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Another greatest of scientists of the 19th century: Alexander von Humboldt

In A superb biography, Andrea Wulf makes an inspired case for Alexander von Humboldt to be considered the greatest scientist of the 19th century.

von Humboldt was the last great polymath in a scientific world which, by the time he died in Berlin in 1859, aged 89, was fast hardening into the narrow specializations that typify science to this day.

Yet in the English-speaking world, Humboldt is strangely little-known. That is partly because polymaths are out of fashion.

But it is also because Humboldt suffers, given the legacy of two world wars, from having been German. In 1869 thousands marched in Ohio to celebrate his centenary.

Fifty years later, German books were burnt in a huge public bonfire in Cleveland, while in Cincinnati Humboldt Street was renamed after that mediocre president, William Howard Taft.

Once, Humboldt seemed to be on everybody’s lips; his portrait even hung in the palace of the King of Siam.

Born into an aristocratic Prussian family, he showed an early and insatiable curiosity for the natural worlds “perpetual drive”, he said, as if chased by “10,000 pigs”.

As young men he and his brother, Wilhelm, were lights in Berlin’s intellectual circle which, though admittedly small, included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.

But always Humboldt was consumed by Fernweh, a longing for distant places.

His misery was to be “too good a son”. A cold and distant mother (his father had died when he was young) had strict ideas about what it meant to be a member of the Prussian elite.

In 1790, at 21, he was all set for a career in the ministry of mines. Then came Humboldt’s jubilee with the death of his mother and a generous inheritance.

Alexander von Humboldt, polymath, died on May 6th 1859. He had an insatiable curiosity for the natural world, a “perpetual drive” for knowledge that felt as if he was being chased by “10,000 pigs”

Suddenly vistas opened; the dutiful son did not even attend his mother’s funeral. Resigning his position as a mining inspector, he rushed about Europe buying meteorological instruments and the necessaries for conducting electrical experiments.

He sought knowledge of astronomy, botany, geology and zoology. Above all he sought a destination: Greece, Lapland, Siberia, the West Indies, even the Philippines—in his excitement, it seemed not to matter where.

In the end the French revolutionary wars then consuming Europe and spilling out into the North Atlantic narrowed the options.

With Aimé Bonpland, a talented young French botanist whom he had met in the corridors of their rooming-house in Paris, Humboldt headed on a Spanish frigate for South America. He was, among other things, fleeing the ghost of his mother, which was by now preying on his filial guilt.

In July 1799 they landed in Cumaná on the coast of New Andalusia, in modern-day Venezuela.

Humboldt’s five years of travels with Bonpland in South America made his reputation. The red-blossomed palm trees, the pink flamingos, the blue-and-yellow crayfish—there was so much to catch their attention that they ran around “like fools”, he wrote.

They pushed on up a tributary of the Orinoco until they found a route to the Amazon, confirming that the two great rivers shared a watershed. And they inspected volcanoes: on Chimborazo they climbed higher than anyone had done before: 19,413 feet (5,917 metres), according to the barometer they carried.

They returned to Europe to a hero’s welcome, their cases groaning with specimens; 2,000 new species of plants alone, which was astonishing given that only 6,000 had hitherto been recorded. The account of their travels, “Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent”, eventually ran to 34 volumes.

One, Humboldt’s “Personal Narrative”, became a bible to young scientists, dreamers and adventurers. His was an unabashedly emotional response to nature. Intuition was paramount.

At a time when scientists saw their duty as chiefly taxonomic—stuffing things into ever narrower categories—Humboldt’s genius was to see the interrelatedness of things—in particular the link between plants, climate and geography.

Nature was a web of life. He introduced the idea of vegetation zones slung around the globe; he also invented isotherms, lines of equal temperature.

He was the first person to be alive to man’s ecological impact—for instance, the effect of deforestation on patterns of rainfall and soil erosion. In Latin America these effects were amplified by the slavery Humboldt witnessed and to which he remained implacably opposed.

Humboldt’s human connections were as fecund as those he made in the natural world. He was friends with Goethe, Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolívar.

His conversations glittering stream of knowledge—was legendary in Europe’s salons. Budding scientists worshipped him for the encouragement he gave them.

Eventually, and only with extreme age, did his endless monologues come to grate on listeners. By then Humboldt, a lifelong republican who depended on Prussia’s absolute monarchs for a stipend, was weighed down by his chores at court and by having to answer so many letters—as many as 4,000 a year from admirers that he was obliged to take out a newspaper advertisement begging “the people of the two continents not to be so busy about me”. Soon after, he was dead.

Yet, and here Ms Wulf is especially good, his ideas enjoyed an afterlife.

