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Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

‘Nature is a living whole, not a dead aggregate . . . phenomena are only important in relation to the whole which is . . . a web of life . . . a global force . . . interwoven with a thousand threads’

‘Man can only act upon nature, and appropriate her forces to his use, by comprehending her laws’

Alexander von Humboldt – 1769-1858


Alexander von Humboldt – 1769-1858
1843 – Aged 74

Artist: Joseph Karl Stieler (1781–1858) – Oil on Canvas
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Mattes/BevinKacon – Accessed: 27 December 2020

Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859) was born (in the same year as Napoleon) into a wealthy aristocratic Prussian family. As a child and young man, like Joseph Banks, he shunned the traditional European classical education of the day to indulge his insatiable interest in the natural world – collecting, sketching, and classifying plants, animals, insects, shells, and rocks – activities that earned him the sobriquet ‘little apothecary’. His preoccupation led, in adulthood, to the life of a polymath as he amassed and synthesized his encyclopaedic knowledge in a manner reminiscent of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia (Natural History) and Diderot’s Encyclopédie – but as a compendium of mostly geography-related knowledge. Like so many others, he had read, and been inspired by, the accounts of global circumnavigators James Cook and Louis de Bougainville.

His research was as a geographer, naturalist, and explorer, his work steeped in both Enlightenment thinking, and its reaction, the Romantic movement. Friedrich Schelling, aged 23, had become philosophy professor at Jena, writing the influential Naturphilosophie which became the foundation of German Idealism and Romanticism. Emphasis was on the unity of nature, the interplay of the subjective and objective, and nature as an organism rather than a machine, all part of Humboldt’s vision.

His work on mostly botanical geography laid the foundation for the new study of biogeography, and his systematic geophysical measurement foreshadowed modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring. These were the methods he applied on his most famous travels between 1799 and 1804 when, with botanist Aimée Bonpland, he explored the Americas. His work of 21 years was published in five volumes and many translations.

Bonpland, later, worked as head gardener to Napoleon’s wife Josephine at Malmaison where he grew some of his South American seeds and published, in 1813, a list of Josephines outstanding plant collections. Tardy in producing plant descriptions of the South American expedition Humboldt handed over this task to Karl Sigismund Kunth.

The setting for Humboldt’s ideas was, in part, an obvious product of the intellectual climate of his day. In 1794, at Weimar, his brother Wilhelm had formed an intense relationship with both Goethe (another polymath and Germany’s most famous literary celebrity) and the poet Schiller. The pre-Romantic period of Sturm und Drang, a celebration of individuality and human emotion as reaction to dry Enlightenment reason had passed and Goethe’s preoccupation with literature and poetry had taken on a scientific flavour. Wilhelm Humboldt piqued Goethe’s scientific curiosity while he enjoyed Goethe’s company, including the house, library, geological collection, and garden. Goethe had, the same year, founded a botanical garden in Jena and his book Metamorphosis of Plants promoted the idea of an archetypal plant or urform – a basic plan from which all plant life derived. Reminiscent of evolutionary ideas his speculation was intellectually tantalizing along with his speculations concerning external and internal formative forces.[7] Other meetings followed in subsequent years as German Idealism and Romanticism blossomed.

Brother Alexander’s writing displayed his Enlightenment upbringing and his Romantic philosophy, the connection between reason and emotion — between the scientific study of nature, and its influence on the human imagination.

Alexander von Humboldt is credited with extending the scope of geography by laying the foundations of physical geography, meteorology, and biogeography. For botanists his major work was the first volume of his 34-volume Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. This first volume was titled Essay on the Geography of Plants (dedicated to Goethe) and it contained his most famous illustration, the Naturgemälde, first sketched at the foot of Mt Chimborazo and illustrating, in watercolour 3′ x 2′, the zonation of plants as influenced by environmental factors. As he stated himself; this was an academic work that moved away from the static world of morphology – of plant description and classification – and into the dynamic world of interaction and change: the first significant venturing into ecology, soon to be associated with the physiological botany of the more sedentary laboratory German academic botanists.

From November 1827 to April 1828, at the University of Berlin, he delivered 61 extremely popular lectures on his life’s work. These were so well-attended that a second series of free lectures was announced, to be given in a vast music hall with an audience of thousands. These lectures helped him formulate the main ideas for his masterpiece ‘Kosmos’ named using a Greek word, attributed to Pythagorus, referring to the universe as ‘a beautifully ordered and harmonious system’. Humboldt’s ‘Kosmos’ was translated into all major languages and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, in over 30 volumes and many translations. In Kosmos he sought to unify diverse branches of scientific knowledge and culture. This presented the world as an integrated organismic-like whole where ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation’ but only as part of the interconnected web of life.[3]

Famous figures of the past, like Humboldt, have been so rigorously researched by historians and chroniclers that little can now be be added concerning their lives. For this reason, I have confined the account of his life to a brief timeline. A fuller account of his travels, publications, private life, and a list of sources is available in Wikipedia’s Alexander von Humboldt. I have tried to emphasize the challenge and novelty of his ideas, especially in relation to the botany of his day.

The most comprehensive and readable contemporary biographic account in English is The Invention of Nature (2015) written by historian Andrea Wulf and compulsory reading for biologists interested in the history of their science.

Von Humboldt has been included in my list of special people, not just because he was a giant of natural history, but mostly for his relevance to themes pursued on this web site – themes that are pertinent to today: plant geography and landscape change, purpose in nature, the contemporary influence of physical reductionism, the use of analysis and synthesis as alternative scientific methods, biological and social globalization, and the multidisciplinary connectedness of all things as perceived by the human mind.

In typical 19th century tradition he was a prodigious worker and communicator (c. 50,000 letters)[2] well-connected with society in Europe’s major cities of Paris and Berlin.

