Humboldt’s Vision of Nature

Humboldt portrait 1806 Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Wikipedia)

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

Our imagination may seem to create visions out of nowhere, but it always has its sources. Some are in the psyche, some are in the world around us, many are in history, seemingly out of sight but alive in our culture. Our ecological imagination, our view of nature as a global, animated, interactive and sacred whole, comes to us in large part from 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 was observing. 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 earth, weather, and human behavior. Such a perspective called for not only information but imagination and emotion as well. His works are as full of poetic description as they are of data.

His seminal journey was a five-year exploration of Latin America during his thirties. Wherever he went, he compared. In the Andes, a moss reminded him of one in northern Germany. In Mexico he found trees like 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 the mushrooms at the depths to the lichens just below the snow line. No one had ever seen a graphic that illustrated 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).

On his return from South America, Humboldt stopped by the U. S. White House to visit another scholar of agricultural economy, Thomas Jefferson. The two saw eye-to-eye on all subjects but 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, while sympathetic, 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, pieces of book pages, scribbled post-its, and illustrations.

From Cosmos, an ethnographic map of South America (

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

He convened gatherings of scientists from across Europe to exchange information and ideas, thus establishing 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. The huge work preceded Carl Sagan’s slimmer Cosmos by a century and a half.

In 1831, the 22-year-old Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle for his own formative voyage, bringing 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, Andre 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’s effusive, popular articles and internet commentary on nature and naturalistic spirituality, I hear Humboldt. The passion and breadth he brought to science set the outlines of the ecological panorama that is many people’s view of the natural world today.

Finding Spirituality in Science

This is a lecture I gave at the college and community Science Seminar at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey in January 2016. My thanks to Dr. Paul Scheuler, organizer of the series. The talk focuses on three questions about life to which our biological history offers possible responses.


Finding Spirituality in Science


Thank you for coming today. You may be wondering what a speech with a title that puts together the words science and spirituality will be about. First, here’s what it won’t be about. I won’t be talking about creationism. And I won’t be discussing the god-of-the-gaps arguments—those are the announcements that science can’t explain this or measure that, and that therefore, there must be a deity in the gap.

What I will talk about are some possibilities for using science’s description of our biological history as a resource for addressing three big human questions: How can I face my death? What is the foundation of love and hate, of good and evil? And what is the purpose of my life?

You should know that I am a non-theist—that’s a low-key term for what is sometimes known as a soft atheist, the kind of atheist who simply doesn’t have a belief in a god, as opposed to a hard atheist, those who insist that there is no god, deities are nothing more than human fabrications, end of story.

I’ll also mention that I know I’m taking some liberties with the word spirituality. The dictionary will tell you that the term refers to non-material and supernatural entities, to matters of the soul, spirit, ghosts, karma, and the like. I’m not using it that way. I’m using spirituality here to refer to human feelings and ideas about life’s biggest issues, issues that are not really covered by any other term.

night skyFor many people today who approach spirituality in this secular sense, the central organizing story is what is known as the Universe Story or the Epic of Evolution—the development of the universe beginning with the Big Bang. This is the story articulated by Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, among many others. It’s a story that gives us an epic comparable to traditional religious creation stories in that it tells us where we came from and where we fit in the scheme of things; it is our modern cosmology. Our atoms were molded in the births of stars, the emergence of galaxies and life itself is partly understood scientifically but is at the same time utterly miraculous, and indeed there is even room in the epic of the universe to see the hand of God for those who are looking for it. Humans are distinctive in this epic, in the view of its proponents, in that we embody the part of the universe that has gained consciousness and thus we might see ourselves as the universe coming to know itself. We have only to look up at the stars at night, they say, to feel that the universe is a sacred thing, that it is the source and foundation of our being.

But I have to tell you that for me personally the Universe Story goes only so far. The universe, even perhaps the solar system, is too big and too remote for it to do much more than remind me of my insignificance. The idea that my death will not be so terrible because my atoms will return to the universe of atoms from which they came, doesn’t do anything for me. I’ve always felt curiosity about the stars and planets and awe that they are out there in their majesty. But at some point in my life I began feeling questions of a sort that could not be answered by this “wow” reaction to the universe.

