Alexander von Humboldt made so many contributions to science that we cannot do him justice here. We will therefore focus on his study of nature and put his accomplishments in that area into the context of historical events and his personal views of those events. We draw from Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature in this article. (2)
Humboldt is considered the originator of the scientific concept of biogeography, “the study of the distribution of species and ecosystems in geographic space and through (geological) time.” (1) In other words, biogeography attempts to explain why species are where they are. It is therefore relevant to the mission of Million Trees, which is to make the case that species belong wherever they persist without human management and without regard to how they got there.
The journey begins
Alexander von Humboldt was born in 1769 in what was then Prussia and is now Germany. Under the thumb of a domineering mother, he was required to spend most of his twenties as a mining inspector. In that capacity, he mastered the science of geology that he put to good use throughout his long life.
At the age of 27, he was freed from his obligations to his mother by her death. With the help of his inheritance he began his travels to satisfy his intense curiosity about the world. He brought along on his journeys the tools of measurement that existed at that time. He made detailed recordings of his measurements wherever he went and they were the basis of comparing the many places he visited.
His journey began in the mountains of Europe and they became the baseline of his comparisons throughout his journeys. But his movements in Europe were hampered by the political situation. Revolutionary France was expanding its empire with a series of wars in Europe that prevented him from visiting many places of interest to him. After several failed attempts to join voyages to other places, the King of Spain granted Humboldt a passport to the Spanish colonies in South America to collect the flora and fauna of the New World.
Humboldt set sail from Spain in June 1799, along with “a great collection of the latest instruments, ranging from telescopes and microscopes to a large pendulum clock and compasses—forty-two instruments in all, individually packed with protective velvet-lined boxes—along with vials for storing seeds and soil samples, reams of paper, scales and countless tools.” (2)
Finding unity in nature
Humboldt and his companions climbed every mountain they encountered, taking precise measurements of altitude, temperature, and samples of soil and plants as they gained altitude. As he accumulated data from each climb he began to see a pattern in what he encountered. Humboldt’s new, revolutionary idea of nature fell into place for him as he climbed Chimborazo in Ecuador to an unprecedented height of 19,413 feet, about 1,000 feet shy of the summit: “Nature, Humboldt realized, was a web of life and a global force…Humboldt was struck by this ‘resemblance which we trace in climates the most distant from each other.’” (2)
Humboldt called the graphic depiction of his theory Naturegemälde which means roughly “painting of nature.” His drawing shows that plants are distributed according to their altitudes and latitudes, from subterranean mushroom species to the lichens that grow below the snow line. In similar latitudes, palms grow in the tropical zone at the foot of the mountain. Oaks and shrubs prefer the temperate climate above the tropical zone. Naturegemälde illustrated for the first time that “nature is a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents.” (2)
Addendum: In 2012 – 210 years after Humboldt climbed Chimborazo – a scientific expedition surveyed the vegetation on Chimborazo and compared that survey to Humboldt’s survey in 1802. They found that the vegetation has moved to higher altitudes on average 500 meters. This movement of plants to higher elevations (and latitudes in other examples) is a response to climate change, which requires plant and animal species to move in order to survive. It is one of many examples of why the concept of “native plants” is meaningless at a time of rapid climate change. (3)
Humboldt’s theory of the unity of nature, connected in a global web of life, required an interdisciplinary approach of which few of his contemporaries were capable. He drew equally from his fund of knowledge about astronomy, botany, geology, and meteorology. Sadly, as human knowledge has expanded exponentially in over 300 years, an interdisciplinary approach to science has become unattainable. Scientific inquiry has become increasingly narrowly specialized, preventing the global view that informed Humboldt’s studies. The “big picture” is lost in the compartmentalization of science into isolated, specialized scientific disciplines.
Socio-political context of Humboldt’s travels
We cannot fully appreciate Humboldt’s scientific accomplishments without mentioning his interest in and concern for the human realm. Humboldt was 20 years old when the French Revolution occurred in 1789. He was thrilled and delighted by the prospect of liberty and equality for the French people. His admiration for the French made Paris his home for much of his life. He believed that science would thrive in such an atmosphere of freedom of thought and action.
As Humboldt travelled in the New World, he brought this standard of freedom and liberty along with him. New Spain was lacking in that regard. He believed that the cultural accomplishments of the indigenous people were sadly devalued. He was disgusted by the oppression of the indigenous people and the lack of basic human rights of the colonists. He observed the consequences of this oppression in the colonial landscape. Mineral riches were ravaged and forests were razed for the cash crops that impoverished the settlers. The colonial government required them to grow monocultures such as indigo (blue dye), in lieu of the crops needed to feed the population.
