You’ve likely heard the name Humboldt, attached as it is to numerous geographical features—a bay, a river, a glacier, several American towns and counties, even an ocean current. Or perhaps you’re familiar with the Humboldt squid or Humboldt penguin. There’s also the likelihood that you’ve been mugged on a Humboldt Street, as I was a few years back. But how much do you know about the man, Alexander von Humboldt, for which all of these things were named?
He inspired Darwin, Thoreau, Ernst Haeckel, George Perkins Marsh, and John Muir. His long relationship with Goethe proved extremely productive for both men. Simon Bolívar counted him as a friend long before he led a revolution. Humboldt also befriended U.S. Presidents Jefferson and Madison—though he never ceased leveling criticism at the fledgling United States, which he otherwise found a beacon of liberty, for the institution of slavery.
Humboldt was the first ecological thinker (it was Haeckel who coined the term “ecology” for “Humboldt’s idea of nature as a unified whole made up of complex interrelationships”) and one who, thanks to the early influence of Goethe, was committed to melding poetry and science at a time when, post-Enlightenment, the fields were seen less as complementary ways of thinking than as modes in competition with each other. Humboldt was also a tireless adventurer and the first non-Spaniard allowed to explore the Spanish colonial possessions in the Americas. You can also thank him, if you’re so inclined, for recognizing the human capacity to alter the climate.
Andrea Wulf never really determines why the modern world has mostly ignored Humboldt’s awe-inducing legacy. After reading her marvelous book it’s clear that we’d all benefit from a greater familiarity with his accomplishments as well as his way of perceiving the world. Ecological thinking—or the act of examining how parts interact as a whole—irks those of a reductionist bent, just as it smacks of antagonism to capital, however mild such antagonism may ultimately be. Wulf likely recognizes this, or maybe she simply has good timing. Either way, her more-than-complete account implies as much about our current moment as it reveals about Humboldt’s.