Festival Talk #1: Andrea Wulf

In the mid 1800s a German naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, warned of man-made climate changes. Humboldt was an explorer and a scientist who saw nature as a web of life. Yet he is almost forgotten. Writer and historian Andrea Wulf comes to Verden i Bergen 18th February to tell us why we should remember Humboldt. 

Møt Andrea Wulf i programposten Arven etter Humboldt

Why did you decide to write a book about Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859)? What were the challenges?

I’ve been wanting to write about Humboldt for a long time because he’s the most fascinating historical person I have ever come across – he was a genius polymath, brazenly adventurous, complicated, flawed, insatiably curious and famous across the world – yet he’s almost forgotten today. He was the perfect subject.

The main challenges were to decide what to put in the book and what to leave out because his life was so full (and long). There is almost too much material – thousands and thousands of letters, diaries and several dozens of books that he wrote himself (in different languages) – as well as researching eight mini-biographies about some of the people he influenced such as Darwin, Bolivar and Jefferson. And then there is his handwriting – he had the worst handwriting on the planet… seriously awful, even his contemporaries complained about it. The most exciting bit was when I followed Humboldt’s footsteps through South America – from the Orinoco in Venezuela to Chimborazo in Ecuador. Seeing the same places and landscapes as he had, was utterly thrilling.

What in your opinion are Humboldt’s biggest contributions to modern science?

There are many! One of the most important contributions was that he came up with the concept of nature as a web of life – an idea that still shapes our thinking today. He described Earth as a living organism where everything was connected from the smallest insect to the tallest tree. Understanding the natural world as a web, also allowed Humboldt to see nature’s vulnerability – if one thread was pulled in this tapestry of nature, the whole might unravel. Today, as scientist are trying to understand and predict the global consequences of climate change, Humboldt’s interdisciplinary methods are more relevant than ever before.

What did you find most surprising about his work?

Again, there are many things – but one of the things that surprised me the most was how prescient he was. Already in 1800, he spoke about harmful human–induced climate change. There were moments when he painted a bleak future of humankind’s eventual expansion into space, when humans would spread their lethal mix of vice, greed, violence and ignorance across other planets. The human species could turn even those distant stars “barren” and leave them “ravaged”, Humboldt wrote as early as 1801, just as they were already doing with Earth. As we’ve entered Anthropocene, a new geological epoch that is shaped by the influence of human activities and one in which we’ll all have to deal with climate change, the acidification of oceans, glaciers melting, and extreme weather patterns from droughts to floods, Humboldt’s views sound alarmingly prophetic.

Why do you think history ignored him?

There are several reasons. One is that there is no single discovery attached to his name – he did not come up with a theory of evolution like Darwin or explained natural laws like Newton. He came up with a holistic worldview and his ideas have become so self-evident that the man behind them has disappeared. Secondly, he was the last of the great polymaths and by the time he died in 1859, the sciences had become so specialised that scientists looked down on thinkers like Humboldt as being generalists. And thirdly, with WW1 anti–German sentiment became so strong in the English–speaking world, that it was not the time anymore to celebrate a German scientist.

You claim Humboldt put poetry in science. How?

Humboldt insisted that we needed to use our imagination to understand nature. Unlike other scientist of his age (and today), he often described nature more like a poet. He combined evocative nature descriptions with scientific observations. Humboldt took his readers into rainforests teeming with life, up snowy mountains, above stupendous waterfalls and across enormous deserts. For Humboldt, nature was a painting drawn on a canvas of empirical observation, but infused with the magical colours of poetry, imagination and subjective perception. He wrote of leaves that unfolded “to greet the rising sun like the morning song of birds” and of monkeys that filled the jungle with “melancholy howling”. In the mists at the rapids of the Orinoco, rainbows danced in a game of hide and seek – “optical magic”, he called it. “What speaks to the soul,” Humboldt wrote, “escapes our measurements.”

Text: Kjersti Sandvik