Like us all, Humboldt was flawed. Hooker who was an ardent admirer who had been supported by Humboldt in his expedition to the Himalayas. Knowing Humboldt’s impressive history of intrepid exploration, he anticipated, on meeting him, a giant of both body and intellect. He encountered a relatively small and plump man of 5’8” who no longer exhibited his former youthful wiry agility. Humboldt dominated conversations with everyone he met, allowing little time for discussion, or even the politeness to listen to others’ views. He was, nevertheless, a public inspiration who espoused the values of a liberal humanitarian . . . magnanimous, noted for his respect of indigenous peoples (vocally anti-colonial), fascinated by their languages and culture, and despising their maltreatment as ‘savages’ by colonizing countries. Despite his initial wealth and privilege, he strongly resisted slavery and greed. He admired America as the world’s first free republic untainted by monarchy and despots.

Historical context

Von Humboldt was born into an ascendant Prussia that did not defer to France and the industrializing Britain. Prussia had high literacy that was supported by numerous universities, libraries, and quality publications that first contributed, and then led, the advance of European science. This was also a time when Jefferson’s (president from 1801 to 1809) America, was flourishing, its economy benefitting from European conflicts during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

Historian Wulf points out that Humboldt angered his peers by choosing to spend his first years back in Europe in Paris. Here, in the second largest city in Europe after London, he found that the thinking was more liberal; the role of the Catholic Church was reduced so academics were not bound by its tenets; the Jardin des Plantes and Natural History Museum (where he met Georges Cuvier and transmutationist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) were rejuvenated and brimming with Napoleon’s trophies of the natural world taken during his expeditions; Paris was Europe’s publishing centre and ideal for the promotion of his work.

From Paris Humboldt added his own chapter to the history of botany when German plant science led the world as Germany, in effect, extended the subject of plant study from ‘botany’ (nomenclature, description, classification) to ‘plant science’ (physiology, laboratory experimentation, ecology, and so on).

German 19th century Botany

Germany in the time of Humboldt was making a major contribution to the history of plant science in a period of German botanical ascendancy that warrants further discussion.

Science – 1809-1851

After an Age of Revolutions and the Napoleonic wars, science flourished as never before, facilitated by the technology of industrial capitalism and spawning new academic disciplines as collective learning blossomed. Science was now passing through a period of professionalization with a multiplication of specialized journals, and an increase in international networking. From the 1820s botany was becoming more clearly a collective activity, rather than a pursuit of dedicated individuals.

German botany

18th century science was led by France which provided generous government support. The Jardin des Plantes was reconfigured as the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in 1793, with botany to the fore. Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussian army at Jena in 1806 had injected French intellectual influence as German science surpassed that of its French neighbour to rival that in Britain where botanists were still locked into descriptive and systematic botany recording and exploiting the flora of its colonial empire.

State-sponsored universities in Germany (the University of Berlin was founded in 1807-1810 by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander’s brother) supported dedicated professional scientists and botanists that could explore new horizons. Natural science was given equal status with theology, law, and medicine.

There were simply more professors and lecturers (Dozenten) in botany in Germany than in any other country. In the 18th century chairs of botany were often still subordinate to medical teaching; indeed Goethe tells us that at Jena the chair of botany was regarded as a perquisite of the senior medical chair and no botanical courses were ever given, until Goethe himself induced the incumbent of the time to give one. But in the 19th century the position was quite different, and botany in almost every German university was treated as an independent discipline. Other factors in the upsurge in German botany were the close links between botany and agriculture in Germany, and the growth of the German optical industry which made available excellent, but much cheaper, microscopes.


This flowering of German botany, especially its physiology, occurred while all the resources of Kew, the British Museum, Glasgow, and Edinburgh were concentrated on the floristic exploitation of the British Dependencies.[14]

Botany was revitalized from Germany by the publication, in 1842, of the first modern-era textbook by M.J. Schleiden (1804–1881) in Berlin, translated into English as Principles of Scientific Botany. The content introduced the latest research in plant chemistry, the absorption of carbon dioxide, water, and ammonia, the detailed analysis of plant morphology is treated developmentally, beginning with a new emphasis on ‘cell theory’ and proceeding to the physiology of absorption, assimilation, excretion, motion and reproduction. The discussion included consideration of increase in complexity from algae and fungi to mosses and liverworts, ferns, then ‘higher’ plants.


Among the outstanding German botanists was C.F. Wolff. His studies of plant anatomy inspired future developments by both French and German botanists, notably compatriot J.J.P. Moldenhawer who first determined conclusively that the plant body was comprised entirely of cells of various kinds. He provided a full account of secondary thickening and growth rings in dicotyledons, and the structure of stomata.


Advances in systematics in the early 1800s are associated with England’s Robert Brown[15] whose most important theoretical contribution was his interpretation of floral development and the floral organs as modified leaves and, in 1827, a microscopic study of the development of ovules – naked in the Gymnosperms and enclosed in the Angiosperms. Further advances were made by France’s Auguste de Candolle who noted the positional uniformity of diverse organs during development, which he called ‘symmetry’.

Britain, meanwhile, was absorbed in the completion of an inventory of its imperial flora.


Following the confirmation by Camerarius of pollen as the male component in plant reproduction, the anatomical description of fertilization was given by Frenchmen J.B. Amici and A. Brongniart while Robert Brown completed pioneering studies on the cell nucleus and confirmed its presence in all cells. Between 1827 and 1838 K.F. Gaertner, the son of Josef Gaertner extended the work of Koelreuter, working on hybridization.

