‘Beyond all reason’

Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt, the polymath, explorer and writer, was globally famous and knew everyone. His life spanned the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, and he was a friend of Goethe and Schiller, met Napoleon, Simon Bolivar, Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin. He attended the court of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III (though he found that tedious). Darwin was awe-struck at their meeting but couldn’t get a word in anyway. Humboldt, a notoriously energetic speaker, talked, according to Darwin, ‘beyond all reason’. On the Beagle Darwin had taken, as well as Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Humboldt’s seven-volume memoir, and in South America Darwin was consciously following in Humboldt’s tracks. Humboldt influenced Coleridge, Thoreau, Walt Whitman and John Muir (below), and the illustrator Ernst Haeckel, who coined the term ‘ecology’ and whose intricate renderings of plant and animal life inspired art nouveau.

John Muir

Andrea Wulf’s new biography of Humboldt (The Invention of Nature) aims to reinstate Humboldt’s fame, even though his name lives on in many place names around the world. It is not quite true that he is forgotten. Histories of geology and science mention him, but Wulf wants to canonise him not only for the sheer scope of his adventures and influence, but because he was one of the first to write about the interdependent nature of, well, nature. Unlike some in his time, he wanted not just to collect, but to make connections, noting the effects of deforestation and pollution.

In the fashion of those men of science of his time, Humboldt was not only a prolific writer and theorist, and a talented illustrator; he was also a tireless explorer. He travelled extensively in South America and climbed the volcano Chimborazo in Ecuador, then thought to be the highest mountain in the world. He was something of a liberal democrat too, criticising slavery and – good Lord! – opening his lectures to women.

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