The Saturday Read – ‘The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World’ by Andrea Wulf

This weekend we celebrate exploration and discovery in recognition of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. What motivates those who choose a life of adventure and exploration? The ‘Saturday Read’ is the career story of an intrepid pioneer whose curiosity drove him to become one of the most famous of his age.

The ‘Saturday Read’ this week is ‘The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World’ by Andrea Wulf.

I first encountered von Humboldt when reading ‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton. At the end of a chapter ‘On Curiosity’, de Botton shares a quote attributed to von Humboldt near the end of his life:

“People often say that I’m curious about too many things at once: botany, astronomy, comparative anatomy. But can you really forbid a man from harboring a desire to know and embrace everything that surrounds him?”

Alexander von Humboldt was the master of connecting the dots and lived at a point in time when the multidisciplinary approach fueled exploration and discovery.

“Alexander von Humboldt has been largely forgotten in the English-speaking world. He was one of the last polymaths, and died at a time when scientific disciplines were hardening into tightly fenced and more specialized fields. Consequently his more holistic approach – a scientific method that included art, history, poetry and politics alongside hard data – has fallen out of favour. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there was little room for a man whose knowledge had bridged a vast range of subjects. As scientists crawled into their narrow areas of expertise dividing and further subdividing, they lost Humboldt’s interdisciplinary methods and his concept of nature as a global force. 

One of Humboldt’s greatest achievements had been to make science accessible and popular. Everybody learned from him: farmers and craftsmen, schoolboys and teachers, artists and musicians, scientists and politicians…Unlike Christopher Columbus or Issac Newton, Humboldt did not discover a continent or a new law of physics. Humboldt was not known for a single fact or discovery but for his worldview. His vision of nature has passed into our consciousness as if by osmosis. It is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared.”

Today universities scramble to attract students with multidisciplinary offerings, but the silos of academia continue to resist cross-pollinization of knowledge. This is why we need to remove the invisibility cloak from von Humboldt and revisit his curiosity and travel the roads that led to his discoveries.

Author Andrea Wulf wrote an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, ‘Alexander von Humboldt: The man who made nature modern’, linking his conclusions to the environmental challenges we face today.

“At a time when scientists were classifying the world into ever smaller taxonomic units, Humboldt regarded Earth as one great living organism in which everything was connected. It was a radically new approach, and it makes him a naturalist hero for the 21st century.”

“With California in the fourth year of serious drought, with forest fires burning, oceans rising and extreme weather spreading havoc, Humboldt deserves to be rediscovered. His interdisciplinary methods and his concept of nature as one of global patterns should underpin our policymaking.

As scientists try to understand and predict the consequences of climate change, Humboldt’s belief in the free exchange of information and in fostering communication across disciplines is vitally important. His insights that social, economic and political issues are closely connected to environmental problems remain resoundingly topical. “Mankind’s mischief …disturbs nature’s order,” he warned, in words as relevant today as they were two centuries ago.”

Alexander von Humboldt’s legacy echoes in the works of John Muir and George Perkins Marsh and in the wild gardens of California where the native ‘Humboldt Lily’ thrives in a dry climate. And now it’s preserved in the words of Andrea Wulf. Enjoy the ‘Saturday Read’ and encourage your children to grow up to be polymaths.

humboldt lily

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