On the day of Humboldt’s death, Charles Darwin wrote to his publishers to say that the first chapters of his “On the Origin of Species” were nearly ready; the passion and precision of that revolutionary work owe a huge, acknowledged, debt to Humboldt.

Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, America’s two most influential naturalists, shared both Humboldt’s wonder for the world and his conviction that knowledge could, in his words, never “kill the creative force of imagination”.

Ecologists today, Ms Wulf argues, are Humboldtians at heart. With the immense challenge of grasping the global consequences of climate change, Humboldt’s interdisciplinary approach is more relevant than ever.


How To Be a Polymath

Thinking back on the college recommendations I’ve written over the past few weeks, a pattern leaps up: the most successful students, the ones who are the most lively and engaged in class, the most interesting and most dedicated, are never merely great students.

They are also utterly devoted to six other pursuits.

This used to puzzle me. How can a kid write such detailed and analytically involved nightly reading journals on Augustine and Dante, schedule meetings with me about multiple drafts of her essays, excel in a Dostoevsky seminar, third-semester Calculus and painting and find the time to edit the school newspaper, run the debate club, take photography classes, volunteer at her city councilman’s office, sing in a band and write prize-winning poetry on the side?

I exaggerate, but only slightly. As humbling as it is to write letters for students like these, it’s also enlightening, and it’s not just about the elite few humans who can handle doing more than one thing well. “Our age reveres the specialist,” writes Robert Twigger, “but humans are natural polymaths, at our best when we turn our minds to many things.” It’s not just the youngsters who can join the polymath party:

The pessimistic assumption that learning somehow ‘stops’ when you leave school or university or hit thirty is at odds with the evidence. It appears that a great deal depends on the nucleus basalis, located in the basal forebrain.

Among other things, this bit of the brain produces significant amounts of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates the rate at which new connections are made between brain cells. This in turn dictates how readily we form memories of various kinds, and how strongly we retain them. 

So what’s the trick to letting the acetylcholine flow more abundantly? Twigger again:

People as old as 90 who actively acquire new interests that involve learning retain their ability to learn. But if we stop taxing the nucleus basalis, it begins to dry up.

In some older people it has been shown to contain no acetylcholine — they have been ‘switched off’ for so long the organ no longer functions.

In extreme cases this is considered to be one factor in Alzheimers and other forms of dementia — treated, effectively at first, by artificially raising acetylcholine levels. But simply attempting new things seems to offer health benefits to people who aren’t suffering from Alzheimers. After only short periods of trying, the ability to make new connections develops. And it isn’t just about doing puzzles and crosswords; you really have to try and learn something new.

Trying something new. Hmmmm. What kind of thing?

There’s evidence that something as trivial as changing the path you use when you walk home from the subway can rewire your brain for the better. But beyond tweaking your habit trail, there are more meaningful pursuits you might try, or adopt.

Two years ago, while on a fellowship that cut my teaching load in half and brought me from New York City to a bucolic liberal arts campus a couple of hours away, I had enough newfound headspace to write a piece for the New York Times and soon thereafter accepted an offer to launch Praxis here at Big Think.

I had no idea if I’d be able to keep up the writing while being a dad and a teacher and a runner, but I thought I’d give it a try. The experience has been busy, yes, but manageable, and a few months later I started blogging for The Economist as well.

Adding new activities to my plate—not just any activities, but stuff I really enjoyed doing and had some affinity for—seems to have given me a new source of energy, and sometimes when I’m exhausted I’m also, strangely, exhilarated.

Modern capitalist society bears part of the blame for generating generations of “monomaths.” A monomath, in Trigger’s words, is “a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests.”

You can’t have a modern economy without some degree of specialization, but taken too far the division of labor turns individuals, in Marx’s words, into automatons, “appendage[s] of the machine.” It’s the price we pay for our species’ relentless progress and ever-increasing gains in productivity:

For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood. (from Marx’s German Ideology)

Does this conundrum sound familiar? You can raise your skeptical eyebrows, all my critical critics, about the plausibility or desirability of Marx’s alternative—my students certainly do—but close your eyes and imagine this for a second:

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.

Few of us can dream of becoming such radical polymaths. (And some of us may consider this extreme de-specialization to be nightmarish.) But it undervalues our lives to willingly enter into mindless ruts. If you’re in a rut, at least be aware of the fact, and let it spur you to take some action. Take that sabbatical, if you are lucky enough to get one. Make stuff. Pursue a new interest. Learn a new language. Stop this, start that. Consider career changes, even if you don’t actually make one. Do something new. Come on, it’s good for you. 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock




September 2021

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