Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was one of the last polymaths, a brilliant scientist and an awe-inspiring explorer, who travelled extensively in the Americas while collecting scientific data in every way then known to man. The books he published afterwards about his journey and his research became hugely popular and made him the greatest scientist of his time. Although his liberal worldview was not popular with many people on whom he relied to financially or politically support him and his endeavours, he was a lifelong abolitionist who condemned colonialism and called the European conduct in South America ‘barbaric’, and instead admired and appreciated the culture and knowledge of the indigenous peoples.
Humboldt led an incredibly fascinating life, so I went into this with very high expectations, and I’m glad to say that I wasn’t disappointed. Wulf wrote a very good but not exhaustive biography in which she puts the focus not always on Humboldt himself, but also on the people he influenced with his work, like Goethe, Simón Bolívar, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, and many, many others. I liked these digressions a lot because it underlines how extraordinary his work was in that it influenced not only other scientists, but also artists, politicians, philosophers, and even revolutionaries. It was, however, not only his work that inspired people, but his ability to instill a similar enthusiasm and zeal for knowledge in his counterparts that he himself felt all of his life, and the book manages to make its readers feel some of that as well.
Wolf also embeds Humboldt’s life story into a bigger narrative about the importance of his work. She makes the case that he, as a visionary and a thinker far ahead of his time, invented the concept of nature as we know it today because he was the first to understand that everything is connected, and that he was a founding father of environmentalism. He identified key species without which whole ecosystems would collapse. When he looked at the deforestation in Venezuela he knew that this would cause problems for future generations if it continued unchecked. Based on these observations, he first described human-induced climate change in the year 1800 because he understood that the impact of certain practices on nature was desastrous and would cause an ecological imbalance. The first seeds of environmentalism were planted in this moment, and consequently, the book does not end with Humboldt’s death but goes on to discuss his influence on the lives of, among others, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh who is considered the first ‘conservationist’, or John Muir, the ‘Father of the National Parks’.
I think this is a brilliant and important book that is also highly enjoyable, because in addition to being incredibly educational, it is the story of a great man who had big dreams about impossible seeming adventures in faraway places, and this adventurous spirit permeates the whole book. 2019 is the 250th anniversary of Humboldt’s birthday, and it is undeniable that his work is as relevant as ever, especially by reminding us that we are only a part of nature and not its master.
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