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Humboldt more relevant than ever 250 years later

September 13, 2019

Alexander von Humboldt measured everything in sight. Though many of his discoveries are hard to categorize or have been superseded, his holistic view of nature led the way to how we see and understand the world today.

Alexander von Humboldt's Chimborazo
Image: PNAS Verlag

The name Humboldt stands for excellence and over the years has been used for universities, schools and ships. It has also been used to sell everything from sewing machines to cigars. Yet, sadly for Alexander von Humboldt's scientific reputation, he didn't manage to come up with any simple ideas that shook the world. He struggled to find answers and constantly revisited problems. After his death in 1859, his fame dimmed and during World War I he nearly disappeared from view completely when all things German were kicked to the curb in much of the Western world.

But now, 250 years after his birth, Humboldt is suddenly back in fashion. His image is once again being used to sell everything from fountain pens to tote bags. The literature on him is starting to pile up and soon Berlin's newest museum housed in the rebuilt city palace will also carry his name: Humboldt Forum.

The Prussian scientist, writer, fearless adventurer and polymath is once more at the center of scientific thinking. Oddly enough, his interdisciplinary approach to science that has put him back in the spotlight is exactly what led to his fall from grace well over 100 years ago.

Scientist, explorer and dreamer Alexander von Humboldt
Scientist, explorer and dreamer Alexander von HumboldtImage: picture-alliance/Heritage-Images

When Humboldt died, specialization and classification were seen as the future of science. At the time it was thought that only a deep understanding of a single scientific discipline could reveal new insights. Anything else was superficial and dilettantish.

Perhaps surprisingly, the problems we face today are similar to things Humboldt confronted, just bigger. That means today's warming planet can no longer be understood by just looking at isolated issues. A more integrated perspective needs to be used that looks deeper into the interconnectedness of every organism, geological phenomenon, chemical element or human action.

And here Humboldt did not fail us, but indeed equipped us with the ability to see the Earth as the dynamic complex system it is through "Humboldtian science," a scientific approach combining precise data, personal observation and a holistic view of nature's puzzle.

A global view

Besides demonstrating the need to view the world through an interdisciplinary lens, Humboldt left other timeless lessons: it's best to work in collaboration with the best minds, don't fear the latest technology; use graphics to explain difficult topics; accept that all knowledge is by default incomplete; and all people deserve equal treatment. Most basic of all, he acted as a role model. He used every waking moment and demonstrated by example how life can be lived to its absolute fullest.

Yet Humboldt also left concrete things behind and researchers are now revisiting his journals, published works and mountains of detailed data.

Comparing Alexander von Humboldt's 1802 Chimborazo to today's reality
Comparing Humboldt's 1802 Chimborazo to today's realityImage: PNAS Verlag

Recently researchers used his measurements from Chimborazo, a volcano in Ecuador once thought to be the tallest peak in the world, to see how the mountain had changed in the last 210 years.

The same researchers also used his data on plant geography to look for biodiversity loss due to climate change and the expansion of farming.

The comparisons proved the mountain's glacier has receded by around 450 meters (1,480 feet), while plants have migrated upward by as much as 500 meters.

It's a fitting outcome for a man who was the hub of a global network of scientists who worked together by constantly communicating and sharing results.

Charting nature

However, long before these researchers used this data, Humboldt sifted through the mass of information himself and synthesized it into innovative infographics to explain things like where plants grow or the various global climate zones through his invention of isothermal lines, the wavy lines still used on weather maps today.

A talented illustrator as well as a great thinker, he translated hundreds of pages of notes into easy-to-understand graphics. Working with the best artists, Humboldt created new ways to explain the intricate natural world at a single glance.

One of Humboldt's graphical representations of where different plants grow on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands - photo by Timothy A. Rooks (Source: Botanical Museum, Berlin)
One of Humboldt's graphical representations showing where different plants grow on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. It combines science, geography and art.Image: Botanisches Museum Berlin/Foto: Timothy Rooks

Some of his charts are so detailed their deeper meaning is still being deciphered, while others have become classics of science; many are also true works of art and have been displayed in museums. Almost all of them refer back to what researcher Patrick Anthony calls Humboldt's "vertical thinking," a way of seeing the Earth from the top of the highest mountain to the depths of the deepest mines — and everything in between.