The motile cells of lower plants were first observed in the 1820s and in 1844 Naegeli described the development of antheridia on the fern prothallus and work on a more detailed study of fertilization in higher plants began, to be synthesized by Wilhelm Hofmeister (1824-1877) as the ground-breaking ‘alternation of generations’ that he recognized as occurring across the plant kingdom, demonstrating the shared features of reproduction and morphology supporting Darwin’s claims to common descent.


An awakening of interest in plant nutrition and physiology was fostered by Schlieden leading to pioneering work by exceptional German plant physiologists including von Mohl, Julius Sachs and others as chemistry (a science making major contributions to industry at this time) was added to the experimental palette. Schleiden’s approach was a revolutionary relegation of the old static structural systematics (nomenclature, classification, description) to a new and dynamic world of function and process (physiology and development) that all began with a study of the cell.

Discoveries and spin-offs of the new approach included the geotropism of T.A. Knight in 1806, the description of osmosis of Frenchman R.J.H. Dutrochet.


The application of new research to agriculture was evident in Englishman Humphrey Davy’s Elements of Agricultural Science (first edition 1813), a textbook used across Europe for several decades. This was followed and greatly improved by German Julius Liebig’s Die Organische Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agriculture und Physiologie (1840) which was reprinted and updated many times which led to the important confirmation, by Boussingault, of plant nitrogen assimiliation from nitrates. Liebig also established the significance of potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphate and sulphate in plant nutrition.

With the appearance in 1851 of von Mohl’s comparative study of the plant cell, and Hofmeister’s researches establishing an alternation of generations in higher plants, a unitary theory of plant structure, development, and reproduction, was completed in its main outlines.[16]


Some measure of the scope of Humboldt’s interest can be gained by simply listing some of his discoveries and achievements. In essence, he laid the foundation for the field of biogeography (vegetation and climate zones, most notably the connection between altitude, temperature and vegetation), and modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring. He invented isotherms (1817) and related climatic patterns to continents. His account, in Kosmos, of the propagation of seismic waves became the basis of modern seismology

He discovered the magnetic equator and by measuring the magnetism of rocks in the Alps, he found that Earth’s magnetic field reverses its polarity; he extended the study of vulcanology; collected many species unknown to European science; discovered the connection between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers; introduced the examination of the quotient of extremes into population statistics; described what is now known eponymously as the Humboldt current – a cold, low-salinity ocean current that flows north along the western coast of South America, past Chile and Peru, as a highly productive ecosystem; Investigated the origin of tropical storms and pioneered investigation of atmospheric disturbances in higher latitudes; he observed the preparation of curare; noted the influence on malaria of quinine from the tree Cinchona pubescens.

He was the first to describe a forest’s supply of oxygen, moisture storage, cooling, water retention and resistance to soil erosion and their relation to climate; he initiated the idea of the ‘web of life’; he was the first to discuss harmful human-induced climate change, at first in 1800 and then again in 1831; he was one of the first people to propose that the lands bordering the Atlantic Ocean were once joined (South America and Africa in particular) based, in part, on the similarity of their coastal floras (anticipating the theory of continental drift); he was the first person to map areas of equal air temperature and pressure, a technique now used in every weather forecast around the world; he was the first European to approach the summit of Mt Chimborazo (while also measuring the air pressure); first person to connect altitude sickness to a lack of oxygen, due to his many mountain climbs and his own personnel experiences at high altitudes; was a skillful exponent of powerful infographics; he anticipated the field of ecology (analyzing, for example, the complex relationships between logging and river ecology; he was a major stimulus to conservation biology.

He coined the words ‘permafrost’, and ‘cosmography’.

When eventually published in its entirety, Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent ‘would become the most expensive work ever privately published by a scientist’.[8]

Unsurprisingly many species, geographic, and astronomical features, and places commemorate his name.


Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (Kosmos – Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung), began as a lecture series delivered by Humboldt at the University of Berlin, and was published in five volumes between 1845 and 1862 (the fifth was posthumous, completed from Humboldt’s notes).

In the first volume of Kosmos, Humboldt gives an outline of nature, describing outer space and the Earth.

In the second volume he describes the history of science including poetry and art. This was a popular book read by scientist and layman alike. Kosmos presented the world in a similar fashion to some of the cosmologies of the ancient Greeks . . . as an orderly and harmonious place subject to eternal laws that defeat chaos.

Darwin and Hooker eagerly shared a single copy of the first (poor) English translation. Prince Albert demanded a copy, Romantic French composer Hector Berlioz read his copy between opera performances etc. ‘By 1849, some 40,000 English copies had been sold[5] to which can be added many thousands of copies sent to America, influencing writers like Henry David Thoreau and his Walden and the world-influencing conservation ethic of George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature (see Wulf 2016).

Humboldt extolled the beauty of the cosmos that is the source of human awe. Today we might support his view by pointing out our close association with the universe through the composition of our bodies, truly made of stardust, the origin of organic from the inorganic, and the development of the entire community of life from a common ancestor. None of this was scientifically known when Humboldt wrote his Kosmos.

Volume one sold out in two months, and was translated into most European languages. Kosmos, regarded by some as unduly influenced by the Romantic movement, provided a unifying perspective on the studies of science, nature, and mankind.

Today Humboldt confronts us with the question of where the emphasis of scientific research should lie. By drilling deeper into matter with genomics and particle physics we see clear practical advantages from this reductive approach. But then we also have the legacy of Humboldt. This is the more synthetic approach of ecology and ecosystems, conservation, and the environmental movement that looks at the big picture, the biosphere and the global problems that confront us in the 21st century. We need both approaches, but in the face of climate change and a host of other problems in global ecology we can be grateful for Humboldt’s contribution to scientific synthesis.

