Are you a naturalist? Have you ever wanted to be one? Here's one that was far ahead of his time...
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the world’s most famous naturalist, having spent much of his 89 years traveling four continents to observe, record, and illustrate the natural environment. His prolific writing includes more than 36 books and 25,000 letters to a network of correspondents around the globe.
Similar to the thinking of his friend and fellow explorer, Charles Darwin, Humboldt developed the premise for a unity of nature, where all aspects of the planet are interconnected – from the outer atmosphere to the bottom of the oceans. His scientific efforts hypothesized continental drift via plate tectonics, and how air and water create climate at different latitudes and altitudes. He tracked what is now called the Humboldt Current in the Pacific and created isotherms to chart global mean temperatures.
Von Humboldt was an environmentalist at a moment in history when European colonists, particularly the Spanish, were destroying thousands of delicate ecosystems in South America in their lust for gold, silver, and other precious commodities. He recorded the relationship between deforestation and changes in local climate; he discovered the fossils of plants and animals in geological strata. Humboldt acknowledged species extinction before many others through both nature and the activities of humankind, and he decried the “unnatural slavery” of indigenous people in many of his writings.
After spending his considerable inheritance to finance scientific efforts, von Humboldt lived modestly while beseeching the European monarchy, the Prussian King, and his own wealthy friends to fund a quest to explore and document the Asian frontiers. His vast journeys led to a predicted discovery of diamonds in the Ural gold mines and the accumulation of data for an isothermal world map.
Starting in 1804, while in Paris for 23 years, Humboldt wrote 30 volumes about different field studies while lecturing and discussing his research with contemporaries. In 1827, Humboldt visited Berlin to give public lectures. These orations became so popular that he decided to compile his life’s research into a corpus called “Kosmos” (meaning orderly or arranged). The first volume was published in 1845 when he was 76 years old. Five volumes in total were published, the final volume posthumously. After two years of ill health, Alexander von Humboldt died in 1857.
If you would like to learn more about this gifted naturalist, see Andrea Wulf (2015), The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World. Amazon Kindle: IOS version, or the print version: Wulf, A. (2016). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World New York: Random House.
John Anderson is a volunteer with the Morrell Nature Society.
Have comments or suggestions? We'd love to hear from you!