Humboldt, the lost hero of Science

I recently came across this book titled “The invention of Nature” by Andrea Wulf which talks about the amazing life and works of the great German explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and I have been totally fascinated by his expeditions, scientific work and philosophy. This book gives an excellent accounting of Humboldt’s expeditions, the development of his ideas and the influence of his work on major thinkers and scientists of the 19th century, such as Charles Darwin, Goethe and Simon Bolivar to name a few.

Andrea Wulf has made an excellent work guiding the reader through the amazing Orinoco river in Venezuela where Humboldt and A. Bonpland collected hundreds of plant specimens or climbing the magnificent volcano El Chimborazo in Ecuador (one of the highest volcanoes in South America). As a Venezuelan, I was aware of the importance of Humboldt describing the geography and nature of Venezuela, but I also realised how little I knew about his intellectual work, ideas and theories in the field of ecology. For example, the idea of the “web of life”, according to Wulf, was invented by Humboldt. This makes sense after you read his works and how much it influenced other scientists, such as Charles Darwin. This was very revealing for me as I work on the subject of ecological networks where the idea of the ‘web of life’ is so fundamental.

Humboldt’s unquenchable curiosity took him to travel to remote places and discuss about virtually any scientific subject with scientists of different disciplines, such as Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, the great mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace or Alessandro Volta. He had a truly holistic view of science which, in my opinion, it’s very rare nowadays. Humboldt was also very outspoken about the negative effects of colonialism on the environment (e.g. the destruction of Lake Valencia in Venezuela (1800) by deforestation and colonial plantations) and his views against slavery.

I highly recommend this book to anybody, but specially to my colleagues in the fields of ecology and biology. Reading and reflecting the life and ideas of Humboldt was very inspiring and it will probably change some ideas about how we look at nature.


Humboldt and Bonpland in the Amazon rainforest


About franencinas

Evolutionary ecologist
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