The ideas

Given such popularity in his day, Wulf acknowledges that, in the English-speaking world, Humboldt is now largely forgotten, and that this requires explanation.

He was one of the last polymaths, and died at a time when scientific disciplines were hardening into tightly fenced and more specialized fields. Consequently his more holistic approach – a scientific method that included art, history, poetry, and politics alongside hard data – has fallen out of favour. By the beginning of the 20th century, there was little room for a man whose knowledge had bridged a vast range of subjects. As scientists crawled into their narrow areas of expertise, dividing and further subdividing, they lost Humboldt’s interdisciplinary methods and his concept of nature as a global force. [1]

Part of this neglect by anglophone intellectuals is the anti-German sentiment spawned by two World Wars. But Wulf is closer to the mark, I believe, when she draws attention to the character of science that followed him. Our times are still the product of a deeply ingrained deference to analysis as the only acceptable scientific modus operandi. A deep-seated suspicion of anything large-scale has pushed aside holistic thinking like that of Humboldt. All-embracing theories in science, like grand theories and ideologies in politics, might lead us into dangerous places. Scientific laurels have been awarded to thorough investigations of parts of systems rather than the systems themselves. A grand Weltenschauung – like one investigating the connections between climate, geography, nature, and human societies – is too diffuse. The scientific generalist who has not contributed to lawlike first principles is thus associated with speculative superficiality, fanciful dabbling, conjecture, and therefore scientific mediocrity. Despite his endless measurements the breadth of Humboldt’s work ran counter to the scientific tenor of the day.

With the subsequent intensification of analysis has come, as Wulf points out, a disciplinary specialization that draws sharp boundaries ‘between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective, between fact and value’. This is an approach that, by its very nature, narrows perspectives and discourages the development of multidisciplinary overviews, worldviews, and syntheses. We are still in the thrall of this approach to science as we drill ever deeper into minutiae with a detached objectivity that, sadly, stifles our sense of wonder.

Like Darwin, and Aristotle before him, Humboldt’s vision was broad ‘. . . telescopic and microscopic, sweepingly panoramic and down to cellular levels . . .’ [9]

Analysis & synthesis

Both analysis and synthesis, seemingly opposed methods, have their place in science. This topic is addressed elsewhere. But, more urgently, we desperately need now, more than ever, a clear understanding of nature in its entirety, of the biosphere. Humbolt treated the application of the notion of objectivity in its old and former sense, as placing an object within its natural context.

This is why Humboldt was important. It was he, more than any other scientist, who grasped and passed on to others the sense of nature as a whole with humans as its interpreters. He anticipated the science of ecology, the environmental movement, globalization, and the absolute need for what we would now call three pillars of sustainability – the cooperative integration of social, economic, and environmental factors – that are necessary for the effective management of the Earth for future generations. Anticipating James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis he experienced a Romantic epiphany, viewing the world from the summit of Mt Chimborazo as a ’. . . a single, weblike, interconnected organism’.

Part & whole

We cannot experience everything, all-at-once: it is in our nature to constantly select in order to survive. Science, too, has followed the path of particularization: we see how things work by taking them apart. We intuitively know, even scientifically, that there is always a wider picture that must be taken for granted. Philosophically it has long been acknowledged that scientific statements about the world should, ideally, carry a ceteris paribus (other things being equal) clause. The idea that ‘everything is connected’; that there is a ‘web or network of connection between everything’ that all individual facts fit into a wider system of knowledge’, that the naming of a ‘part’ demands its explanation in terms of a ‘whole’.

Humboldt’s contribution was to resist the analytic mode of thinking to see how the parts so often studied by science – the species and individuals of biology – were related: not just to one-another but to the rest of the world. He was a synthesizer. Humboldt recognized his debt to philosopher compatriot Immanuel Kant who believed that there was an underlying causal unity in nature and that Earth should be viewed as a single, interconnected whole – views that were echoed in Humboldt’s words ‘. . . nothing can be considered in isolation’ . . . ‘. . . nature, despite her seeming diversity, is always a unity . . .’ Kant also delivered a blow to the assumption that humans can observe the world with total objective detachment by noting the necessity for ‘predispositions of the mind’ that influence our understanding of ‘reality‘. Romantics seized on the excitement of travel, novelty, and creative imagination.

Botanists in the period preceding Humboldt had spent much of their time in the naming, classification, and description of plants. Their concerns were largely those of the static structure of individual organisms and their parts. The pendulum of plant science was now swinging away from static structures towards dynamic processes, functions, and relationships . . . from morphology and taxonomy, to physiology and ecology (a term that would only be used over a century later) – the reasons for the particular distributions of organisms in place and space.

This new biology was indeed science of a more demanding experimental character, and it was German plant physiology that led the world. One year after Humboldt died, Darwin would extended the study of function and process with his investigations of long-term historical change by biological adaptation.

Unification of nature

Humboldt’s vision was of an interconnected and interdependent world that unified and integrated the physical, biological, and social sciences – all viewed through the lens of human perception, curiosity, and wonder. This was being ‘objective’ in an early historical sense as ‘placing objects within their natural context’. or, as Humbolt and others appreciated: a full explanation of parts must include their relation to the whole.

Humboldt draws our attention to the subtle distinction between the unification of nature, and the unification of science. Today we know that ‘all must be connected’ in the natural world, but scientific explanation (our best representation of this hyperconnectivity) falls short as we struggle with the idea of a unified science. This is evident in everything from the absence of a unified field theory to the confusion of the relationship between the various disciplines that bear the epithet ‘science’. This is a central dilemma addressed elsewhere.

Foundations of biogeography

Humboldt is associated with the foundation of modern geography as the first exponent of the classical period of physical geography and biogeography, especially plant biogeography.

