After reading Andrea Wulf’s new book, The Invention of Nature, I am flat out in awe of explorer, natural historian, geologist, geographer, zoologist, botanist, ecologist (before that was even a term) and all around Enlightenment thinker, Alexander von Humboldt. In a short blog like this, I could not possibly do justice to any one of these monikers for von Humboldt— to get more on every one of them, read The Invention of Nature. What I can tell you is that the pantheon housing my intellectual heroes is a small one, with only a handful of occupants. Until now, and reigning over all others, but in no particular order, were Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson and Peter Kropotkin. Now von Humboldt joins that group.
Alexander von Humboldt — by Joseph Stieler, 1843.
Darwin, Jefferson and Kropotkin all admired, and in the case of Kropotkin, idealized, von Humboldt. From the research I did for my own book, Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, I knew that Jefferson was thrilled to have von Humboldt visit him in the White House in 1804, soon after Alexander had returned from his five-year journey through South America. The two men sat and talked science (it didn’t hurt matters that von Humboldt was on Jefferson’s side when it came to debunking the Comte de Buffon’s nasty ideas on New World degeneracy). What I didn’t realize until I read Wulf’s book was that years later, Jefferson would come to rely on von Humboldt as his most precious resource for learning about the politics and culture of South America, and came to think Alexander as “one of the greatest ornaments of the age.”
I knew that when Kropotkin began his five-year journey through Siberia he was living a childhood fantasy conjured up from his reading of von Humboldt’s travels. What I didn’t know until I read The Invention of Nature was that von Humboldt had this sort of effect on so many important figures in history. Simon Bolivar, who befriended Alexander when both were in Paris, was so taken by von Humboldt’s encyclopedic and prosaic descriptions of South America’s animals, plants and terrain that he often paraphrased these descriptions as analogies for the revolutionary ideas he would spread through South America.
I knew that Darwin was a fan of von Humboldt. But until I devoured The Invention of Nature, I had no idea that he had written “nothing ever stimulated my zeal so much as reading Humboldt’s Personal Narrative,” nor that he so needed a von Humboldt fix on The HMS Beagle that he had written his brother asking him to send a copy of Alexander’s book Views of Nature to Uruguay, where Darwin would pick it up when the Beagle stopped there.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to shop for a von Humboldt bust for that pantheon I mentioned earlier.