As if for the First Time

James Sheehan

  • The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf
    John Murray, 473 pp, £25.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 84854 898 5

‘He was the greatest man since the Deluge.’ This assessment of Alexander von Humboldt by King Frederick William IV of Prussia, which Andrea Wulf quotes in her fine new biography, may be a slight exaggeration, but it reflects Humboldt’s extraordinary reputation among his contemporaries. On the centennial of his birth, 14 September 1869, elaborate celebrations were held all over the world; the front page of the New York Times was devoted to his achievements under a banner headline that said simply: HUMBOLDT. Humboldt, the era’s greatest natural scientist, was one of the first beneficiaries of the globalisation of celebrity.

He was born in 1769. His father, from a family of Prussian army officers and courtiers, died when he was nine, leaving Alexander and his elder brother, Wilhelm, in the care of their intensely ambitious but emotionally chilly mother, who devoted her ample resources to preparing her sons to become important men. Temperamentally quite different, both boys were gifted and industrious, willing and able to learn from the distinguished scholars hired to tutor them. In part to escape their joyless life at home, the brothers became precocious participants in the world of the enlightened elite, first in Berlin, then elsewhere in Europe. By the time they were in their early twenties they seemed to know everyone worth knowing, including the two figures at the pinnacle of German culture, Schiller and Goethe.

Alexander was born in the same year as Napoleon and the duke of Wellington – but his life wasn’t much affected by the French Revolution. In 1789 he was busy studying basaltic deposits in the Rhineland, the subject of his first book. Between 1792 and 1796, as the French declared war on Europe, killed their king and endured the Terror, Humboldt was employed as an inspector in the Prussian Ministry of Mines, a task to which he devoted considerable energy, though he also made occasional excursions to Weimar and Jena, where he had long discussions with Goethe about the aesthetic and scientific issues that absorbed them both. In 1796 his mother died, which removed any need to prolong his career in the civil service. Without delay, he resigned, travelled for a year and then made his way to Paris, not to observe the conclusion of the revolutionary drama but to join what was still Europe’s most active scientific community. Although he didn’t ignore political developments, for Alexander – unlike his brother – politics was never a primary concern: what he really wanted to do was find a way to explore the world of nature in all its variety. After a series of false starts, in June 1799 he finally set sail for America, with a letter of introduction from the Spanish king, an assortment of the best scientific instruments money could buy, and a deep ambition to see things no European had seen before.

To see everything in the world of nature – from the most distant stars to subterranean moulds hidden in the darkness of mineshafts – would remain Humboldt’s greatest aspiration. Especially as a young man, he had carried out a number of experiments (including some truly bizarre efforts to determine the effects of electricity on his own body), but from the time of his first scientific explorations along the Rhine in 1789 his scientific achievements were based on what he could observe, measure and directly experience. His most popular book – and his own favourite – was entitled Views of Nature, and tries to teach the reader how to look at the natural world. In Eduard Hildebrandt’s portrait of the elderly Humboldt in his library, only one scientific instrument is shown: a telescope, framed by a doorway at the very centre of the picture. ‘The eye,’ he wrote in 1845, ‘is the organ of our Weltanschauung’: the organ with which we both observe and shape our interpretation of the world.

Humboldt’s expedition to the New World lasted for five years and two months. Accompanied by a physically tough and remarkably good-natured French scientist, Aimé Bonpland, as well as a few local guides and numerous servants, he climbed mountains (including Chimborazo, then thought to be the highest in the world), paddled down rivers (including the treacherous Orinoco in what is now Venezuela), crossed the Andes on horseback, explored central Mexico and sailed twice to Cuba. He ended his travels with an eventful month in the United States, where he dined with President Jefferson, met various notables, and had his portrait painted by Charles Willson Peale. Often arduous and sometimes extremely dangerous, Humboldt’s American adventure became one of the new century’s most famous journeys, the foundation for his own extraordinary celebrity and an inspiration for many other scientific travellers – including Darwin, who was deeply influenced by Humboldt’s example and took his books with him when he embarked on his own voyage of discovery thirty years later.

Humboldt lived for more than fifty years after his return to Europe in 1804. Though he often contemplated other expeditions he made only one more extended journey, a six-month, ten-thousand-mile trek to the Russian Empire’s far eastern frontier in 1829. He spent most of his time, first in Paris and then in Berlin, working through the vast quantities of material he had gathered in the Americas: sixty thousand plant specimens, together with hundreds of pages of charts, maps and field notes. He produced 34 volumes on various aspects of his journey, including thrilling narratives of his adventures, careful ethnographical analyses and detailed studies of the region’s flora and fauna. In 1845 he published the first volume of Kosmos, a survey of all aspects of the natural world, based on his own observations and material sent to him by investigators from all over the world.