The first appointment to the chair of geography at the University of Berlin (founded by Humboldt’s brother Wilhelm and opened in 1810) was Carl Ritter (1779-1859), in 1825. Ritter is remembered for his publication Die Erkunde (Geography). Ritter was a theoretician while Humboldt was a predominantly ‘field’ geographer. The pair are regarded as co-founders of the modern academic geography that would spread to Paris and other parts of Europe in the 1870s. Humboldt is associated with that part of physical geography now known as biogeography, which included his theories on magnetism, volcanicity, seismology, and tectonics.

The death of both Ritter and A. Humboldt in the same year, 1859, coincided with the publication of  Darwin’s On the Origin of Species . . ., which marked the end of the classical period of geography. Humboldt, and his holistic approach to nature, was eclipsed by the magnitude of Darwin’s ideas, even though Darwin would probably have not visited South America but for is admiration of Humboldt’s accounts. Humboldt’s work was followed by a period of analytical specialization as science fragmented into increasing numbers of disciplines, a trend that still holds sway.

The word ‘ecology’ (oikos – household) first appeared in the two-volume Generelle Morphologie der Organismen ( General morphology of Organisms) published by Humboldt compatriot and admirer Ernst Haeckel in 1866. Haeckel chose this as a name for Humboldt’s special method of studying nature as the relationship between organisms and their environments. Historian Andrea Wulf points out that Haeckel was Darwin’s most ardent supporter in Germany, Haeckel’s books on evolutionary theory selling more than On the Origin . . . itself. Haeckel’s Generelle Morphologie (1866) not only outlined Darwinian theory, but first names Humboldt’s mode of investigation Oecologie (ecology).[10]

Subduing nature

Aristotle (Politics, Bk. 1, Ch. 8), uncharacteristically, had declared that ‘nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man’. The value of non-human things in nature was therefore merely instrumental. This was an attitude espoused by the Bible and a dictum repeated, almost verbatim, by Linnaeus in 1749 as ‘all things are made for the sake of man’. Francis Bacon wrote that ‘the world is made for man’ and Descartes declared that animals were inferior to humans who were ‘the lords and possessors of nature’. From the 18th and into the 19th centuries it was firmly believed that nature, and people, were improved by plant cultivation.[12] Humans thus enhanced wild nature by making the world more inhabitable for themselves. Supporters of this view included the influential Comte de Buffon who favoured subduing the wilderness as a victory of civilized man over uncivilized nature. It was ‘cultivated nature’ that was ‘beautiful’.[12]

Alexander von Humboldt added a voice of caution to this anthropocentrism, making an early stand for environmental ethics by stating that ‘Man can only act upon nature, and appropriate her forces to his use, by comprehending her laws’.[13]

Views of nature

His own favourite work and that of his readers was Views of nature. Here he explored our human connection to nature to the full, bringing the reader into the clutches of nature through his evocative prose: exploring the way nature can influence our feelings and expressing ideas reminiscent of the biophilia proposed by contemporary biologist Ed Wilson.

For most people in Humboldt’s day, as indeed today, nature was a manifestation of the wondrous power of a creator. Von Humboldt found no need for a creator, and was comfortable with the idea of nature creating itself – an idea reinforced by Darwin who, on the day of Humboldt’s death, published his compelling account of the way the entire community of life arose from a common ancestor without the necessity for divine intervention.

Scientists of the 18th century assumed it possible to see the world in a totally detached way, taking a god’s-eye view of the natural world untainted by human affects. Subsequent science has demonstrated otherwise – that we cannot extricate ourselves from our human point of view. Humboldt’s compatriot and contemporary, Immanuel Kant, had provided compelling arguments for the existence of ‘predispositions of the mind’ that bear strongly on our understanding of ‘reality’. The sciences of the mind that have subsequently emerged have vindicated this general thesis while the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of physics established the crucial significance of the observer in experimental observation. The operations of the mind have moved out of metaphysics and into science.


Von Humboldt was a sensation in his day, the list of admirers being a long one. At the head of this list was Charles Darwin who idolized Humboldt, describing him as the ’greatest scientific traveler who ever lived’ and, with Humboldt’s works beside his hammock on the Beagle he declared that ’He (von Humboldt) illuminates everything I behold’, acknowledging that without Humboldt’s influence he would not have stepped on the Beagle or conceived of ‘The Origin of Species . . .. In his autobiography, Darwin recalled, reading ‘with care and profound interest Humboldt’s Personal Narrative’ which stirred in him ‘a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science’.[2]

Other English acolytes included Joseph Hooker, director of Kew Gardens, and the Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. In Australia, Ferdinand Mueller was a fervent admirer and, in America, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Muir in North America to which can be added Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe. Later, environmentalists from George Perkins Marsh to John Muir saw Humboldt as their spiritual ancestor.

In South America the liberator Simón Bolívar, who freed South America of Spanish rule, had met Humboldt in Paris, claiming that the German’s vision had awakened the South American people to pride in their continent and that Humboldt was the ’discoverer of the New World’.[3]

The list is endless.

The Geographical Distribution of Plants.

Humboldt’s Naturgemälde, also known as the Chimborazo Map

Humboldt’s depiction of the volcanoes Chimborazo and Cotopaxi in cross section, with detailed information about plant geography. The illustration was published in The Geography of Plants in 1807, in a large format (54 cm x 84 cm). Largely used for global warming analyses, this map depicts, in fact, the vegetation of another volcano: the Antisana.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Accessed 1 Jan 2021

Isothermal map of the world using Humboldt’s data by William Channing Woodbridge – 1823

Isotherms shown by dotted lines. “Entered according to Act of Congress the 15th day of January, 1823, by William C. Woodbridge of the state of Connecticut.” Covers most of the world; does not cover northwestern North America, northeastern Asia, Australia, polar regions, or most of the Pacific Ocean. National Endowment for the Humanities Grant for Access to Early Maps of the Middle Atlantic Seaboard. Prime meridian: London.
William Channing Woodbridge (Cartographer), Alexander von Humboldt (Author). Restoration by Jujutacular and Durova.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – New York Public Library – Accessed 1 January 2021

The Geographical Distribution of Plants

Outline of Botanical Geography, The Distribution of Plants in a Perpendicular Direction. Alexander von Humboldt – 1850
Published: William Blackwood, Edinburgh
51cm X 60 cm – Data Visualization
Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection – Accessed 1 January 2021


Humboldt was a pioneer of scientific explanation by visualization, using images to convey complex ideas in a way that had not been explored before. Humboldt’s work was on climate and the distribution of plants and animals, but others soon began mapping many other aspects of human life such as disease, poverty and so on.

The most accurate map of New Spain (now Mexico) to date was created by Humboldt and published in his Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne (Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain) in 1811. Humboldt’s Carte du Mexique (1804) was based on existing maps of Mexico, Humboldt paid special attention to latitude and longitude. Landing at the Pacific coast port of Acapulco in 1803, Humboldt did not leave the port area for Mexico City until he produced a map of the port. When leaving he drew a map of the east coast port of Veracruz, as well as a map of the central plateau of Mexico. Given royal authorization from the Spanish crown for his trip, crown officials in Mexico were eager to aid Humboldt’s research. He had access to José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez’s Mapa del Arzobispado de México (1768), which he deemed ‘very bad’, as well as the 17th century map of greater Mexico City by savant Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora.[WP]

The Greenwich prime meridian became the international standard reference for cartographers in 1884.


Humboldt’s work was not just a highly original scientific magnum opus, but a conscious and deliberate attempt to explore the human imagination by grasping, in transparent prose, the mystery, majesty, and wonder of the natural world. It is science as a celebration of existence.

The excitement and poetry of his enterprise, its Romantic exuberance, ensured the popular appeal that won him international fame. Even among his peers he was regarded as the greatest scientist of his day. His narrative was acclaimed by some of the world’s all-time literary masters – the English Romantic poets and the German genius Goethe.

Though his scientific work would be eclipsed by the publication, in the year of his death, of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin . . . ‘, his presence was evident in Darwin’s use of engaging and insightful expression, perhaps the most notable being the meditative concluding paragraph of ‘On the Origin . . . ‘, which was Darwin’s cryptic tribute to his inspirational scientist-explorer hero.[4]

Humboldt was a field scientist, what today we would call an ecologist, whose work was complemented by laboratory-based German experimental physiologists. The early 19th century thus became a new and third phase in humanity’s study of plants moving beyond descriptive botany as nomenclature, classification, and description and into plant science proper, as the experimental study of physiology, development, and ecology. In simple terms, it was a transition in emphasis from structure to function.


Behold! The Cosmos . . .

Finn – 27 December 2020
Venus Bay, Victoria, Australia

Image Courtesy Stephen Spencer

Four phases can be discerned in the history of plant study, each phase emphasizing a particular aspect of the relationship between plants and humans.

Phase 1 – Plant medicine

Plants in relation to humans
The first phase, which persisted into modernity, was about plant utility – concerned with plant use as food, materials, and medicines. In spite of the daily need for plant-based food it was the medicinal use of plants that acquired special significance. Plant powers (medicinal properties) were regarded as a manifestation of the supernatural and they could quickly change human lives for better or worse. The manipulation of these powers required mediators who possessed the special (often secret) knowledge of how to release these powers. Then there was also the role of the bearer of plant wisdom in mediating between the human and spirit worlds. A crude lineage can then be drawn between the shaman/medicine man, priest/scribe, apothecary/physician, academic/plant scientist.

Phase 2 – Botany

Plants in relation to plants
The second phase (with a brief interlude in the Lyceum of ancient Greece focused on plants themselves) entailed the systematization of plant knowledge, at first in relation to their medicinal properties (materia medica, herbals) but then in the refinement of their morphological structure and categorization into kinds. The advent and proliferation of printing through the 15th and 16th centuries, facilitated the sharing of information and standardization of terminology and it was at this time in history when botany diverged from medicine as medicinal botany followed one path into pharmacology and descriptive botany began its academic march towards plant science proper.

Botany then, by this understanding, consisted of the description and organization of the plant kingdom. It was the foundational inventory required before furtherr study could be pursued. Scientifically it entailed the standardization of methods and terms within a specialist plant group within the general scientific community. The emphasis of the study of botany was not on plant utility but the plants themselves: it was about plants in relation to plants as botany extricated itself from medicine to become a discrete academic discipline that persisted in this form until the early 19th century.

Phase 3 – Plant science

Plants in relation to nature
The third phase, ushered in by von Humbolt, placed emphasis on plants in relation to nature (the environment). This was botany coming of age in Industria as study moved from plant structure to plant process and change: it was a phase centred in Germany that eventually moved to Britain. While Humboldt, in the field, laid the foundations for a future ecology, his German colleagues experimented in laboratories to establish the principles of plant physiology and development. The study of plants had now evolved from static ‘botany’ to dynamic ‘plant science’ – from taxonomy, histology, and morphology, to physiology and ecology. This set the stage for the master of change, Charles Darwin, to reconfigure the entire field of biology.

Phase 4 – Plants & the future of humanity

Plants & the future
With the arrival of Informatia in the mid- 20th century, the study of plants has taken yet another turn. Plant science had solved, in principle, all the former mysteries of plant structure and function. No doubt this contributed to the advent of the Anthropocene, an era dominated by an exploding human population and its consumption. With the cracking of the genetic code, arrival of computers, information technology, globalization, and the environmental demands of human consumption, the former three phases have now been harnessed to address the future of humanity by investigating plants more deeply than ever before at the macro- and micro-scales. Environmental concern has harnessed global ecology to address climate change, species extinction, and environmental degradation of the biosphere, integrated with plant microbiology has been harnessed to address food security and the effective completion of an account of the community of life etc. What has transpired is that a large proportion of plant science is now addressing the complex global analysis and management of the place of plants in human ecology.


1769 – born 14 September, Berlin to wealthy Prussian aristocratic family; elder brother Wilhelm (1767–1835) was a minister, philosopher, and linguist
1787 – intending a political career enrols in six month finance course at the University of Frankfurt
1788 – studies at Göttingen University, developing an interest in botany, geology and minerology and befriending Georg Forster (illustrator for Cook’s second circumnavigation of the world). Pair embark on expedition to the Rhine River (from this he published Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein (Mineralogic Observations on Several Basalts on the River Rhine).
1790 – the pair travel for four months in Europe. Over spring and summer they visit England, the Netherlands, and France. In England he met Joseph Banks, then President of the Royal Society, and William Bligh
1791 – Aged 21 returns to Prussia and completes studies in Hamburg, then enrols in the prestigious mining academy at Freiberg near Dresden, Saxony

1792 to 1797 – government mines inspector in Franconia, Prussia. Invents safety lamp and founds a technical school for aspiring miners

1792 – appointed Assessor of Mines and, subsequently, Director of Mines in the Prussian principality of Bayreuth (Franconia). Moves to Austria, living in Vienna and traveling to the salt-mining regions of Bavaria, Austria, and Galicia and into northern Italy and Switzerland where, among others, he becomes acquainted with Volta and de Saussure
1793 – publishes Florae Fribergensis Specimen the plants that he had found in mines
1794 – visits bother Wilhem in Jena, a centre of learning, progressive thinking, German Idealism and Romanticism, 150 m SW of Berlin. Has daily meetings with Goethe and Schiller at Goethe’s home in Weimar nearby
1795 – Die Lebenskraft, oder der rhodische Genius published in the periodical Die Horen
1796 – mother dies releasing him from her expectations of him as a civil servant and bequeathing him sufficient money to sponsor his own explorations: begins his travels intending to join Napoleon’s scientists on the expedition in Egypt
– admires tropical plants in the imperial botanic garden in Vienna, hoping director Joseph van der Schot will join him on his travels
1797 – publishes his work relating to Galvani’s discovery of muscular irritability
– resigns job Mining Department and embarks on expedition with botanist Aimé Bonpland, first to Marseille and then to Madrid where they meet the minister for Spain, Don Mariano Luis de Urquijo, who requests and offers to finance their exploration of the Spanish American region
1798 – visits Paris and meets his hero, the 70 year old Louis de Bougainville
– meets Bonpland, botanist and former surgeon in the French navy

1799-1804 – Aged 29, travels in tropical America laying the foundations of physical geography and geophysics with survey measurements in orography, meteorology and earth magnetism, plant life and its environmental conditions, while collecting some 60,000 specimens, many new to science

1799 – May 7 a passport issued by King Carlos of Spain, giving him free access to Spanish colonies in America and Philippines but Humboldt financing the expedition himself and promising specimens for the king’s cabinet and garden. Embarks on a 24,000 mile journey to Venezuela, Cuba, Columbia, Peru, Mexico, and Ecuador which he eventually describes in the c. 30-volume Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent
– sails from La Coruna, in the ship Pizarro, visiting Tenerife for 6 days, observing Leonid meteor shower on night of Nov. 11-12 which initiates modern knowledge of its periodicity
– 16 July arr. New Andalusia, Venezuela, working for 3 months in Cumana, the pair collecting 1,600 plant specimens
– explores Teide volcano
– transit to Latin American Ecuador and Lima in Peru.
1800 – Humboldt and Bonpland set out from Caracas on mules to explore the course of the Orinoco river and in four months travels about 1,725 miles of wild country, confirming link between Orinoco and Amazon rivers while studying the plant and animal life of the savannas and rain forests.
– At Callao (seaport for Lima, Peru) measures temperature of the ocean current off the west coast and which now bears his name
– observes transit of Mercury
– investigates properties of guano (leads to export of guano to Europe)
– observes electric eels
– three week trip to Lake Valencia and valley where develops the idea of human-induced climate change
– visits the Llanos
– reach the Capuchin mission in San Fernando de Apure at the Rio Apure
– at southern end of Orinoco discovers the Brazil Nut , Bertholletia excelsa, which he subsequently introduces to Europe
– August – return to Cumaná and in November sends two parcels of seed to Banks at Kew. (later Banks retrieves box of geological specimens for him, captured from a French vessel)
– November, sails for Cuba
– March, leaves Cuba for Cartagena (now north coast of Colombia)
1801 – July, arrive in Bogotá and meets Spanish botanist José Celestino Mutis. Observes his magnificent botanical library (second only to that of Banks) and the art studio whose artists produced 6000 watercolour paintings of indigenous plants
1802 – – Jan. arr. Quito and climbs surrounding volcanoes
– 9 June, leaves Quito for Mt Chimborazo (then considered the world’s highest mountain), arriving 22 June. Nearly reaches the summit at height 19,413 feet. Here Humboldt sealed his ideas about nature as a web of life and a global force and, returning to the base of the mountain sketches the future Naturgemälde expressing nature, not in words but in a picture that included plants, temperatures, altitude, atmospheric pressure and so forth that could later be compared with similar conditions elsewhere on the planet
– October, arr. Lima
– sets sail in autumn to spend a year in Mexico
1803 – – arr. Guayaquil Jan as Cotopaxi erupts
– leaves Guayaquil in February.
Before returning, visits the world’s first free republic, the United States for three weeks in the spring, staying first at the White House with President-scientist Thomas Jefferson before staying at Jefferson’s fine garden and private estate, ‘Monticello’. Jefferson regards Humboldt as a fine example for Americans about to travel west
1804 – March, sails from Mexico to Cuba to pick up collections left in Havana 3 years previous
– May, departs Cuba for the eastern United States
– 1 June meets Jefferson (who wrote the Declaration of Independence) in Washington
– late June, returns to Europe in French vessel, arriving in Paris to much acclaim. He claimed to have collected, with Bonpland and others, some 60,000 plant specimens comprising 6000 species of which 2000 were new to science
– the discovery of the decrease in intensity of the earth’s magnetic force from the poles to the equator is accepted by the Paris Institute

