Tuesday, December 29, 2015

What We're Reading: Humboldt Redux

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of its five best non-fiction books of the year. We’ve reviewed on this blog two of Andrea Wulf’s previous books, Founding Gardeners and The Brother Gardeners, both fine books that explored the relationship between man and nature in Colonial America and in the early American Republic. What made those books remarkable was Wulf’s ability to make her readers feel the sense of excitement and wonder that captured colonists and naturalists as they encountered the natural landscape of America and shared their discoveries with the world. The protagonists in these books were men (mostly) of the late Enlightenment who were absorbed with finding new species, especially the rare and exotic, and who sought to classify what they found and add it to the growing catalog that was being created by Linnaeus and others of all life on earth. The world was the sum total of its autonomous parts, more knowable the more all parts were known.

The Invention of Nature is an examination of the years following this period, the early 19th Century when, as in literature and the arts, there was a reaction to the Enlightenment view of science, a movement that we call, broadly, Romanticism. In the sciences, no one was more representative of Romanticism’s emerging view of man and nature than Alexander Von Humboldt. The Invention of Nature describes his contribution to the creation and popularization of a holistic and spiritual view of nature, a perspective that was to have enormous influence on the development of the sciences during the 19th century.

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt
at 37 years old, 1806 by George Weitsch.  
Humboldt was the most celebrated scientist of his time; in fact he was one of the most famous people of the 19th Century. His present relative obscurity may cause us to fail to appreciate his significance. The purpose-- and achievement--- of The Invention of Nature is to recover for us his stature and impact. Wulf makes the case that Humboldt fashioned a new and enduring perception of the natural world. This book is, then, by its nature, not an intimate biography of Humboldt---it is doubtful that such a thing would even be possible about a man whose entire waking preoccupation seemed to be with matters of science---but rather a biography of him in his role as a public figure. We get here little of Humboldt’s inner life or any sense of his personal relationships. He never married, and Wulf gives us hints about his sexual orientation. She notes the rumors and the strong attachments he formed towards various male friends throughout his life. We are told he was an incessant talker and expected not to be interrupted as he held forth (at length) on various scientific topics. He seemed to have an interest in every scientific topic, a prodigious memory for facts, and an unlimited capacity for fashioning connections between natural phenomena and theorizing about how nature worked. Humboldt had remarkable intellectual and physical stamina even into his old age, carried on an extensive correspondence with other scientists all over the world, and published a formidable and highly popular body of work.

The great adventure of Humboldt’s life was the exploration he made of South America between 1799 and 1804, when he was a young man. It inspired some of his most enduring and influential views of nature. His remarkable discoveries and observations, recounted in descriptive and poetic prose, were published in his Personal Narrative of 1814 and reached a large international audience. The book made him famous. Personal Narrative fired the imaginations of a generation of young scientific explorers. One of them was Charles Darwin, whose voyage on the Beagle would be an expedition that, like Humboldt’s journey, was a formative experience.

Humboldt’s famous “Naturgemäld” which appeared as a large foldout in hisEssay on Geography and Plants. Humboldt made the drawing for this printafter his ascent of Chimborazo in Ecuador. It was notable not only forthe ideas it expressed about minerology and vegetation zones, but also forthe way it successfully presented a wealth of scientific information visually.

Wulf gives us a not-too-technical overview of the major ideas of Humboldt’s philosophy of science and his ideas about how nature worked, but the most impressive achievement of The Invention of Nature is her exposition of Humboldt’s influence on major figures in science and literature in the 19th century. She traces his impact on the work of Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Ernst Haeckel, John Muir, and others, all of whom acknowledged Humboldt’s importance to their own intellectual development and paid homage to him in their writings. Her research for these chapters, the evidence adduced, is original scholarship, impressive and convincing.

Humboldt’s Personal Narrative inspired not only scientists and writers, but artists as well.
American landscape artist Frederic Edwin to Church traveled to South America to see
the mountains and scenery of the Andes that Humboldt had described. Upon his return,
he created a huge and spectacular painting, The Heart of the Andes, which became a sensation
on the American art scene. A relatively smaller painting from the trip is the spectacular and sublime
Chimborazo. You can view it at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

We are left to speculate largely on our own about the reasons for the eclipse of Humboldt’s scientific celebrity. Humboldt was concerned about the major systems of the natural world: hydrology, geology, meteorology, and their relationships to life on earth. He was also deeply interested in what we have come to call “ecology,” how communities of plants and animals worked together to create sustainable life. He used measurement and quantification and masses of detail to delineate macro-cosmic worlds and theorize about their interrelationships. As the sciences developed, Humboldt’s macro-cosmic and organic approach gave way later in the century to specialization in the sciences, and perhaps with good reason. His ideas were limited in what they could explain about how any single phenomena of nature worked. They were more descriptive of the large systems in nature and speculative about their relationship to one another than concerned about their processes or the ways individual organisms functioned. For Humboldt, those patterns were the visible expression of what seemed to be unnamed forces-- immanences-- that resided in nature. More illuminating explanations of life would follow, ones that were built upon examination of the details of life and matter--- the beak of the finch, the molecules of life, the behavior of atoms and particles.

A chromolithograph after the watercolor by Eduard Hildebrant
showing the older Humboldt in his library in Berlin in 1856,
three years before his death.
Humboldt’s major legacy, however, came from his large and organic view of life on earth. He left us a compelling vision of the relationship of modern man to nature, the understanding that man was part of a larger and delicately balanced ecology and that his survival depended on its preservation. He changed the way we look at the relationship between man and nature, arguing eloquently that the unconscious and unspoken assumption that nature was local, permanent and perennial must, upon observation of the evidence, give way to a new consciousness about our place and task in the order of things. 

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