am a horror. They would love nothing more than that I were already mouldering in the earth.’

Alexander von Humboldt didn’t propound such world-shattering theories as evolution, like Darwin, or that of relativity like Einstein, but his achievements paved the way for the work of both of them as well as many others.