I must admit that I am not fond of biographies and rarely reach for them. To read Andrea Wulf ‘s book A man who understood nature. Alexander von Humboldt’s New World I was prompted by a conversation between two of my friends that I recently had the opportunity to listen to. One praised Humboldt’s genius, the other expressed the biography itself in mere superlatives. Moments later, I came across a short but intriguing note by Wojciech Mikoluszko about the book, published in Polityka (No. 28/2023, Science Project Pulsar). And I already knew that I definitely wanted to read this item. In order not to abandon this resolution too hastily and be tempted to reach for less challenging literature, I took Wulf’s book with me on vacation this year. I have no regrets…
Humboldt was one of the most interesting and engaging people of his time. He was born in 1769. (the same as Napoleon Bonaparte) in a wealthy Prussian family, and although he was born in Berlin, he spent his life residing in various European cities. He has lived in Jena, Berlin, Paris and London. He traveled to Belgium, the Netherlands, England and France. He participated in research expeditions in the Americas and Russia. He never obtained a permit to enter India, which he had sought from the British East India Company for more than 10 years.
He was consumed by an insatiable fever for exploring the world. His life was filled with travel and relentless work. He was interested not only in discovering new facts, but above all in combining them into a harmonious whole. Alexander’s mind was designed to connect ideas, to detect chains of things. The acquisition of knowledge was often bought with discomfort, risking his health and even his life, exposing himself to dangers, diseases and unpleasant sensations. This is evidenced by cases of testing the power of electric eel discharges on one’s own body or the researcher’s notes on the taste of the water of various tributaries of the Orinoco River. His thirst for knowledge through experience was unbridled.
Reading about Humboldt’s determination to acquire knowledge, his risk-taking, his inability to rest and his constant need to act, discover, experience, it is hard to resist the impression that modern medicine would have a chance to diagnose him with some kind of hyperactivity. One of his friends even called this anxiety maladie centrifuge – Humboldt centrifugal disease.
Humboldt – explorer
His travels through South and Latin American countries (especially Venezuela and Peru, and later Cuba) at the turn of the century, even before he turned 40, undeniably constituted the main source of his experience and the ideas he later formulated. Observing the depletion of land and lowering of water levels due to deforestation by planters in the area around Lake Valencia in Venezuela, he formulated and developed a theory of the destructive impact of humans on the environment. That is, two centuries ahead of us, he predicted climate change caused by anthropogenic transformation of the landscape.
He was the first to note the similarity of vegetation developed at similar mountain heights in different areas of the world, formulating the rule of vegetation overstory. He presented his observations on a cross-section of the Chimborazo volcano, where he placed plants according to their altitude and the climatic conditions there. He included these observations in one of his most popular books, Ansichten der Natur(View of Nature), published in 11 languages and illustrated with a hand-colored engraving, “Naturgemälde,” depicting the storied arrangement of vegetation. This image, with minor modifications, remains relevant today. Considering vegetation through the lens of climate and location, rather than simply classifying it in taxonomic terms, was a radical innovation for the time, providing the basis for modern understanding of ecosystems.
Based on the similarity of the coastal vegetation of South America and Africa as early as 1807. came up with the conclusion of a probable former merger of the continents – unbelievable more than 100 years before the debate about the wandering of the continents and the theory of tectonic plate movements.
To illustrate global climate patterns, he developed isotherms (lines connecting points of the same temperature), which are still used today, contributing significantly to the development of comparative climatology. It was he who, while traveling south along the Andes Mountains from Bogotá through Ecuador and Peru, discovered the magnetic equator (located on the Cajamarca plain 7 degrees and 800 kilometers south of the geographic equator).
Observing on the boundless plains of the Ilanos, during an expedition to the Andes in 1800, the dependence of the functioning of numerous organisms on the surpass palm, he discovered the importance of species as fundamental to the ecosystem as a keystone to an arch. Thus, he discovered the role of keystone species almost two hundred years before the term entered the dictionaries of ecology.
A cold, nutrient-rich ocean current (the Peruvian Current) is named after him, where rich life thrives to form the world’s most efficient marine ecosystem. Although the current was known to local people and used as a source of fishing even before the colonists, Humboldt was the first to measure its temperature and discover the thermal distinctiveness.
Humboldt – a socialist?
He was among the fiercest critics of colonialism and supported revolution in Latin America. Despite his admiration for the United States for its concepts of freedom and equality, he openly criticized the slavery that prevailed there, and disapproved of exploitation and capitalism. He did not tolerate racism – he believed that all people are equal and no race is superior to another, because all are equally created for freedom.
