Humboldt’s Vision of Nature

Humboldt portrait 1806 Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Wikipedia)

An artist’s imagining of  young Humboldt at work in 1806, by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Wikipedia)

Our ecological imagination—our sense of nature as a global, interconnected and sacred whole—has roots in many sources. A relatively unfamiliar one is the work of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a manic, prolific explorer and naturalist of the German Romantic era. Humboldt’s life and work are the subject of an outstanding biography by Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2015).

Humboldt’s trademark was the web of connections he drew around whatever he observed. Nature, he insisted, could not be grasped in the slices and pieces into which other scientists chopped it but only as a whole. He looked at each specimen, whether a plant or a human institution, in its relation to global patterns of terrain, weather, and behavior. Such a perspective called for not only information but imagination and emotion as well. His works are as full of poetry as they are of data.

His seminal journey during his thirties took him on a five-year exploration of Latin America. Wherever he traveled, he compared. In the Andes, a moss reminded him of a moss in northern Germany. In Mexico he found trees similar to those in Canada. Measuring temperature and altitude as he climbed stormy volcanoes and crawled across frozen ridges in the Andes, he envisioned the plants of the world in vegetation zones consistent around the planet. He published a large diagram of a mountain with labels for plants at their respective altitudes around the world, from mushrooms at the depths to lichens just below the snow line. No one had ever seen a graphic of ecosystems from a global perspective like this.

 

Humboldt (mappingthenation.com)

(mappingthenation.com)

Humboldt was the first to note that cutting down a forest set off a cascade of environmental problems, triggering the loss of topsoil, the rapid runoff of rainwater, the flooding of rivers, the drying up of springs, the decline of agriculture. He observed how the farming of single crops for trade, such as indigo in Peru, ruined the soil ‘like a mine,’ and impoverished the people. “He debated nature, ecological issues, imperial power and politics in relation to each other. He criticized unjust land distribution, monocultures, violence against tribal groups and indigenous work conditions” (105).

During his return from South America, Humboldt stopped by the White House to visit another scholar of agricultural economy, Thomas Jefferson. The two saw eye-to-eye on all subjects except one. Humboldt had seen enough slavery in South America to convince him that it was butchery without justification, economic or otherwise.  For Humboldt, “What is against nature is unjust, bad, and without validity,” and humans, like plants, all come from one root. “’Nature is the domain of liberty,’ Humboldt said, because nature’s balance was created by diversity” (108). Jefferson agreed but never freed all his slaves (106).

Humboldt noted similarities between the mountains of South America and Africa and argued that those continents had been joined in the past, anticipating the modern theory of plate tectonics.

In his later years in Berlin, he gave a series of free public lectures that packed halls with people from all walks of life. Traffic clogged the city on the lecture days. “He talked about poetry and astronomy but also about geology and landscape painting….He roamed from fossils to the northern lights, and from magnetism to flora, fauna, and the migration of the human race” (194). He spoke from notes layered with clippings, bits of book pages, scribbled post-its, illustrations.

humboldt kosmos(eternalexploration.wordpress.com)

From Kosmos, a map of cultures and peoples in South America (eternalexploration.wordpress.com)

He convened gatherings of scientists from across Europe to exchange information and ideas, establishing in effect the modern scientific conference. Fascinated by the earth’s magnetic field, he successfully urged governments to build a network of magnetic stations across the globe, setting a new level of international scientific cooperation.

In consultation with specialists, Humboldt spent his last years writing Kosmos, a multi-volume survey of what was then known about outer space, the climate and geology of earth, the relation among plants, animals, and humans, the history of science, and the perceptions of nature by artists and poets through the ages.

In 1831, the 22-year-old Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle for his own formative voyage and brought with him Humboldt’s seven-volume narrative of the Latin American expedition. Darwin followed Humboldt in seeing nature as a grand ecological system in constant flux and precarious balance. But while Humboldt looked for the integration of nature, Darwin looked for beginnings. On the Origin of Species appeared a few months after Humboldt’s death in 1859.

In her epilogue, Andrea Wulf writes that Humboldt’s name remains unfamiliar to many because, as the last scientist to study his field so broadly, he has been eclipsed by modern specialists famous for singular discoveries and theories. (Darwin is one example.) Yet when I read today about reverence for nature, anxiety about the climate, and the fused destinies of humans and the environment, I hear Humboldt loud and clear.

Walk, Run, Eat: The Evolution of Our Body

Visualizing the evolution of our bodies from our chimp ancestors to what we see in the mirror does not come easily. But Daniel E. Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease is a fine time machine. It took me back six million years to changes in our feet, legs, arms, head and torso, all molded as our ancestors searched for food.

Reconstruction of sahelanthropus tchadens, who lived six to seven million years ago. (smithsonianscience.org)

Reconstruction of Sahelanthropus tchadensis, who lived six to seven million years ago. Not your average chimp. (smithsonianscience.org)

Human evolution can be said to have begun when one of our ancestors developed a feature that is still unique to us: We walk on two legs. That ability separated us from our cousin chimps between six and seven million years ago. We remain the only two-footed walking animal that doesn’t carry the feathers of a bird or the tail of a kangaroo.

Why walk? We began walking when the fruit that we ate became sparser. The African continent was cooling and the forests were shrinking. (I’ve conflated the species that Lieberman names to “us.”) Those who could stand upright and walk distances on two feet found not only more fruit but also edible stems and leaves. We were chimp-size, but as bi-pedal walkers our arms and hands became free for new uses.

intermediate human

A reconstruction of Australopithecus bosei, “Nutcracker Man,” who lived two million years ago, discovered by Mary and Louis Leakey in 1959. Our intermediate stage. (Wikipedia)

The transition continued. By four million years ago, our anatomy had changed again. Foraging over distances fostered “more habitual and efficient long-distance walking.” Our feet acquired an arch that put a spring in our step and pushed the body forward. For stronger chewing, molars and jaws became much larger than ours today. These ancestors are nicknamed “Nutcracker Man.” We were still small but more upright, still with relatively long arms and short legs.

Next was the Ice Age, two and a half million years ago. Foraging over larger areas required more calories, calories that meat could provide. Our ability to throw accurately brought down animals. Sharp stone tools cut up their flesh to make chewable and digestible. We grew taller, with arms and legs close to today’s proportions. We developed external noses that humidify the air we inhaled during long walks. We began to run—far—with Achilles tendons for more spring and unique sweat glands and finer fur to stay cool.  As teeth and snouts shrank and brains grew, heads became rounder. Organized hunting and gathering became necessities. Generally, females gathered while males hunted. Unlike chimps, we shared food readily with extended families. Cooperation, coordination, and communication were means of survival. We—Homo erectus—became “significantly human.” 

homo erectus

Homo erectus reconstructed.
“Significantly human,” writes Lieberman. (Wikipedia)

Lieberman continues the story of our evolution into the present and discusses its relevance to disease. After millions of years of seeking food and storing its energy in our bodies whenever we could find it, today we eat more calories than we need while we burn off fewer calories than ever before. As a result we suffer from “mismatch diseases” like diabetes and conditions like hardening of the arteries that our ancestors never worried about. We may treat the symptoms successfully, but given evolution’s slow clock, we won’t be adapting to resist them any time soon.

But we are always walking. We walked our way into becoming human, we walked our way around the world and into history, we speak of journeys, progress, protest marches. There is little else we do that is more essentially us.

march of progress

The original version of the “March of Progress,” from Time magazine in 1965. The details are out of date now but the image remains indelible.
(Wikipedia)