Respect for all

Humboldt was also an innovative mapmaker. His detailed maps of South America and especially Mexico boosted the Spanish colonies' self-esteem. Their accuracy lent these territories real boundaries, which could not be disputed and literally gave shape to these soon-to-be independent countries. When looking at maps of Latin America today, we are looking directly at Humboldt.

At the same time, he never erased or ignored indigenous people, nor did he excuse slavery, in fact though an aristocrat himself, his condemnation of slavery was absolute. He called it the "greatest of all the evils which have afflicted mankind."

Alexander von Humboldt included these representations of costumes drawn by Mexican painters in Montezuma's time in his famous 1810 book "Vue des Cordilliéres et monuments des peuples indigénes de l'Amerique" - photo by Timothy A. Rooks (Source: Botanical Museum, Berlin)
Humboldt included these representations of costumes drawn by Mexican painters in Montezuma's time in his famous 1810 book 'Vue des Cordilliéres et monuments des peuples indigénes de l'Amerique'Image: Botanisches Museum Berlin/Foto: Timothy Rooks

In his eyes, all people were alike and he showed that the New World's ancient civilizations— the Incas, Aztecs or the Maya — were advanced and equal to any in Europe, Africa or Asia. His investigations of colonialism, indigenous languages and his use of local names fostered a sense of national unity, and is one reason why Alejandro de Humboldt has been held in high esteem in South America for the last two centuries.

His inspiration and voice are still powerful tools in the endless fight for human rights. "He railed against social injustices, such as slavery and inhumane working conditions in the mines in colonial Mexico, which are comparable today to human trafficking, sweatshops and the deplorable situations of many migrant workers in the US," according to Vera Kutzinski, director of the Alexander von Humboldt in English project (HiE) and a professor at Vanderbilt University.

A never-ending process

Besides gathering data and demonstrating an exemplary moral code, Humboldt also made science more human by bringing it to the widest possible audience and encouraging the reworking of problems with the latest information.

Alexander von Humboldt statue in Berlin - photo by Timothy A. Rooks
Though Humboldt had an astonishing impact on South America, he is nonetheless known around the globeImage: T. Rooks

For Kutzinski, one of the key things that connect Humboldt to our time of fast news and increasing digitalization is the fact that he knew his work was unfinished. Though he quickly included the most current discoveries into his writings, he always pointed out the tentative, work-in-progress nature of all his publications.

"By insisting that all knowledge is incomplete, that the process of knowing never really ends, Humboldt draws an implicit distinction between producing and consuming information — or data — and the method of actually knowing something," said Kutzinski

Moreover, he was not afraid to admit mistakes or act as a steppingstone for others. But he was more than a steppingstone; he was a springboard for generations of scientists who surpassed him, like Charles Darwin who published "On the Origin of Species" a few months after Humboldt's death.

A true inspiration

It seems impossible that one man could posses so much knowledge or have achieved so much in a single lifetime. Most of the tales are in fact true. But Andreas W. Daum, author of a concise biography of Humboldt that presents him as a seminal figure in the age of revolutions around 1800, thinks we need to look for the man behind Humboldt:

"We can relate better to Humboldt if we take him down from the pedestal. We learn more — about ourselves as well as about the man himself — if we free him from the ballast of serving as a super-human demi-God. We gain insight into our seemingly interconnected, global world if we take Humboldt as an example of living a dignified and self-determined life in times of deep transformations."

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Decker. It is a copy of an original by Joseph Stieler from 1843. Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences.
A painting of 74-year-old Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Decker. It is a copy of an original by Joseph Stieler from 1843. Today it hangs in the reading room of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of SciencesImage: Berlin-Brandenburg Akademie der Wissenschaften/Foto: T. Rooks

With this in mind, it is still undeniable that Humboldt was the ultimate cosmopolitan who disregarded national and ethnic borders. He was born Prussian, traveled across four continents, lived for decades in Paris, spoke a handful of languages and wrote in three. He was hard-working, freely shared his research and generously supported young scientists, even when he could ill afford it. He was not afraid to make mistakes, correct himself or completely change his mind.

The scientist stood up for the rights of others and serves as a role model of what is possible if you are determined enough to strive for your dreams and live life to the utmost. In today's world of self-centered social media and narrowing interests, Humboldt's example of a life serving others and the calling of science was never more relevant.

In Humboldt's Footsteps: Respect for Indigenous Cultures

Timothy A. Rooks
Timothy Rooks One of DW's business reporters, Timothy Rooks is based in Berlin.