Recalling genius of the German super man

Alexander von Humboldt, German naturalist and geographer. Portrait: Friedrich Georg Weitsch

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.

This year, Berlin celebrates the life of a distinguished son; Alexander von Humboldt, who was born in the city 250 years ago. It’s a double anniversary; he died there 90 years later.

Alexander’s older brother Wilhelm, a philosopher who influenced John Stuart Mill, founded the University of Berlin, the most famous institution bearing the Humboldt name. 

Their father, a minor aristocrat, died when Alexander was nine years old. The boys were educated privately.

Alexander travelled widely, never married, and attended several German universities, becoming a geologist. 

After his mother’s death when he was 30, he inherited a fortune. Few legacies were spent more productively. 

A polymath, with extensive knowledge of the science of his day, Alexander spent two years meticulously preparing for a voyage to the Americas, one which Darwin would emulate 30 years later.

In 1799, he set sail for the New World on a corvette called the Pizarro, taking a huge assortment of scientific instruments with which to measure everything from electricity and magnetism to the positions of stars and planets. 

The expedition lasted five years.

He, and botanist Aimé Jacques Bonpland visited Mexico, where they compared the columnar basalt formations of Huasca de Ocampo with those of the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim. 

The oilbird they encountered in Venezuela’s Guacharo Cavern was a species new to science, as was the black-spot piranha of the Orinoco River. 

The shocks delivered by electric eels were investigated. Among the first Europeans to explore the Amazon Basin, the pair discovered more new plants and animals. 

A penguin found along the Pacific coast is named after Humboldt.

Alexander proposed that the Old and New Worlds were once joined, an idea ridiculed at the time. 

A series of water temperature measurements, he took along the coast of Peru, led to the discovery of what became known as the Humboldt Current. 

This cold Pacific upwelling, one of the planet’s most productive eco-systems, accounts for up to 20% of the world’s marine fish catch. 

Its vagaries govern the El Niño effect, playing havoc with the climate every few years or so.

Naturalists tend to be ‘field men’ rather than visionaries, their attention rooted in the particular, whereas philosophers concentrate on the ‘big picture’, glossing over details which don’t fit their schemes of things. 

At a time when philosophy was relinquishing its hold on many disciplines, von Humboldt straddled both camps. 

His observations were meticulous, but he never became so bogged down in detail that he failed to see the wood for the trees.

With something of the philosophical spirit of his brother, he sought “to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection and to represent nature as one great whole”.

Here was the influence of his contemporary, the great philosopher of nature, Friedrich Schelling. 

For Enlightenment thinkers, the world had been seen as a static unchanging entity. 

You examined it and drew your conclusions. For Schelling and his successor, Hegel, however, it was not a collection of independent objects but a transient ‘work in progress’.

With von Humboldt, we see the beginnings of an integrated holistic approach to nature, the genesis of environmentalism and the future science of ecology.

He was a supreme example of what Nietzsche would later term a ‘superman’.

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