Humboldt and the origin of our ecological view of nature

While climate change makes headlines, the man who shaped our view of nature remains forgotten ‒ it is due time we acknowledge the life and work of Alexander von Humboldt. 

Writer and Artist: Patrick Marenda
Editor: Natalia Sanchez

In 1799, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a German naturalist, arrived in South America. He would spend the next five years travelling thousands of miles to explore, collect and understand the natural world, and change our view of nature up to this day. Though he contributed greatly to biology, he was mostly written out of history and forgotten outside of Germany and Latin America. He represented the epitome of the naturalist, falling out of favour with more specialised modern disciplines. Nevertheless, his view of nature has left traces in society and some contemporary researchers continue his legacy. 

His central vision was that everything in nature is interconnected. To show that the water systems from the Andes to the Amazon rainforest were connected, he sailed through the deep jungles of Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil. While crossing the Llanos, a savannah in Venezuela, he observed the ecosystem evolving around the palm tree (Mauritia flexuosa), identifying it as a keystone species, 170 years before Robert T. Paine coined the term. To illustrate these extensive interconnections, he drew the ‘Naturgemälde’, translated as ‘painting of nature’. This image was Humboldt’s first depiction of an interconnected web of life. It documented the different vegetal species and placed them at their respective altitudes on the Chimborazo, a volcano that he climbed in 1802. Through this description of the physical and geographical characteristics that stratified vegetation type both by altitude and latitude, he established ecological biogeography. Furthermore, when coining the term ‘ecology’, Ernst Haeckel was inspired by Humboldt’s work. The original diagram of the Chimborazo still plays a role in documenting global warming

Humboldt’s Naturgemälde of the Chimborazo (Geographical Magazine)

Humboldtian heritage continues in the form of research about interconnections in ecosystems, such as the identification of recurrent elements in food systems and higher-order interactions inside communities. After making a new discovery in South America, he would rigorously compare it to what was known about the natural world in Europe, Asia and Africa, to create a global picture. His ambition was so great that his later work was entitled Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. 

On his journey, Humboldt met people ranging from Spanish colonists and indigenous populations to African slaves, leading him to study the interactions between humans and the natural spaces they inhabit. Such investigations continue today with research about the uses of palms in indigenous cultures of South America. 

He discovered soon after his arrival the slavemarkets of the Spanish colonies; he was shocked and strongly condemned slavery. Furthermore, around Lake Valencia he saw the environmental consequences of the intensive cultivation of cash crops such as cotton, coffee, sugar and tobacco, exploiting both slaves and the soil whilst leaving deep scars in the landscape. Humboldt was the first to highlight the effects of human-induced land-use and climate change on the natural world. He would continue to oppose slavery and colonialism throughout his life, citing them as the main sources of human misery and the destruction of nature. According to Humboldt, only democracy in an agrarian economy could both promote social progress and preserve nature. 

He described the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate, such as water storage, enriching the atmosphere with moisture, soil protection, and atmospheric cooling. Today, the concept of a cooling effect has been revitalised with the suggestion that the recent rise in European temperatures is related to the replacement of broad-leaved trees with managed pine plantations. However, his views on nature introduced some biases into our ecological thinking, such as valuing forests over other biomes in Western societies. Indeed, for Humboldt the emphasis lay upon the climate and soils, leading to the neglect of the role of megafauna and especially of fire. In reality, fire can fill the role of the megafauna and is a key actor in the sustainable and healthy survival of multiple biomes. Where megafauna has been replaced by livestock, increased grazing prevents fires from spreading, increasing the number of trees and changing the carbon sink. The replacement of the Humboldtian ‘balance of nature’ by the term ‘flux of nature’ accounts for a more complex reality in which disturbances play a central role.

His publications, which have been translated into dozens of languages, combine scientific rigour and a captivating narrative, raw data and vivid imagery in a form that gives birth to curiosity and passion for science. His most important contribution might have been the transformation of the traditional notion of nature as separated from humanity and culture into a holistic and ecological worldview. What’s more, many of the global challenges that he identified still exist, amongst others in South America. Besides his invention of the isotherms, the notion of climate zones and the first international scientific network (of geomagnetic observation stations), Humboldt was keen to share his knowledge. He was the mentor of many young scientists and inspired more through his writings, including Charles Darwin, George Perkins Marsh and John Muir. Andrea Wulf’s biography has tried to restore Humboldt’s memory to its rightful place, as a key contributor to the history of the natural sciences.

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