He supported universal education, as he believed it was the foundation of a free and happy society. Unprecedented in those days, he gave free lectures to the public. A series of his speeches, organized in the late 1920s. XIX century. at the University of Berlin, was of great interest to the female audience as well. Isn’t this a manifestation of true equality?
Besides, it was Alexander’s brother, Wilhelm von Humboldt, an education reformer of the period of Frederick William III, who was the founder of the famous Prussian school. From today’s perspective, it can be criticized for being anachronistic and unsuited to modern needs, but it should not be forgotten that it provided broad access to education at a time of widespread illiteracy.
Humboldt – interlocutor and publicist
Humboldt is not only a visionary and explorer, but also a fascinating adversary, and his uniqueness was primarily due to his powerful intellect, open-mindedness and unconventional thinking. He had a great influence on many people, but he himself was also influenced by the greats of his era. He inspired Darwin, Muir, Bolìvar or Thoreau. One of the most important figures of the period of his youth and the formation of his vision of the world was undoubtedly Goethe. Anyway, the fascination was mutual.
He spoke and wrote in several languages and corresponded with professional colleagues from all over Europe, but also America. According to his own estimates, in the mid-1950s. XIX century. He received between 2,500 and 3,000. Letters per year, and at the end of his life as many as 5,000. He answered them all and meticulously cataloged them. He died in 1859. at the age of 89, leaving behind a huge material legacy, not only in the form of books (including 34 volumes of the monumental work Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Contin ent – Journey through the Equinoxial Regions of the New Continent), but also diaries, letters, catalogs, engravings and herbarium collections.
As the author discreetly and sensitively states, Humboldt’s relationship with women (or rather, lack thereof) suggests that the opposite sex had little appeal for the researcher. His greatest role in his life was played by his traveling companions, Bonpland or Murier, whom he called his closest friends and brothers. His focus on male friendships can be thought-provoking, but fortunately the author does not succumb to the temptation to chase sensationalism, leaving the threads of Humboldt’s personal relationships unexplored.
Wulf – a skillful biographer of an extraordinary man
Wulf’s book, like most biographies, is fairly comprehensive, although packing a biography as rich as that of the German naturalist and visionary into some 400 pages was a challenge. The story of Humboldt’s life as told by Wulf has a linear, chronological structure, although not all periods are explored as meticulously. The author focuses on the fragments of the naturalist’s life that had the greatest influence on the formation and formulation of his main ideas. Although the biography aspires to be a work of fiction, it relies very heavily on sources, so heavily in places that the biography feels more like a collage of quotations from Humboldt’s diaries, books and letters than a stand-alone story. Anyway, the book’s source documentation is really solid – the footnotes take up more than 60 pages, and the list of sources another 20.
Above all, the book is a fascinating record of research of that era, measuring instruments, techniques and conditions/realities of exploring areas then still unknown to our world. It also solidly presents the state of knowledge, the main ideas and scientific trends promulgated by researchers contemporary to Humboldt. While some of them – from our perspective – may amaze us with their naivety and erroneousness, the theses formulated by Humboldt, on the contrary, surprise us with their modernity and relevance to the knowledge currently available to us.
What captivated me about this biography?
As I mentioned, I am not fond of biographies. So what convinced me to get this book? First of all, Alexander von Humboldt’s way of seeing the world seemed particularly close to my own. He warned that mankind must understand how the laws of nature work, how all these threads are connected. Contrary to the prevailing approach of his time, that man was created to subdue nature and adapt it to his needs, he argued that people cannot change the world at their will and for their own benefit. Humanity, he warned, has the power to destroy the environment, and the consequences will be catastrophic. And he said it two centuries ago!
My favorite chapter in the book is the epilogue, in which the author beautifully summarizes Humboldt’s ideas from the perspective of a modern man, aware of the environmental challenges to which the modern world exposes us. Nature defenders, environmentalists and nature writers to this day remain firmly rooted in Humboldt’s vision – although many have never heard of him at all. I absolutely agree with her.
Reading the biography, I repeatedly caught myself feeling somewhat disappointed and even envious that researchers of the time still had so much to discover. In the face of Humboldt’s fascination with the undiscovered world, the one that is contemporary to us seems recognized, stripped of its mysteries and disappointingly tame.
Admittedly, Humboldt’s biography is not a new publication (the book was first published in 2017 by the Poznan Publishing House, and was reissued this year), but to all who have not yet had the opportunity to read it, and to whom a holistic view of the world and an awareness of the multiplicity of connections that govern it is close to their heart – I heartily recommend it!