In Defense of Polymaths

The Invention of Nature                                                                                                                                           by Andrea Wulf
John Murray, 473 pp.

imageAlexander Von Humboldt was an often insufferable chatterbox who dominated conversation and dinner parties that usually included important contemporaries, thinkers and politicians.  His interests spanned from the movements of land masses and volcanology to astronomy, from plant and animal habitats to mineralogy to map making, from vertebrate nervous systems to geopolitics, but his greatest contribution was his (now self-evident) concept of nature.  Before Humboldt, studies were made in general isolation and empircal observation didn’t necessarily mix with the theoretical.  But Humboldt made a lifetime of experiencing nature firsthand and recording volumes of invaluable observations.  And although outside of scientific circles he is mostly forgotten, his name has left a permanent mark. He has more things named after him than anyone.  There is the Humboldt ocean current that flows past Chile and Peru, there are parks in South America named after him, like the Pico Humboldt in Venezuela and the Sierra image Humboldt in Mexico.  There is a village in Argentina, a river in Brazil, a bay in Colombia, and a geyser in Ecuador named Humboldt. In Greenland there is the Humboldt Glacier and the Kap Humboldt.  There are rivers and waterfalls in New Zealand and Tasmania, and mountain ranges in China, South Africa, Antarctica and New Zealand.  There is the Rue Alexandre de Humboldt in Paris and parks in Germany (his native country).  In North America, there are four counties, and thirteen towns, mountains,  and lakes named after him (and one river).  There is the Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California and two parks–one in Chicago and one in Buffalo, named Humboldt.  Almost 100 animals and 300 plants are named after him, and the state of Nevada was almost called Humboldt. Several minerals have his name, and there is even a Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.

His contribution to exploration and scientific thinking is almost unknowable because it is so vast. And most interestingly, he was not a scientist, but a naturalist and compulsive documenter with insatiable wanderlust and curiosity.  His immeasurable influence can at least partly be measured by his associates and those he affected.  Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe was his close friend, and Humboldt undoubtedly had an influence in his finishing Faust. Charles Darwin kept Humboldt’s Kosmos as a guiding inspiration, filling it with notes, and he attributed the development of his Origin of Species to Humboldt so blatantly that we might never have heard of his natural selection or evolution.

Thomas Jefferson considered Humboldt’s maps of the western territories invaluable, and found himself giddy with excitement when the eccentric German came to visit the White House in a young United States.

imageThe philosphy of conservation in the United States owes much to Humboldt.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is in large part a rumination of his ideas of the interconnectedness of nature. George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature in 1860, a book inspired directly by Humboldt’s ideas, and marking the beginning of conservation movement.  Henry David Thoreau found a way to focus his introverted, mountain man eccentricities after discovering Humboldt, and eventually broke away from Emerson’s existentialism, more and more valuing Humboldt’s direct observation of nature. During his time in Yosemite, John Muir filled his copy of Humboldt’s Views of Nature and Cosmos with notes, at a time when he was coming up with his ideas of glacial formation of landscapes.

Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman both loved the writings of Humboldt.

A comprehensive list of his influences could go on and on, and this book is a voluminous collection of fascinating stories, and strong encouragement for someone like me, a person with wildly varied interests, but who cannot claim to be a scientist or specialist in most things.  Our view of nature nowadays owes so much to the tenacity and inventiveness of Humboldlt, and Wulf has made a proper, highly readable book of it.

Berghaus Atlas, UCD Library Special Collections - copystand images for Prof Anne Buttimer

Berghaus Atlas, UCD Library Special Collections – copystand images for Prof Anne Buttimer

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “In Defense of Polymaths

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s