Rather reluctantly, Humboldt moved from Paris to Berlin in 1827 because he needed the annual stipend provided by the Prussian king, who was a generous, tolerant but not undemanding patron. This was Humboldt’s only regular source of income. He remained an amateur, which meant that most of what he did, he paid for himself. After he had spent his considerable fortune in subsidising his research, he was always short of funds and was nearly penniless when he died. He worked by and for himself, without secretaries or assistants. He was not the last in the long and distinguished line of independent scientists – Darwin and Gregor Mendel are two slightly later examples – but the era when great discoveries could be made by individuals without formal institutional support was drawing to a close.

Although Humboldt’s fame rested on his exploits as an explorer, he spent most of his long life reading and writing. In Hildebrandt’s portrait, he is shown surrounded by the source and products of his scientific efforts: the books that fill the shelves of his library, the maps and charts covering the work tables, the field notes and drawings waiting to be filed, and, perhaps most important of all, the correspondence carefully collected in the boxes near his chair. (It is difficult now to imagine the immense intellectual, social and emotional significance of letter-writing for previous generations. The quantity alone is astonishing: Wulf estimates that during Humboldt’s lifetime he wrote some fifty thousand letters and received twice that number.) Humboldt’s goal was neither to manipulate the natural world nor to formulate laws about its operation; rather it was to capture that world with words and images, and thus make it legible and accessible to a broad public. For him, the library, not the laboratory, was the primary site of scientific production, and here too he belonged to a distinguished but declining tradition in the history of the natural sciences.

Humboldt’s books, popular lectures, extensive correspondence – and his impressive talent for self-promotion – brought him into contact with Europe’s scientific elite as well as the educated public. Not everyone was an admirer. Schiller, for example, was rather less impressed by the young Humboldt than Goethe had been. Bismarck, then an ambitious young politician, thought him a pompous bore when the two men met at the Prussian court in the 1850s. Even Humboldt’s biggest fans admitted that he was, as is so often the case, a much better talker than he was a listener. Famous both for the volume and the velocity of his conversation, he often shifted without warning from one to another of the several languages he spoke fluently. In 1842, when Darwin finally arranged a meeting with the great man, he didn’t get a chance to ask any of the questions he had carefully prepared; instead he was treated to a three-hour monologue. Disappointed by the encounter, Darwin generously acknowledged that ‘my anticipations probably were too high.’

Humboldt had a remarkably robust constitution, which allowed him to work long hours, sleep little and find time for an extensive social life. He remained active well into his eighties. The geologist Charles Lyell, who visited him when Humboldt was 86, reported that he was just as ‘I knew him more than thirty years ago, quite up to all that is going on in many departments’. Humboldt’s health began to deteriorate a few months after Lyell’s visit, but in the last two years of his life he still managed to complete the fourth volume of his Kosmos, keep up his extensive correspondence, and entertain the endless stream of admirers who came to see him.

In his final decades, Humboldt had become a national treasure. As his health declined, bulletins were issued to keep an anxious public informed about his condition; Wilhelm, the prince regent, came to the modest apartment Humboldt rented on the Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin to pay his respects. Humboldt died peacefully in May 1859, four months before his 90th birthday. His funeral procession stretched for nearly a mile along Unter den Linden.

Nowhere outside the German states did Humboldt have more followers than in the US, where politicians, naturalists, explorers and poets cited his works and sometimes tried to emulate his accomplishments. As the American frontier pushed westwards, his admirers covered the newly settled territory with places named in his honour: towns, mountains, bays and rivers, as well as a county in northern California that is now known for its natural beauty, elusive trout and clandestine marijuana plantations. The Cosmos Club, still one of the Washington elite’s favourite watering holes, was founded in 1878 by John Wesley Powell, a devoted Humboldtian, who named it after his hero’s last great work.

Over time, Humboldt’s prominence in America declined. In part this was because the popular image of the scientific enterprise had changed; by the end of the 19th century, the German scientists celebrated in the US were academically trained specialists, not self-taught generalists. Then, in 1917, Humboldt’s reputation, like everything German, was severely dented by the Germanophobia that attended the US’s entry into the First World War. Humboldt’s name remained on American maps, but the public memory of his achievements faded away.