Such questions and moods come to different people at different times. My time came in my late 50s as I began to feel very strongly, hey, I’m really am getting older and this is getting to be serious. I’m getting closer to my final chapter and there are a bunch of things I’m still not clear about. What am I doing here? Is there a purpose in my life, a thing I’m supposed to be doing, or not? Is there some foundation for the difference between right and wrong that is bigger than me and deeper than society’s expectations? And then there is this nasty business of dying. I’m pretty sure that there is no other life after this one, so how am I going to face death with anything but fear? Such questions became urgent.

I couldn’t find answers to these questions in the epic of the whole universe because my questions were about life itself, so I began thinking about a narrower evolution, the emergence of life on the planet, our biological history. Gradually some connections have come clear. I’ll warn you that none of these may seem completely satisfactory to you. On some days, they aren’t completely satisfactory to me either. They don’t offer the certainty and fervor that traditional religions and a mystical mood can offer to religious believers. But maybe that’s just as well and I do think they’re a start.


Let’s start with the most dramatic issue, the fact that we will die. In what ways can science’s story of life itself, as understood by a generalist like me, console us about death. It can console us, I believe, because it reminds us that we are part of an incredibly long and vast chain of living things that has far preceded us and will far outlast us.

life_timeline_imageConsider that each of us has a genetic past that is more than 3, almost 4 billion years long. Pieces of our DNA go back that far. We can’t wrap our minds around a number like that. Nor can we easily appreciate a corollary of it, which is that for each of us, the line of our ancestors is unbroken. All our ancestors, as Richard Dawkins has put it, all 3 plus billion years of them, every single one, was a success. Each one survived long enough to reproduce. Each bacterium for the first 2 billion years whose DNA eventually led to us was a success. So was each of the first tiny, multi-celled creatures in the water. Each of the swimmy things that eventually crawled on to land. Each of the small mammals successfully dodging the footsteps of the dinosaurs 150 million years ago whom we can count as ancestors was a success. Our human ancestors over the last several million years were relatively recent forebears and they too were biologically successful.

Individually, then, we will die but the chain of living things that we are part of is massive and powerful and old beyond imagining. Look around you at every living thing you can see, imagine all of them, imagine the microbes that you can’t see, even the three pounds of bacteria that you carry inside you, imagine all that life that we belong to. My death will be another link in this massive chain, and that just may be okay. And all this life will stretch into the future for a long time to come. All that past and all that future may not be literal biblical immortality, but it is long enough for me.

But I would like you to hear another voice on this theme besides mine. Here is what the Harvard biologist George Wald said about it in 1970 in a lecture entitled “The Origins of Death.”

George WaldWe already have immortality, but in the wrong place. We have it in the germ plasm; we want it in the soma, in the body. We have fallen in love with the body. That’s that thing that looks back at us from the mirror. That’s the repository of that lovely identity that you keep chasing all your life. And as for that potentially immortal germ plasm, where that is one hundred years, one thousand years, ten thousand years hence, hardly interests us.

I used to think that way, too, but I don’t any longer. You see, every creature alive on the earth today represents an unbroken line of life that stretches back to the first primitive organisms to appear on this planet; that is about three billion years. That really is immortality. For if the line of life had ever been broken, how could we be here?… All that time, that germ plasm has been making bodies and casting them off in the act of dying.

I, too, used to think that we had our immortality in the wrong place, but I don’t think so any longer. I think it’s in the right place. I think that is the only kind of immortality worth having—and we have it.

I share this vision, though I find myself thinking less about immortality and more about the chain of living things, individual organisms all linked to the one before it and the one after. Does this vision console me about dying? Not perfectly and not all the time, for our revulsion at death is in part our organic surge to stay alive. And I think we have an unconscious tendency to feel that when we die, all life, even the universe itself, will disappear. So it calms me quite a bit to remind myself that when other people have died, others carry on, fully alive, and that the same will happen after my death. And I remind myself also that if it is life itself, being alive, and not ego that is ultimately precious, then that life indeed is old, huge, and enduring.


Let me move now to a second question and my attempts see if science’s description of life could help me with it. That question is, what is the moral basis of life, what are the roots of right and wrong, and how are the good actions that I try to take grounded in a larger natural order and not just in cultural traditions and social trends? Certainly, people look to the religions for answers about what is right and what is wrong and they rarely look to science. Scientists are fine with that. They emphasize that their field is about knowledge as best as they can establish it and not about judging human behavior.

But there are exceptions to this belief. One popular voice these days is Sam Harris. Harris is a neurosurgeon who argues in his book The Moral Landscape that human values may be intangible, but still they are—or they should be—based on solid facts about human behavior. If the facts show that some piece of human behavior is destructive, then it should be wrong. That behavior should not be considered to be right just because it is a tradition or because it is approved of in an old book.