Humboldt was one of the first scientists to observe the destructive consequences of deforestation. Forests were cleared for agricultural fields. Wood was the fuel of the time, providing heat and light. Later forests would fuel ships, trains and industrial steam engines. Where forests were cleared, the land quickly dried out because trees recycle water into the atmosphere. Erosion and desertification are the eventual consequences of deforestation.
For the same reason that Humboldt admired the French Revolution, he also admired the new American republic that had only recently gained its independence from Britain and was founded on democratic principles. He went far out of his way to visit the United States to consult with the young democracy.
Thomas Jefferson was the President at the time and they spent much valuable time together. The Spanish jealously guarded all useful information about New Spain because the United States was clearly a rival in the New World. Humboldt brought the Americans much useful information about their competitor because he not only wished to be helpful to their young enterprise, he firmly believed in universal access to information.
However, there was one horrible blot on the reputation of the United States that made Humboldt queasy. He abhorred slavery in his own country as well as in the United States. As much as he enjoyed the company of Thomas Jefferson and respected his intelligence, he was scandalized by the scale of enslavement on Jefferson’s Virginia plantation.
Humboldt’s concern for the welfare of humans extended to all races, ethnicities, and classes. Just as he embraced all nature as worthy of his attention, his view of humanity was equally generous and inclusive. We venture to guess that he would be as mystified by the pointless distinction between “native” and “non-native” plants and animals as we are.
When Humboldt returned to Europe in 1804 at the age of 35, his reputation as an important scientist was already established by the correspondence in which he had engaged during the 5-year voyage. He returned with the detailed record of his travels, including specimens:
“[He] returned with trunks filled with dozens of notebooks, hundreds of sketches and tens of thousands of astronomical, geological and meteorological observations. He brought back some 60,000 plant specimens, 6,000 species of which almost 2,000 were new to European botanists—a staggering figure, considering that there were only 6,000 known species by the end of the eighteenth century.” (2)
He spent 21 years publishing over 30 volumes about his 5-year journey in the New World. Not only were these books widely read, they influenced many of the greatest scientists and thinkers who succeeded him:
- Charles Darwin’s correspondence with Humboldt and many references to Humboldt’s publications in his own work are evidence of Humboldt’s influence on Darwin’s work. Just as Humboldt’s journey inspired his theory of the unity of nature, Darwin’s journey around the globe was the inspiration for his theory of evolution. Readers of Darwin’s early work observed the similarity of his writing style with that of Humboldt.
- Humboldt was equally influential in the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau published an unsuccessful book shortly after his two-year reclusive experience on Walden Pond. Then he learned from Humboldt’s books to observe and record the workings of nature, which eventually transformed his writings into the nature writing that made him famous. The records he kept of the climate on Walden Pond are still used as a reference point for the climate change that has occurred in the past 150 years.
- George Perkins Marsh is considered the first American environmentalist. His book Man and Nature was the first to express alarm in 1864 about American deforestation. The writings of Humboldt were the first to alert Marsh to this issue and as they did for Humboldt this issue was brought into focus by extensive travels. Marsh could see America’s future in Egypt where thousands of years of intensive agriculture left the land bare and unproductive.
This is but a short list of important scientists all over the world who were influenced and inspired by the writings of Alexander von Humboldt long after his death in 1859 at the age of 89. We encourage our readers to read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World for the full story. We have reported on other books by Andrea Wulf—The Brother Gardeners and The Founding Gardeners. Ms. Wulf turns botanical history into a gripping story.
What is Humboldt’s message to Million Trees?
Alexander von Humboldt delivers a powerful message that fits well with our mission. He saw the world and its inhabitants as fitting together in a harmonious and comprehensible manner. He was always looking for the connections between seemingly disparate elements in nature and finding them wherever he looked. His egalitarian hopes for humanity fit perfectly with his perception of nature as working together to make a web of life with humans as a part of that web.
We would like to think that Million Trees shares the Humboldtian viewpoint and we hope that our readers agree. We hope that the New Year will bring more harmony to nature and those who live within it.
(1) Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biogeography
(2) Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015
(3) Morueta-Holme N, Engemann K, Sandoval-Acuña P, Jonas JD, Segnitz RM, Svenning JC, “Strong upslope shifts in Chimborazo’s vegetation over two centuries since Humboldt,” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Oct 13;112(41):12741-5. Available HERE.