Humboldt may have become what Wulf calls a ‘lost hero’ in the US, but in Germany he remained a cultural presence. His admirers have quarried his large and complex body of work for materials with which to construct a figure to suit their own needs. Even during his lifetime, some of Humboldt’s contemporaries wanted to make him into an advocate of German liberalism, though his political convictions were elusive and his connection to party politics non-existent. The Nazis, with even less to go on, tried to present him as a paragon of Aryan culture. After the Second World War, the GDR used his passionate and persistent opposition to slavery to enlist him as a critic of American imperialism, while West Germany celebrated his cosmopolitanism, Francophilia and close friendships with Berlin’s Jewish elite.

It is Humboldt’s cosmopolitan sympathies that make him such an attractive figure in contemporary Germany. The cultural organisation that will occupy the City Palace, the winter palace that once housed the Prussian royal family and is now being reconstructed in Berlin, is called the Humboldt Forum, in honour of Wilhelm and Alexander. With its Italian architect, international consultants, Asian and ethnographic exhibits, and World Cultures Bistro, the palace is intended to exemplify the new Germany’s openness to the world rather than to recall the less positive legacies of its former occupants. Certainly, the Humboldt brothers would have been more at home here than the Hohenzollern monarchs.

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Wulf’s book opens with a description of Humboldt’s ascent of Chimborazo in June 1802, a strenuous climb that Wulf herself repeated (wearing, she admits, much better boots). Whenever possible, she shared her protagonist’s experiences, followed his footsteps and tried to observe the world through his sharp eyes. Her account is full of vivid renditions of his feats, the narrow mountain paths he trod, the rapid rivers in which he almost drowned, and the exotic ailments from which he suffered. But her biography is much more than an adventure story. She provides a well-informed and astute reading of his published work, which she carefully locates in its historical setting. As her title suggests, she emphasises Humboldt’s role in the creation of a new image of nature by tracing the impact of his ideas and example on Darwin, Thoreau, Ernst Haeckel (the German biologist who coined the term ‘ecology’), and the great American naturalists George Perkins Marsh and John Muir. It is Muir’s deep commitment to the preservation of the natural world which, Wulf argues, best represents Humboldt’s most important and enduring legacy, a legacy that is especially relevant in an age of global warming, massive deforestation and environmental deterioration.

Wulf has no choice but to concentrate her attention on Humboldt’s public persona and historical influence. Like many celebrities who are constantly on display, surrounded by friends and hangers on, Humboldt kept his inner life private and inaccessible. His brother, who knew him as well as anyone, admitted that ‘there is between us, when it comes to his intimate life, a veil that neither of us would dare to lift.’ About Alexander’s sexuality, for example, there is considerable uncertainty. That he had no important erotic attachments to women is clear; what (if anything) he did with his close male companions is not. On this issue Wulf is sensibly cautious, concluding that while his friendships were emotionally intense they were probably physically platonic because, as Humboldt himself insisted, ‘I don’t know sensual needs.’

Wulf perhaps exaggerates her subject’s originality: Humboldt certainly did not ‘invent’ the idea of nature, a concept with ancient roots that flourished everywhere in the 18th century. She is right to draw our attention to his important insights about the interconnectedness of nature, but this too had been a concern of Enlightenment thinkers who were trying to find a secular foundation for what had once seemed a divinely constituted great chain of being. And while few if any contemporaries could match the remarkable range and sheer volume of Humboldt’s botanical projects, his Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807) is not ‘the world’s first ecological book’, a distinction that probably belongs to Gilbert White’s careful study of his Hampshire parish, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, published in 1789. But we should not overestimate the significance of innovation in the history of ideas. ‘The most original modern authors,’ as Goethe remarked, ‘are not original because they express something new, but solely because they are able to say the same things as if they had never been said before.’ In this sense, Humboldt’s originality cannot be disputed. None of his contemporaries expressed so many interesting ideas about nature with so much power and conviction.

Among the most attractive features of The Invention of Nature is Wulf’s infectious admiration for her subject. And there is a lot to admire about Humboldt: his boundless energy, curiosity and generosity of spirit, his progressive instincts and, perhaps most of all, his abiding sense of wonder at the world around him. He may not have invented nature, but he loved it both wisely and well. There are good reasons to follow Wulf’s recommendation that we ‘reclaim Alexander von Humboldt as our hero’. But we should also be aware of an important limitation in his relationship to the environment. Humboldt was primarily an observer, which is to say, an outsider in the natural world. He was an unusually courageous, resourceful and well-informed tourist, but he remained a tourist. He went to the American wilderness and the Russian steppes by choice and stayed because he wanted to. He was free to explore and celebrate the natural world because other people worked to extract from it what he – we – needed and wanted. If we are to preserve what is left of our planet, we will have to find a balance between Humboldt’s vision of nature as an object of wonder and the imperatives of those for whom it is a source of sustenance and survival.