The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World – by Andrea Wulf
Date read: 8/18/18. Recommendation: 9/10.
The story of one of the most profound polymaths you've probably never heard of. Humboldt was a Prussian explorer, writer, geographer, and naturalist born in 1769. He revolutionized the way we view the natural world by making connections and framing nature as a unified whole. He viewed everything as reciprocal and interwoven, challenging the human-centered perspective that ruled up until that point in time (i.e. 'nature is made for the sake of man'). Humboldt's fascination with nature brought together art and science, combining exact observation with painterly descriptions, which helped make science far more popular and accessible. His work also influenced generations of scientists and writers including the likes of Charles Darwin, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau. It's easy to see why Humboldt was so influential–the stories Wulf tells of his expeditions and adventures well into old age, are both fascinating and inspiring.
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Born in 1769 into a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family, discarded a life of privilege to discover for himself how the world worked.
A multidisciplinary approach:
Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world by making connections everywhere. He shaped our modern understanding of nature through his comprehensive/multidisciplined approach. "In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation." AVH
In nature (and in our individual lives) getting the overall conditions right is essential if we want to thrive.
-Neither our lives nor the forces of the natural world are siloed, independent components. Everything is interwoven.
-Escaped the classroom whenever he could to ramble through the countryside, collecting and sketching plants/animals/rocks.
-Would come back with pockets full of insects and plants, nicknamed 'the little apothecary'
Republic of Letters:
-During the new Age of Enlightenment, scientists around the world started an intellectual community that transcended national boundaries, religion, language. Used letters to pass along new ideas and scientific discoveries. Ruled by reason, not by monarchs.
Relationship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
-Despite Humboldt being 20 years younger, they became scientific sparring partners.
-Not a traditional master/apprentice relationship. One based on mutual respect, admiration, collaboration, and reciprocity.
-Goethe worked more intensely than he had in years after he met Humboldt.
-Goethe encouraged Humboldt to combine art and science.
-Goethe said that a single day with Humboldt brought him further than years on his isolated path.
"Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul." -AVH
Humboldt challenged the human-centered perspective that had ruled humankind's approach to nature for millennia (i.e. Aristotle: "Nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man.") He viewed everything as reciprocal.
Journey through Venezuela in 1800 would change the course of his life. This is where his fascination with the natural world married science and art.
No scientist had referred to nature like this (thanks to Goethe's influence)
Rapids of Orinoco: "Coloured bows shine, vanish, and reappear." Always measured and recorded, but brought the scene to life.
"What speaks to the soul escapes our measurements" AVH
-Snowcapped volcano in Ecuador, 21k feet (believed to be highest mountain in world)
-2,500 mile journey from Cartagena to Lima through harsh landscapes pushed their physical limits
-They were supposed to return home from Quito, but the ship that was supposed to come took a different route than they expected. Rather than despair, became an opportunity with Humboldt's perspective. Allowed them to set out for the volcanoes.
-"Mountains held a spell over Humboldt. It wasn't just the physical demands or the promise of new knowledge. There was also something more transcendental. Whenever he stood on a summit or a high ridge, he felt so moved by the scenery that his imagination carried him even higher. This imagination, he said, soothed the 'deep wounds' that pure 'reason' sometimes created."
Naturgemälde, a lesson in the importance of the way you present/depict information;
-Drawing of Chimborazo that illustrated nature as a web in which everything was connected.
-By picking a particular height of the mountain, you could trace connections across the table to see temperature, humidity, species of plants/animals at different altitudes.
-No one had shown such data visually before, showed for the first time that nature was a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents.
-He wasn't interested in finding new isolated facts but in connecting them. Less concerned with classifying the world into taxonomic units with a strict hierarchy and categories, like the scientists before him.
-To prove this, he couldn't look at it just as a botanist, geologist, or zoologist. Had to take a multidisciplinary approach and leverage each.
Racial Equality - Reflected his expanded worldview from being well traveled, greater empathy and greater tolerance when you've interacted with different people/societies/cultures.
-Humboldt believed slavery was a disgrace and the greatest evil.
-All members of the human race were equal, from the same family (much like plants). Humankind just one small part. But nature itself is a republic of freedom (where he differed from Thomas Jefferson).
Returning to Europe after his adventures he chose Paris. Hub of like-minded thinkers, scientific societies, and Europe's publishing center (for fast distribution so he could share his new ideas).
Broad appeal, reaching new audiences:
Scientists and thinkers were impressed by his publications and lectures, fellow writers adored his adventurous stories, while the fashionable world of Parisian society was delighted by his charm and wit.
-Humboldt's book that followed his voyage chronologically to South America.
-First travel book to ever combine exact observation with a painterly description of landscape.
-Previous writers only measured, or collected plants, or gathered economic data from trading centers.
-Took readers onto the crowded streets of Caracas, across the dusty plains of the Llanos, and deep into rainforest along the Orinoco. Capturing imaginations along the way.
-Influenced British literature and poetry with his depictions of South America (Frankenstein, Don Juan).
-This was the book that inspired Charles Darwin to join the Beagle, and he knew it by heart.
-1827 arrived back to Berlin (reluctantly) after leaving Paris.
-Gave 76 free lectures over the course of 6 months that were unlike anything Berlin had ever seen.
-Exhilarating, utterly new. By not charging an entry fee, packed audiences ranged from royal family to students, servants, scholars, bricklayers, and half of those attending were women. Democratized science.
-Took his audience on a journey - talked about poetry, astronomy, geology, landscape painting.
-One of his greatest achievements was making science accessible and popular.
Relishing adventure into old age:
-At age 59 on his journey through Russia, rarely showed signs of fatigue. He would walk for hours, crawl into deep shafts, chisel off rocks, scramble up mountains, then set up instruments at night for astronomical observations. *Similar to Ben Franklin, thriving on adventures in old age.
Humboldt's influence on Darwin:
-Showed Darwin how to investigate the natural world from within and without, not just from isolated approach of zoologist, etc.
-Both had the rare ability to focus on smallest detail then pull back to examine global patterns. Flexibility in perspective allowed them both to understand the world in a completely new way.
-Laid the groundwork for his theory of evolution.
Launch point for Darwin:
-Voyage of the Beagle by far the most important event of his life and determined his whole career, as he acknowledged.
Years of dedication:
-Voyage of the Beagle took five years. Much like Humboldt's voyages, these were years of painstaking work.
-When Humboldt began work on his most influential book, Cosmos, he was aware that he didn't and couldn't know everything. Recruited an army of expert scientists, classicists, and historians to help.
Black coffee = "concentrated sunshine" AVH
-Three sections: 1) Celestial phenomena, 2) Earth (geomagnetism, oceans, earthquakes, geography, meteorology), 3) Organic life (plants, animals, humans).
-Brought together a far greater range of subjects than any other previous book.
-Shaped two generations of American scientists, artists, writers, and poets.
Humboldt's last words at age 89:
"How glorious these sunbeams are! They seem to call Earth to the Heavens!"
"Voyages on foot, Humboldt said, taught him the poetry of nature. He was feeling nature by moving through it."
"Not only was his life colorful and packed with adventure, but his story gives meaning to why we see nature the way we see it today. In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective, Humboldt's insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary."