Thursday, July 3, 2014

Americas Society Gives Alexander von Humboldt His pre-Darwin Due

The unusually complete catalog for the Humboldt exhibition
 at the Americas Society. The once-in-lifetime show reveals
just how good Humboldt was at taking snapshots of nature.
Darwin acknowledged a huge debt to Humboldt. We see
 the best scientific work on ecology before Darwin changed it
all, adding the fourth dimension of time to Humboldt's 3D. 
The Americas Society, founded by David Rockefeller in 1965, had an extraordinary exhibition in July at its handsome Headquarters, 680 Park Avenue (68th Street) in New York City.

Art and documents have been assembled relating to the life and discoveries of Alexander von Humboldt. Before Darwin came on the scene, he is said to have been second only in European fame to Napoleon Bonaparte.

He is the first European to have ventured into many parts of Central and South America and, in the words of the great liberator Simón Bolivar, he "dragged the Americas out of ignorance".

This comprehensive exhibition brings works of art from 30 different institutions. It took two years to assemble.

The exhibition is guest-curated by two experts on Latin America, Georgia de Havenon and Alicia Lubowski-Jahn. The curators also served as editors of the 168-page hard-bound catalog, which reproduces many of the works of art and includes essays and a chronology of Humboldt's life.

Humboldt, Alexander von [Credit: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin—Preussischer Kulturbesitz]
Alexander von
Humboldt at
work (1769-1859).
In the catalog, for example, Jay A. Levenson compares Humboldt favorably with Christopher Columbus as the New World's second great explorer. The difference between them is that Humboldt was a scientist and brought back a wealth of flora and fauna, sketches, and detailed measurements, not just information about the trade potential. Humboldt spent the rest of his life compiling all the information he and his French co-explorer collected on a five-year trip (1799-1804) to Central and South America.

In the following short bio of von Humboldt, I summarize the lengthy exposition in the online Encyclopedia Britannica and add some information from other sources. Then I append some personal comments.

Humboldt's Childhood and Education

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander, Freiherr (Baron) von Humboldt was born on September 14, 1769 in Berlin, son of an officer in the army of Frederick the Great.  His mother was a strict Calvinist from a Huguenot Protestant family that left France for Germany in 1685, after Louis XIV foolishly revoked the Edict of Nantes - thereby taking back his earlier promise of religious liberty for the Protestant minority that kept the economy growing.

After their father’s death in 1779, Alexander and his brother Wilhelm von Humboldt were raised by their mother. She had the boys privately tutored in political history and economics as well as the usual courses in Latin, Greek, modern languages, and mathematics. Alexander was frequently ill as a child and initially was a poor student. He was so restless he considered following his father into the Prussian Army.

His meandering university career included four institutions of higher learning:
  • University of Frankfurt an der Oder, a much smaller city than Frankfurt am Main. It is an hour by train east of Berlin, on the Polish border. Humboldt spent a year here studying economics. He considered it a waste of time. If he was lucky, his curriculum would have centered on the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith.
  • Berlin - a year in Berlin studying engineering and developing his passion for botany.
  • University of Göttingen (1789-90) - a year of discovering science. 
  • School of Mines, Freiberg, Saxony - two years of hard work, every morning in the mines, followed by about six hours of classes in the afternoon. In the evenings he hunted around for plants.
Leaving Freiberg in 1792, he obtained an appointment in the Mining Department of the Prussian government and departed for the remote Fichtel Mountains in the Margraviate of Ansbach-Bayreuth. Here Humboldt traveled among the gold and copper mines, reorganizing the neglected pits. He supervised all mining activities, invented a safety lamp, and established, with his own funds, a technical school for young miners.

South America 

Humboldt decided that his real aim in life was scientific exploration. In 1797 he resigned from his post to learn acquire the techniques of geodetic, meteorological, and geomagnetic measurement. The political upheavals caused by the Napoleonic Wars created obstacles to travel. Eventually he succeeded in obtaining permission from the Spanish government to visit the Spanish colonies in Central and South America. These colonies were then accessible only to Spanish officials and Roman Catholic missions. Humboldt’s high social standing helped. The Spanish prime minister Mariano de Urquijo supported his application to the king for a royal permit.

In the summer of 1799, he set sail from Marseille with the French botanist Aimé Bonpland. Money left by his recently deceased mother enabled Humboldt to pay for the entire expedition. The two explorers spent five years, 1799-1804, in Central and South America, covering more than 6,000 miles on foot, on horseback, or in a canoe. It was a physically challenging life:
  • From Caracas they travelled south through grasslands to the Apure, a tributary of the Orinoco River. They went by canoe to the Orinoco. Following its course, they discovered that the Casiquiare River connected the vast river systems of the Amazon and the Orinoco. Both travelers, excited by their discoveries, remained healthy, but on their return succumbed to fever. 
  • Cuba was next. 
  • Then from Bogotá to Trujillo through the Andean Highlands on a path, now followed by the Pan-American Highway, that was then narrow, rocky and steep.
  • They climbed the volcanoes near Quito, Ecuador. Humboldt’s climb to 19,286 feet, near the top of Chimborazo (20,702 feet), remained a world mountain-climbing record for nearly 30 years. Humboldt and Bonpland did this without the help of modern mountaineering equipment and suffered badly from mountain sickness. Humboldt was the first to figure out that mountain sickness resulted from lack of oxygen at high altitudes. 
  • The western shoreline - Humboldt studied the oceanic current off the west coast of South America that was originally named after him but is now known as the Peru Current. 
  • Guayaquil to Acapulco, Mexico, in 1803. 
  • The United States, where Humboldt was received by President Jefferson and passed on his string views about the inhumanity of slavery.
  • Then they sailed for France. Humboldt and Bonpland returned with an immense amount of plants and data - longitudes and latitudes, measurements of the components of the Earth’s geomagnetic field, and daily observations of temperatures and barometric pressure, as well as statistical data on the social and economic conditions of Mexico. 

During the next quarter-century, 1804-1827, Humboldt published the data from the South American expedition, working mostly out of Paris. He had the support of French scientists, engravers, and publishers for the 30 volumes into which the scientific results of the expedition were assembled, including:
  • Meteorological data, with mean daily and nightly temperatures, and Humboldt’s representation on weather maps of isotherms (lines connecting points with the same mean temperature) and isobars (lines connecting points with the same barometric pressure for a given time or period), which helped create the science of comparative climatology. 
  • Geographical data on each region’s flora and fauna, and his conclusions from the study of the Andean volcanoes concerning the role played by eruptive forces and metamorphosis in the history and ongoing development of the Earth’s crust. These conclusions disproved the idea that the surface of the Earth had been formed by sedimentation from a liquid state. 
  • Geology and mining in Mexico, including descriptions of the country’s political, social, and economic conditions, and population statistics. He cried out against slavery but remained unheard. However, his descriptions of the Mexican silver mines led to more investment in them by English mining capital. 
In Paris, Humboldt developed friendships with the renowned physicist and astronomer François Arago, and younger scientists whose studies he supported, such as the German chemist Justus von Liebig and the Swiss-born zoologist Louis Agassiz. About 8,000 of his letters remain.

Humboldt's Later Years 

Humboldt's money ran out in 1827, ending his extremely productive years in Paris. In order for him to get paid by the King of Prussia, Frederick William III, he had to return to Berlin, where he remained for the next 32 years until his death. The King hired Humboldt to be a tutor to the Crown Prince, who would become Frederick William IV in 1840.

Humboldt gave a course on physical geography to professors and students of all faculties at the University of Berlin, and a public lecture to more than 1,000 people. In the autumn of 1828 he organized in Berlin one of the first international scientific conferences, in the face of suspicions that he was rabble-rousing by democracy-wary Prussian rulers.

In 1829 Humboldt was invited by the Russian minister of finance, Count Yegor Kankrin to tour gold and platinum mines in the Urals. The condition was that he held his tongue about politics, and just to make sure Humboldt was shadowed by a guard from the Czar. The entourage travelled in carriages to the Altai Mountains and the Chinese frontier. The resulting observations were of great importance, because Central Asia was then largely unknown in the West.

Humboldt spent the last 30 years of his life in Berlin, with an annual visit to Paris. Even before his visit to Russia, he had returned to investigating magnetic storms. The German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss had begun to organize observatories in Germany, England, and Sweden. Mofre were needed, so in 1836 Humboldt asked the Royal Society in London that it establish permanent observatories in Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, and an Antarctic expedition. With the help of their data, English geophysicist Sir Edward Sabine correlated the appearance of magnetic storms in the Earth’s atmosphere with sunspot activity, proving the extraterrestrial origin of the storms.

During the last 25 years of his life, Humboldt was chiefly occupied with writing Kosmos, a summary of what was known about the structure of the universe. Within a few years, the first four volumes had been translated into nearly all European languages. While working on the fifth volume, Humboldt died in his 90th year, on May 6, 1859, in Berlin.


Several people in the catalog ask a basic question that I paraphrase as: "Given the path-breaking nature of his explorations and the extraordinary skills he showed in assembling his data (for example, showing the differences among flora and fauna at different levels of altitude), why did Humboldt's reputation go into eclipse after his fame in the early 19th Century?"

Certainly, Humboldt compares favorably with Christopher Columbus, as Levenson points out, yet Columbus's light never went out.

I think there is a one-word answer to the question - Darwin. Twenty years after Humboldt, Darwin set out on his own explorations. He was looking for data to answer a much more sophisticated question than Humboldt. Darwin was not interested just in describing and analyzing what he saw. He was trying to figure out the "origin of species" - how each species got to be what it is - how it "evolved".

In other words, he saw each part of nature as having a prior history, from which one could project a future. He added the fourth dimension of time.

When, in the same year that Humboldt died, the first edition of The Origin of Species was published, suddenly the study of nature took on another layer of complexity. Darwin was the vogue world-wide into the 1880s. In Darwin's theory of natural selection, the passage of time was added to the static pictures that Humboldt presented - the past and future. Evolution helps explain present-day nature by reference to the past. It also allows us to prepare for and affect the future.

Darwin gives mostly full credit to Humboldt when he describes the influences on his own work, but then in later life he ascribes a flaw to Humboldt, namely a lack of originality. This claim of lack of originality may be unfair. Even geniuses are lucky to be at a stage in history where enough  groundwork has been done that an original theory can make all the difference. Darwin was right earlier in life when he shared the credit with Humboldt because Humboldt helped him to ask the right questions and to collect the right data.

If we think of scientific theory itself as an evolving process, Darwin needed a Humboldt and other explorers similarly dedicated to making their findings accessible to other scientists. A precondition for development of his theories was a catalog of flora and fauna that would permit Darwin to see patterns in the data.

We need to keep in mind the enablers, the meticulous data-gatherers and assemblers who make possible theoretical advances. Other people with different skills can see things in the assembled data that the data gatherers themselves may not. In that way, science advances...

From my seven years in the Federal Government in Washington, another 13 in NYC Government, and a lifetime of observing the data they produce, I have to say that data collectors and data users can sometimes constitute a static mutual-admiration society that is external to the real world. But when the system works as it should and data collectors are properly independent of data users, it encourages the best in both groups.

Darwin's own reputation went into relative decline in the period of the 1880s to the 1930s. But in the 20th century the theory of evolution was seen as the key to progress in the sciences and Darwin's theories have helped unify knowledge. Humboldt's vision of the Unity of Nature finally becomes  orthodoxy through the work of Darwin.