Monday, December 28, 2015

Humboldt's New World, a fascinating book

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World by Andrea Wulf portrays a remarkable and fascinating man. Humboldt was an explorer, a scientist, and a nature writer. Despite his great accomplishments and his acquaintance with the great thinkers of his time, I was quite ignorant about Humboldt. This blog post is only a few notes on what I found interesting, not a full book review, as Wulf's book -- like Humboldt's career -- is very rich and varied.

Humboldt's expedition to South America at the turn of the 19th century was important in a number of ways. I was interested in the supplies that he packed in preparation for one leg of the long trek across a continent little known to Europeans of that time:
"The boat they had acquired in San Fernando de Apure was launched ... on 30 March [1800], heavily loaded with provisions for four weeks -- not enough for the entire expedition, but all they could fit into the vessel. From the Capuchin monks they bought bananas, cassava roots, chickens and cacao as well as the pod-like fruits of the tamarind tree which they were told turned the river water into a refreshing lemonade. The rest of the food they would have to catch -- fish, turtle eggs, birds and other game -- and barter for more with the indigenous tribes with the alcohol they had packed." (p. 64)
During the expedition, Humboldt catalogued a huge number of botanical species. He climbed in the Andes mountains and was the first to describe the climate zones at various altitudes on mountain ranges. He also made anthropological observations and became friends with a variety of people such as Simon Bolivar who would later become a key figure in Latin American history. Later he wrote a number of books based on this travel. He developed remarkable and innovative ways to present scientific information in graphic or visual formats.

Humboldt stood in firm opposition to slavery and expressed a belief that "there were no superior or inferior races. No matter what nationality, color, or religion, all humans came from one root... 'all are alike designed for freedom'" said Humboldt. He visited Thomas Jefferson, then President of the new United States, and argued his case against slavery. Later in life he also held forward-looking political ideas, sometimes in opposition to the reactionary post-French-Revolutionary times when he lived. (p. 108)

Several of the final chapters of The Invention of Nature explain Humboldt's influence on later thinkers: Darwin, Thoreau, John Muir, and others. These chapters were especially effective in illustrating how Humboldt shaped the approach of later nature writers and naturalists, as well as showing his creation of new scientific ideas and his invention of the concept now known as ecology. The existence of America's National Parks, for example, has some roots in Humboldt's new ways to look at the natural world and its variety.

I was particularly amazed at the many geographic features and land and sea creatures named for Alexander von Humboldt. He didn't necessarily discover or describe all of these, nor even travel to their locations. Rather, later scientists and communities named many places and species in his honor.

Some of the creatures named for Alexander von Humboldt: the Humboldt penguin, the
Humboldt squid, and Humboldt's hog-nosed skunk (native to Patagonia).
Some of the global geographic features named for Humboldt: Humboldt Falls in New Zealand, Humboldt peak in Colorado,
the Humboldt (or Peru) current off South America, and Humboldt County, California.
Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, founded by Alexander von
Humboldt's brother Wilhelm in 1810, and named for both brothers.

-- photos from Wikipedia and Humboldt County promotions

No comments: