Campus News

Historian discusses ‘Shakespeare of the Sciences’ at Gregory Lecture

The land was barren but for the crops planted in rows on the fields. All the topsoil washed away in the heavy rains. The lake and surrounding rivers were being drained for agricultural purposes. And Alexander von Humboldt was convinced mankind was destroying the very world it inhabited. 

In his diary, he spoke of a future when humans might travel to other planets. “There were moments when he was incredibly pessimistic about our future,” said historian and writer Andrea Wulf. “… He said, ‘If that happens, we will take our lethal mix of greed, violence and ignorance with us. We will turn these planets as barren and as ravaged as we have already done with Earth.’ ”

A prophetic statement that could just as easily been said by a modern-day scientist. But Humboldt, the founding father of environmentalism, was a 19th-century aristocrat who sacrificed his family fortune to explore South America for five years, returning to Europe with tens of thousands of astronomical, geological and meteorological observations and more than 60,000 plant specimens.

But for someone who was known as the Shakespeare of the Sciences and the inspiration behind Charles Darwin’s exploration on the Beagle and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, his name doesn’t ring many bells.

“When I told people over the last few years that I was writing a book about Alexander von Humboldt, the common reaction I got was a blank face,” said Wulf during the Gregory Distinguished History Lecture, part of the Signature Lecture series. Yet, “his name lingers everywhere. There are more plants, places and animals named after Humboldt than anyone else in this world.” 

Humboldt’s view of nature—that Earth itself could be viewed as one living organism—laid the foundation for the environmental sciences. It was during his exploration of South America that he realized the negative impact agriculture, mining and other human activities were having on the environment.

“It was at Lake Valencia (in Venezuela) that he realized how humankind was destroying nature. … Seeing this destruction, Humboldt was the first to describe the fundamental functions of the forest ecosystem without using the word ‘ecosystem,’ which was not coined yet,” Wulf said. 

Upon his return to Europe, Humboldt published multiple books, including the most successful multivolume series Cosmos. His findings made him famous during his time, but today, few in English-speaking cultures know his name.

In her book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, Wulf argues for a return to Humboldt’s view of sciences as more than just empirical data. He believed “nature must be experienced through feelings,” that science should be “driven by a sense of wonder.”

At a time when scholars began specializing, focusing on individual areas of study, Humboldt was one of the last great polyglots with expertise and knowledge in countless disciplines. He married science with the arts and poetry, a view of the world Wulf thinks it is important to get back to.

“Humboldt is the bridge in between (disciplines),” she said. “I think in a way that science and the arts are the same thing. They’re both attempts to make sense of the world around us.”