I’ve been reading Andrea Wulf’s huge biography of the nineteenth-century scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Her book is called The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I’ve read enough of it to recommend it to you to read, if for no other reason than to introduce yourself to a man who was enormously important in his own day, having more objects and places named after him than anyone else in the world, but who has become almost forgotten in ours.
He should not be forgotten. I had bumped into his name occasionally during the many detours I took studying American literary history of the nineteenth century for my dissertation, but I knew nothing substantive about him. Humboldt was polymath in his interests. The old joke that made the rounds of every English department in my day was a line that Coleridge supposedly used in reference to himself: “I took all knowledge for my province.” Well, Humboldt actually did. His hunger to know the world, to see all that was in it, was akin to Thomas Wolfe’s hunger for words as he ransacked library after library, seeking inspiration to write but also seeking the key, the clue, that would unlock everything that was hidden.
Humboldt’s searching, though intense, differs from Wolfe’s in that he had a hypothesis to prove. He collected everything: rocks, plants, insects, soil samples, animal bones. Everything that might show him how every living thing in the world is connected to everything else. Contemporary people will recognize in this endeavor the seeds of what we have come to call “the Gaia hypothesis,” and Humboldt came close to calling it that himself. For Humboldt, life was aware of itself being connected to everything else. In our day, the connections are not thought to be conscious ones. Humboldt would have understood the contrary view, and would have debated it as merrily among us as he debated science with Goethe in Europe. He was no narrow-minded thinker.
Nor was he a misty idealist. The one thing his absolutely harrowing journey down the Orinoco to find the connecting waterway between it and the Amazon taught him was that nature was in competition with itself–savagely. Prior to Humboldt’s explorations and studies in comparative zoology, the centuries-old idea of the Great Chain of Being still held sway. In the view of most people, even scientists, the operation of the Chain was benign. All creatures had a place and a function within the chain, and life processes went on peaceably. Humboldt and his companions in South America learned differently. Constantly beset by horrid, attacking mosquitoes and crocodiles and jungle animals and poisonous plants, stifling heat and relentless rain that made a mockery of the new species of plants they had pressed into the pages of their preservation books, they learned beyond doubt that animals preyed on each other–one of the many facts that Charles Darwin absorbed from reading Humboldt’s later books.
Through many, many hardships Humboldt and his party finally did confirm that there was in fact a connecting waterway between the Orinoco and the Amazon–only to discover that the few native tribes who lived in the area were already well aware of that source. No matter. There were always other parts of the world to explore, literally other mountains to climb, and Humboldt did those things. He did them to advance scientific knowledge, always carrying the latest measuring equipment with him, bulky instruments that surely made his almost-impossible treks even more difficult. But he also did them because they were there to do. In our time, we laugh and make a joke of that expression. “I climbed the mountain because it was there,” we say. Humboldt actually did that sort of thing, over and over again, going out of his way to climb a mountain just to see what was there, often clothed in garments that were not even close to what we would consider suitable attire for such an adventure.
Wulf’s enthusiastic biography of this amazing man is the historical ancestor, if you will, of Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s wonderful account of his explorations of the South Pole, The Worst Journey in the World. They book-end each other, in fact: Humboldt’s explorations in South America occur at the outset of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe in 1800 (another enormous complication of Humboldt’s adventures); the expedition Cherry-Gerrard is a part of takes place a little over a century later, with men using equipment Humboldt would have recognized, and setting off on their expedition in a spirit Humboldt fully shared. Wulf’s book is also a real-life evocation of the fictional world that Elizabeth Gilbert creates for us in her fine novel, The Signature of All Things. Humboldt, like Gilbert’s heroine Alma Whittaker, gave up everything, sublimated his sex drive, and devoted his considerable resources not to a comfortable existence but to a passionate exploration of everything that is here in the world. His goal was to see how all the world made sense, and express that sense to us. That he would fall short–having no knowledge of genetics and scant knowledge of biology–was inevitable but inconsequential. Humboldt’s great contribution was to intuit an extraordinarily broad and exciting conception of Nature and then boldly go wherever he had to go to determine whether that conception had merit. His slightly-lesser contribution–to the scientific spirit–is also valuable. In his love for and his wonder at all the living beings on this planet, and his recognition of how fragile we all are as we live here, Humboldt’s attitude looks forward to the spirit of the most eloquent, sensitive, and broadminded American scientist of our own day, Carl Sagan.