Sunday, October 27, 2013

Humboldt Unbound: Humboldt's Gifts

The influence of Alexander von Humboldt on sciences, the arts, the life of nations and of ordinary people from his time to ours is extensive, if by now largely forgotten. But lines can be traced from Humboldt to such diverse developments as Darwinian evolution, environmentalism, the Gaia hypothesis, landscape painting and ecotourism.

 During his lifetime, Humboldt’s influence went beyond his books and lectures. Humboldt was a master of what today would likely be called “networking.” He met and spoke enthusiastically with hundreds of scientists in various fields as well as artists, politicians and political activists on three continents. He wrote and received thousands of letters each year. Such broad and insistent networking was not common at the time.

 When in his final decades he began to assemble his crowning work—the multiple volumes of Cosmos—he had not only his own notes and writings but the latest scientific findings streaming into his mailbox from hundreds of correspondents. Cosmos has even been described as the work of an international collaborative team. Humboldt was a one-man Internet.

 After he returned to Europe from his Latin American voyages, he personally helped advance the careers of many younger scientists. His encouragement as well as financial aid was crucial to Louis Agassiz, who went on to make significant contributions in geology. Humboldt worked with an even more important geologist, Charles Lyell, who “likely derived from him the concept of dating rocks from fossils,” historian Walls believes. All three made crucial contributions in understanding that the Earth is much older than was believed.
Psychologist C.G. Jung at Lake Zurich

 His willingness to help sometimes had serendipitous effects. In Paris he met and was impressed by a young doctor from Germany, C.G. Jung, and recommended him for a professorship in Basel, Switzerland, where Jung established his family. That doctor’s grandson, also named C.G. Jung, became the famous psychologist who was able to develop his theories in the Swiss landscape through two world wars that made Germany a dangerous chaos.

 Humboldt on Walden Pond

 Humboldt’s influence on his contemporaries ranged beyond science. He encouraged the young Simon Bolivar—they climbed Mount Vesuvius together—before Bolivar led revolutions in South America. In Washington he befriended Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury in Jefferson’s administration. Humboldt’s descriptions of the diverse and impressive cultures of Indigenous peoples he encountered in South America as well as his archaeological researches into pre-Columbian cultures in Mexico inspired Gallatin to conduct the first ethnographic study of Indian tribes in the United States.

 Humboldt’s work reflected his involvement in German Romanticism, which included his friendship with Goethe, so naturally the English Romantics were interested in him. Though Lord Byron refers to him directly in a poem (a bit satirically), Samuel Taylor Coleridge met Humboldt, and literary scholars suggest Humboldt’s influence on Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Scholars have also found strong traces of Humboldt’s influence in American writers of his time such as Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville, but most directly in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Both were known to have read his works.

 Thoreau studied Humboldt’s Aspects of Nature, Personal Narrative and especially Cosmos. Thoreau cites Humboldt several times, notably in one of his most famous essays, “Walking” (it contains his bold pronouncement, “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.”) He used Humboldt’s rigorous and relentless measuring and observation as a model for his own. “In his journals one can see Thoreau following the precepts of Humboldtian science: explore, collect, measure, connect,” Walls writes.

In his writings Thoreau, like Humboldt, often made unprecedented connections, and linked the particular to the cosmic, the natural world to the human-made world. Thoreau also saw in Humboldt an example of finding in the natural world the justification for social change. Humboldt, the pioneer scientist who spoke loudly against slavery and in support of Indigenous peoples, may have helped inspire Emerson in his activities in these causes, but perhaps more directly provided Thoreau with a model for the author of both Walden and “Civil Disobedience.”

The Descent of Darwin

Charles Darwin
 Readers—especially young readers—of Humboldt’s books did not simply become interested, or even fascinated. They were excited. This was true during his lifetime and also for decades after his death.

 Though Humboldt was still alive, Charles Darwin was born fifty years after Humboldt’s birth. As a young man he read Humboldt’s Personal Narrative, one of the most popular travel books of all time. This book, according to Darwin biographer Keith Thomson: “opened Darwin’s eyes to the world of natural history outside of the British Isles and directed his intellect to the vastness of biological diversity worldwide...”

 Darwin tried to follow in Humboldt’s footsteps with a scientific voyage to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where Humboldt had begun his American travels. Darwin began to organize an expedition but it fell through. But soon enough he set out on his own fateful voyage on the Beagle. Darwin brought a copy of the Personal Narrative with him, and when he finally did reach Teneriffe, he re-read Humboldt’s account of his visit. But he wasn’t interested only in the scientific aspects. “Darwin was also drawn to the emotional and aesthetic tenor of Humboldt’s observations,” writes scholar Ann C. Colley. “He identified with Humboldt’s sense of awe and confusion upon entering a new land... Darwin proudly admitted that many of his thoughts and points of view were molded by Humboldt’s observations.”

 Yet Humboldt’s scientific observations—his attention to similarities under similar conditions even if thousands of miles apart—had a decided impact on Darwin’s thoughts on evolution. So did other books Darwin read on the voyage—two volumes of Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell, that through the study of rock strata established the vast age of the Earth, and that it had changed over that time. This proof of Humboldt’s ideas probably made using Humboldt’s techniques, and gave Darwin the essential ingredient for his theory of evolution by natural selection: time.

 Ironically it was Darwin’s theory, first published in 1859 (the year of Humboldt’s death) that quickly came to dominate, and perhaps hastened the obscurity of forbearers like Humboldt.

From Cosmos to Gaia 

John Muir
 Even after his death Humboldt’s work continued to influence a surprising variety of important figures. John Muir worked in a factory in Indianapolis when he read Humboldt, quit his job and set forth on his own explorations “How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt!” he wrote in an 1865 letter. Muir’s journal of a thousand-mile walk across the southern U.S. got him started. Travels through Alaska, Siberia, the Arctic and most famously, the Sierras in California would follow.

 Humboldt’s last major expedition had been to Siberia in 1829. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (born in 1860), whose youthful reading included Cosmos, made a similar voyage to the island of Sakhalin, off the coast of Siberia. This uncharacteristic trip included scientific research, with Chekhov commenting that he had to be a geologist, meteorologist and ethnographer combined, as Humboldt had been.

 Humboldt had written two books about his Russian journey, in which he again observed that deforestation changes climate. This is a notable contention also made by Dr. Astrov in Chekhov’s great play, Uncle Vanya. Astrov’s dream is to reforest the land.

 In the 1880s German anthropologist Franz Boas was resisting the strictures of his science, until he read Humboldt’s Cosmos. A chance meeting at a New York academic conference with Horatio Hale, an American ethnologist imbued with the Humboldt spirit, started Boas on the road to revolutionizing ethnology, particularly as applied to Native Americans. The Humboldt spirit passed through him to his students who included Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Mead. 

H.G. Wells
 Towards the end of the 19th century, another youthful and enthusiastic reader of Cosmos was H.G. Wells in England. He absorbed Humboldt’s scope, and his passion for making connections. Both became central to his work as a writer and public figure in the 20th century. “The end of all intelligent analysis,” Wells wrote, “is to clear the way for synthesis.”

 With Humboldt, Wells believed in a common if complex basis of knowledge as the foundation for human understanding across the world. For Wells, who foresaw in some detail the dangers of modern warfare, this understanding was crucial to the survival of human civilization. So he embarked on the Cosmos-like project of his Outline of History, which became an international best-seller.

 Wells’ Outline (and a similar attempt to summarize the sciences) might also be seen as intermediate steps between Cosmos and the Gaia hypothesis. (“Gaia”--Greek goddess of the Earth-- had in fact been one of the titles Humboldt considered for Cosmos.) Cosmos shows the relationships of many forms of life, and their relationship to other physical qualities of the planet, such as geologic features and forces, and climate.
Lynn Margulis

 Lynn Margulis, co-creator of the Gaia hypothesis (with James Lovelock), credits Humboldt as an important pioneer in establishing “the everywhereness of life.” With her groundbreaking research into bacteria and other topics, Margulis saw much more of the environment as living.

 The Gaia hypothesis goes further in seeing the planet as a living system. There is science beyond Humboldt’s involved in the technical claims of what is now the Gaia theory, but like Cosmos, the idea of Gaia continues to be inspirational and exciting for present generations in the 21st century.

Humboldt Beyond the Experts

Chimborazo 1864 by Frederic Church
 Humboldt advocated for various methods of increasing the contact of ordinary people in the urbanizing world with nature itself.

 One method was through the visual arts. "Descriptions of nature, I would again observe, may be defined with sufficient sharpness and scientific accuracy, without on that account being deprived of the vivifying breath of imagination," Humboldt wrote in Cosmos (Vol. 2.).  His paeans to landscape painting as well as the specific places he described inspired generations of American artists, beginning with Frederic Church who traveled to some of the same places Humboldt had visited in Latin America in order to paint them.

 But Humboldt didn’t write only for experts or specialists. His books were enormously popular, partly because he asserted that everyone could and should become involved in learning about the natural world. As it turned out, much of the 19th century saw a boom in such interest and involvement.

 Even before that, a lot of natural science was done by educated amateurs. (There wasn’t even such a word as “scientist” until the 1830s, and even then it meant a technical specialist for industry.) There were “natural philosophers” with university degrees, but there were also just plain “naturalists,” often clerymen with time on their hands, who collected and classified insects and birds, or rocks or fossils.

 But in the 19th century, the public was actively interested in the controversies caused by the latest fossil finds and studies of rock strata. "Almost everyone in the first half of the nineteenth century deliberated the stinging questions that geology raised about the scriptures,” observed human ecologist Paul Shepard. “The naturalist was an amateur and everyone was something of a naturalist."

An even a greater interest arose after Darwin’s theory became a newspaper sensation. In addition to weekend outings to collect rocks, it became fashionable to visit (for example) the Regent Park zoological gardens to take a closer look at a reputed ancestor, the chimpanzee. (The exhibits were so popular by the 1860s that the slang word "zoo" was coined, immortalized in a song by a popular music hall singer, the Great Vance: "The OK thing to do on Sunday afternoon is to toddle in the zoo." The first chimpanzee had arrived in 1835.)

 But before Darwin, popular interest was inspired by Humboldt, particularly for a certain kind of travel. He encouraged people to “get the true image of the varied forms of nature” by extensive travel. In the 1960s Paul Shepard called Humboldt “the father of modern tourism,” but today we would more precisely called it “ecotourism.”
Central Park NYC

 The combination of the Humboldt-inspired artists fanning out across the country and the world, and public interest in these places led to new and expanded natural history exhibits and museums in many American cities. If people cannot go to expanses of nature, Humboldt also said, then it’s better to bring nature to them. He advocated for gardens and parks, a call quoted and taken up by pioneer landscape architect Andrew J. Dowling, both in England and America. One of his prize students was Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park in New York as well as parks in many U.S. cities, and college campuses including Stanford and U.C. Berkeley. So Humboldt’s gifts are to us all.

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