Here’s an example. Statistics show that physical punishment of young children increases the child’s later tendencies towards violence and social pathology, so such punishment, Harris argues, should not be acceptable. Outsiders may not want to interfere in the practice of corporal punishment that is legal is 21 states in the US and is justified on religious grounds, but they should interfere. For Harris, similar arguments apply to female genital excision, foot binding, and slavery.

But Harris’s approach is an argument for change and does not settle my question about the ways that my inclinations to help people and avoid harming them are linked to the larger order of life. What I’ve found most meaningful is learning about the pervasiveness of harmony and collaboration along with competition in the history of life on the planet. My argument here is that friendship, love, and moral good are rooted in organic cooperation, through pathways that aren’t fully understood, and that hatred and evil are similarly rooted in competition and its own long history.

I am not saying that all cooperation is virtuous—certainly people can cooperate in doing terrible things—and I’m not saying that all competition is bad—healthy competition, between individuals, between groups, is real. I’m saying the reverse, that good and loving actions have their origins in ancient levels of cooperation and organization, and hatred and evil have their roots in competition when it is distorted by fear and envy. I won’t say much about competition here because it’s a theme that is already familiar to us since Darwin, especially under the heading of survival of the fittest. But let me say more about the other half of the story.

ants cooperatingCooperation takes its earliest form in living things as the organization of molecules in the first cells that enabled them to create energy and to expend it. (Any form of organization, even our being gathered here today, is a mode of coordination.) And early on, single bacterial cells even cooperated with each other. More than 3 billion years ago, bacteria organized themselves into stromatolites, layers of mats in piles that filtered sea water for sediment and chemicals. Stromatolites were the first communities and they can still be seen in Australia. A billion or more years later, single-celled creatures evolved into multi-celled ones whose various types of cells carried out specialized functions such as motion and sexual reproduction. We should appreciate this sort of organic coordination because the next step up, from multiple cells to multiple organs, is us. The harmony of our bodily systems working together is what keeps us alive. The same can be said of not only animals but also any flowering plant with its diverse flowers, leaves, stem, and roots.

The next level up of living coordination is the coordination among individuals in a species, especially bees, ants, and humans. Why and how did we humans get to be so sociable—and so clever at it, capable of loving one person one moment and plotting revenge against another one the next?

Let’s listen to Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist who pioneered the field of sociobiology, the evidence of hard-wired, elaborate social instincts in certain animals, most notably ants. Wilson explains that in humans, our irresistible tendency to form groups is both our virtue and our curse, the source of our unity and also of our bigotry. Here’s an abridged account of how our social sophistication began, from his recent book The Meaning of Existence.

E O wilsonIn Africa roughly two million years ago, one species of the primarily vegetarian austalopithecines evidently began to shift its diet to include a much higher reliance on meat. For a group to harvest such a high-energy, widely disperse source of food, it did not pay to roam about as a loosely organized pack of adults and young….It was more efficient to occupy a campsite and send out hunters… Mental growth began with hunting and campsites. A premium was placed on personal relationships geared to both competition and cooperation.

The social intelligence of the campsite-anchored pre-humans evolved as a kind of nonstop game of chess. Today, our immense memory banks are smoothly activated to join past, present, and future. They allow us to evaluate the prospects and consequences of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty, and betrayal.

Here then is what seems to me to be a basic answer to the question of the natural context for human morality. It is on the one hand our sociality and empathy, built on the ancient foundation of organic organization and cooperation. It is also the destructive instances of equally ancient struggle and competition. I can’t say that this understanding has changed my ethical behavior in any way. But it does clarify and confirm for me how deeply engrained in us our best and worst aspects are. The two paths of right and wrong are not solely the products of recent human culture or religion. They are as old as the stromatolites, as old as life itself.


Now I’ll move on to my third and broadest question: What is our purpose in life? You may at this point be able to guess where I am going with this one. I see the answer as Darwin probably saw it and as Wilson does see it. It is in the nature of living things to, above all, reproduce, and to survive until they can do so. Life for all plants and animals is about continuity in its two forms, the continuity of the individual in simply staying alive until he, she or it can reproduce, and the continuity of the species through time, by means of offspring.

