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 (


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(

From Kosmos, a map of cultures and peoples in South America (

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.

Life Before Fossils

king-kong-killing-pterodactyl-1024x766Seeing may not always mean believing, but when it comes to living things from millions of years ago, it helps. A skeptic these days would have difficulty doubting the reality of dinosaurs given all the bones in museums and the reconstructions come to life in countless films. When embedded in an adventurous and romantic story, oversized reptiles and even King-Kong-size versions of our primate ancestors put persuasive passion and flesh on the cool scholarship of paleontologists.

The trouble is that the stuff of the usual fossil history—old bones, insects trapped in amber, hardened imprints of early plants–date back no more than 600 million years. Such a number may seem very old, but from another perspective it is not nearly old enough. For life has been traced back three billion years before that, six times further into the past. It’s not surprising that life from that long ago is not the material for theme parks or movies about entrepreneurs like Carl Denham who searched out Kong’s island. For life was small for the first three billion years, with no animals or plants as such. There were only microbes, single cells that gradually acquired the complexities of modern cell life—a nucleus, the hunger for oxygen, sexual reproduction. But there are no two-billion-year-old bones from which to reconstruct cellular giants, no fossils to serve as relics to fire the romantic imagination.

Or almost none.

Stromatolites in Australia, probably looking much as they did 3.5 billion years ago. (

Microfossils from 3.5 billion years ago (

To find them, you have to search for the oldest rocks. Try Australia, Greenland, or South Africa for those that date back almost four billion years. Slice them thin, put them under a microscope, look for microfossils measuring a fraction of a millimeter, their cell walls mineralized into tough material.



stromatolites layers pinterest

petrified stromatolite (pintrest)



And look for petrified stromatolites, the layered habitats of colonies of bacteria that filtered sea water for nutrients as far back as 3.5 billion years.




But could the tiny remains and traces of chemicals from billions of years ago become the attractions of crowded museums and movie fantasies? Could they find their place in popular culture as both entertainment and subtle education, as dinosaurs and apes have?

I believe they could.  It’s not difficult to imagine oversized reproductions of ancient microbes which kids could walk through while trying to avoid getting snagged on strands of DNA or thrown off-balance by the cell’s motion from its flagellum, its tail. And climate change sets the stage for a movie thriller about bacteria mysteriously resurrected from three billion years ago that thrive on carbon dioxide and for whom oxygen is poison.

Then our wonder at the marvels of our pre-human ancestors would reach back through the full history of life.