By Fr. Bud Grant
Recently an ecologist friend of mine told me to read Andrea Wulf’s book “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.” I did. I recommend it unconditionally. Humboldt’s life (1769-1859) coincided with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and was a sort of hinge between neo-Classicism and Romanticism. He saw not only discrete scientific data but the broad interconnectedness of what he called the “cosmos.” He spoke of human-caused environmental crises (even in back-country Venezuela) and warned of the potential for climate change. Shoot, he seems to have invented the very notion of climate.
He influenced such diverse people as J. W. von Goethe, Freidrich Schiller, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin and Simon Bolivar (Napoleon, apparently, was jealous of him). He is the person for whom more things are named across the globe than anyone else. Quick check: yep, sure enough, there is a Humboldt, Iowa.
But, according to Wulf, the most remarkable aspect of this extraordinary man’s contribution to “letters and science” is his sense of the parts and the whole … he is the first, she says, to articulate the idea of nature as a “whole living being.” Not a Cartesian machine (with interchangeable or at least replaceable parts) and not a warehouse of discrete resources for our exploitation, but a single, global, living thing.
Humboldt got away with this otherwise rather romantic sounding notion because he had the scrupulously measured data to back it all up. Famously, he created a vast illustration (naturgemälde, “nature painting”) of the Ecuadorian volcano Chimborazo in 1807. He charted the climate and vegetation at each stage of elevation. He later compared that data with research in other places (including Vesuvius, which he saw in eruption, and the Siberian Steppes, which he trekked at the age of 60).
He proved that there are similarities among plants, animals and geography across the planet. This suggested to him the concept of the interconnected web. From there, he argued that what happens to one member of that body (like deforestation, swamp draining and species eradication) affects the whole. Such conclusions were only possible because his humanistic vision of the planet was informed by the most careful scrutiny of the facts. Indeed, his five-volume opus magnus, “Kosmos,” uses that Greek word to describe not only the planet but the union of all scientific, philosophical and cultural knowledge. It is a masterpiece both of science and literature.
That so much of what we now take for granted in the fields of environmentalism, ecology and naturalism (yep, three discrete disciplines) were first articulated by this restless 19th century Prussian polymath is deeply inspiring. That the integration of the arts and sciences has, subsequently, been threatened by such dangerous tendencies as anti-intellectual religious fundamentalism, mistrust of any learning that is not practical (meaning “profitable”), and the (probably exaggerated) reputation of the sciences for disdaining the humanities, is viscerally painful.
Humboldt’s enlightened discovery of the integration of science and the humanities in reference to the natural world was anticipated by Thomas Aquinas and all the way back to Aristotle, which reminds us that, to mutilate Tolstoi’s wry insight, great minds think alike; small minds all think differently.
We are again (or still) tortured by the foolishly binary Gordian knot that bids us to choose between nature as good or evil; the earth as a whole or as resources; commerce or community, science or poetry; mind or heart. Humboldt’s greatness was, in no small part, his refusal to choose among those incommensurables, rather giddily embracing them all.
Alexander von Humboldt died a rock-star intellectual 158 years ago. He lived to see the ascent of Darwin’s genius and Bolivar’s ruined experiment; the global oscillations between totalitarianism and democracy; the mounting evidence of his prophetic perspicacity. It is gut-wrenching that Humboldt’s “cosmos” is again threatened by ideological obstinacy.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)