That’s easy enough to say about the purpose of plants and animals, but humans? Is my life, your life, really about, at its most profound level, surviving and reproducing? I will argue that it is.

purpose of lifeLet’s look at survival first. Our brains were molded over millions of years when physical survival, especially having enough to eat, was touch and go every day of the year. Such desperation is still the case today for about one billion of the 7 billion people living on the planet. But here in suburban New Jersey?

Our brains haven’t changed much in that short time and, for better and worse, concerns about survival are always just under the surface, driving more aspects of our lives than we like to admit. Food, money, violence, disease, even the weather, are almost always on our minds. You should have seen the crowds in the supermarket on the day before the blizzard blew in last week. And how many of you are thinking right now about lunch? Are you worrying about someone you’re close to who is suffering from illness or injury? Are you thinking about money, the coin of survival for humans? Are you outraged about guns, about the dangers of either having then or not having them? What about terrorists? Car accidents? GMOs? All such concerns are about survival. Even when they are not life and death matters, they are never far from it.

Still, that observation seems crude. What about the purpose of life in the higher sense, whatever that means? What about the meaning of life that is supposed to be a precious, obscure secret. I think the answer to that question concerns reproduction, and not just biological reproduction.

Certainly, for many people, both men and women, having children and raising a family is the cornerstone of their lives, their greatest pride, an achievement that allows them to feel a little easier on their deathbeds. But for humans, reproduction of oneself takes many different forms. Our future is alive in our imagination and ambition as well as in our yearning for biological offspring. In much the same way that we hope to see ourselves reflected in and carried into the future by our children, people also hope to see themselves reflected in and carried into the future by achievements of many kinds, by our influence on students or voters, by our fame, by our quiet caring for friends and family, by our social service to the poor or our medical service to the sick, or by works of literature or other art that we create. Such self-fulfillment has its ancestry in the reproductive instincts that also drive animals, plants, even bacteria.

So the question was, what is the purpose of life? My perhaps not entirely satisfying answer is that being alive is, in and of itself, purposeful. It is always full of needs, drives, and goals. Not just for humans but for growing plants and hungry birds as well. Our goals, in one form or another, are the intrinsic ones: to stay alive, to foster other life, to live into the future.


Let me close with this thought, especially for the science students here. Science is supposed to be an unemotional business. The scientific method is designed to start with a hypothesis and then to pull away away as much human bias, error, and subjectivity as possible. The conclusions are cautious, the accumulated knowledge wins respect slowly. But I urge you to do the opposite, to take science personally any time you can. When you come across a bit of scientific information that catches your attention for some reason, grab it. Ask yourself why it resonates for you, how it might change the way you see things, how it fits in your view of life. Make it personal, in other words. Make it maybe even a little bit spiritual.

Thank you.

Religion for Atheists

In his 2012 book Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton has this message for atheists: don’t let your outrage at religion blind you to its wisdom about suffering and its contributions to culture. Religions (in the book, mostly Christianity, some Judaism and Buddhism) show us “how to generate feelings of community, how to promote kindness, how to cancel out the current bias towards commercial values in advertising.”

“And even,” he adds, “how to surrender some of our counterproductive optimism.” De Botton is impatient with optimism and cynical about “the narrative of improvement.”

If you want to prepare yourself for the real world, says de Botton, take to heart the mind-set of religion. It is religion that “has maintained a usefully sober vision, of a kind that the secular world has been too sentimental and cowardly to embrace.” The biblical story of Job, long-suffering from undeserved disasters, brings home the hard lessons. “Job is reminded of the scale of all that surpasses him” and is left “a little readier to bow to the incomprehensible and morally obscure tragedies that every life entails.”


For de Botton’s atheist, the stars replace god as a reminder of all that surpasses him. 

But for the atheist, with no god to instill this “sober vision,” what credible, secular source could do so instead? De Botton recommends science. Atheists can meditate on the billions of stars in the billions of galaxies. “Whatever their value may be to science, the stars are in the end no less valuable to mankind as a solution to our megalomania, self-pity and anxiety.”

I would also suggest another natural wonder: the history of life. While the stars are magnificent, living things now and in the past are master teachers of struggle, loss, and persistence. And while the galaxies may remind me that my life is insignificant, I find affirmation and consolation in the billion-year-long chain of living continuity. Not a bad bible for the non-theist.


My thanks to Iain Carstairs at for sending me this book two years ago. Iain held a contest on what religion can offer the atheist, which I, as the only contestant, won. Iain, now struggling with cancer, has always searched out the common ground of science, spirit and beauty.