1805 – 1834 – engaged in writing the 30 volume ‘Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland’. Moves to Paris in 1807, remaining for 15 years

1805 – publishes maps of the Orinoco River.
1806 – 16 Nov. arr. Berlin with Gay-Lussac
– commences to write his ‘Ansichten der Natur’ (Views of Nature). In financial dire straits he accepts an annual pension of 2500 thalers from King Friedrich Wilhelm III to attend court as chamberlain – but finds time to lecture at the Berlin Academy of Sciences.
1807 – Joins Prussian peace mission to Paris where he stays for 15 years
1808 – First edition publication of Views of Nature, his own favourite, and a major popular best-seller published in 11 languages. An early example of science presented within an engaging narrative that would inspire future generations
– Goethe publishes the play Faust, its key character resembling Humboldt
1808-1827 – lives in Paris engaged in writing scientific accounts of his experiences and discoveries in the Americas
1810 – Completes first part of Vues des Cordillères et Monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique a superb folio of engravings
1811 – Vol. 1 of Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain published in English
1814 – Personal Narrative published in English as first of seven volumes; extremely popular South American travelogue which Darwin ‘Almost knew by heart’
1817 – Travels to London to petitions the East India Company for an expedition to India, but his anti-colonial views unpopular and permission was denied
1827 – Aged 57, he returns to Berlin via London where he again petitions the East India Company and visits Robert Brown at Kew to discuss the Australian flora, also inspecting with engineer Isambard Brunel, the first tunnel under the Thames
1827-1829 – travels to Berlin on a popular speaking tour, giving 61 lectures at the University of Berlin, so popular that a further 16 were given at the Singakademie, attracting all sectors of society and with a large female component (not permitted in universities and scientific societies). This encouraged him to synthesize his research into the earth and nature
1829 – accepts invitation from tsar of Russia to travel central Asia traveling as far as the Chinese border, returning vis the Caspian Sea. This expedition completes the meteorological data for his isothermal world map. With C.G. Ehrenberg and Gustav Rose, traveled across the vast expanse of the Russian empire, the results published by Ehrenberg and Rose. His own work on this expedition was the three-volume descriptive geography Asie Centrale published much later. This work was very modest in comparison to Humboldt’s South American publications.
1830 – exhausts his fortune and earns an income as advisor to the Prussian court as king’s chamberlain
1839 – Publication of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle (Humboldt 40 years older than Darwin). Humboldt writes ‘One of the most remarkable works that, in the course of a long life, I have had the pleasure to see published’)[10]
1845 – 1847 – first two volumes of ‘Kosmos’ – Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe – published in 1845 and 1847 and acclaimed as monumental contribution to natural science
1850 – 1858 – second and third volumes of ‘Kosmos’ published
1859 – dies in Berlin 6 May, working on ‘Kosmos’ up to a few weeks before his death. Awarded a state funeral
1862 – fifth volume of ‘Cosmos’ published posthumously

Key points

  • Intellectual influences included the Enlightenment, German Romanticism and Idealism, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and the Naturphilosophie of Schelling
  • His major contributions were in physical geography, biogeography, and meteorology
  • His ideas ranged across plant geography, landscape change, purpose in nature, the contemporary influence of physical reductionism, the use of analysis and synthesis as alternative scientific methods, biological and social globalization, and the multidisciplinary connectedness of all things as perceived by the human mind
  • His major thoughts on plant geography were distilled in his Essay on the geography of plants and its famous illustration, the Naturgemälde. This was a new field botany, the latent ecology that complemented the pioneering laboratory studies of plant physiology that were being led by German botanists at this time
  • In 1842, Schleiden’s Principles of scientific botany revolutionized future plant study by marking, in effect, the transition from descriptive botany to experimental plant science
  • In the first half of the 19th century, with the combined studies of field scientist Humboldt and laboratory-based German experimental plant physiologists, the study of plants moved into a third phase . . . beyond plants as medicines, and descriptive structural botany (as nomenclature, classification, and description), to plant science proper – the experimental study of plant function (as physiology, development, and ecology).

Media Gallery

Contributions of Humboldt and Ritter in geographical thought

The geoecologist – 2020 – 14:25

She’s THE Humboldt expert on earth | Meet Biographer Andrea Wulf | Expert on Alexander von Humboldt

DW Books – 2019 – 25:14

Alexander von Humboldt – Documentary

Geckos and Gum Leaves – 2017 – 49:31

First published on the internet – 27 December 2020


Alexander von Humboldt & Bonpland’s Expedition to the Americas – 1799-1804
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Alexrk translated by Cäsium137 – Accessed 27 December 2020


Map of Humboldt’s expedition to Russia in 1829
Museumfür Naturkunde Humboldt Exhibition
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Accessed 27 December 2020

Alexander von Humboldt's Expedition to the Americas - 1799-1804
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