Alexander Von Humboldt

ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT (14 September 1769 – 6 May 1859)


May 6, 1800: “The morning was fresh and beautiful. For thirty-six days we had been locked up in a narrow canoe which was so unsteady that standing up suddenly from your seat would have capsized it.  We had cruelly suffered from insect bites, but we had survived this unhealthy climate, and had crossed the many waterfalls and dykes that block the rivers and make the journey more dangerous than crossing the seas, without sinking. After all that we had endured, it gives me pleasure to speak of the joy we felt in having reached a tributary of the Amazon, of having passed the isthmus that separates the two great river systems. The uninhabited banks of the Casiquiare, covered in jungle, busied my imagination. In this interior of a new continent you get used to seeing man as not essential to the natural order. The earth is overloaded with vegetation: nothing prevents its development. An immense layer of mould manifests the uninterrupted action of organic forces. Crocodile and boa are the masters of the river, jaguar, peccary, the dante and monkeys cross the jungle without fear or danger, established there in an ancient heritage. This view of a living nature where man is nothing is both odd and sad. Here, in a fertile land, in an eternal greenness, you search in vain for traces of man; you feel you are carried into a different world from the one you were born into.”

From Alexander Von Humboldt’s “Personal Narrative”


“In the interior of a new continent you get used to seeing man as not essential to the natural order…This view of a living nature where man is nothing”….becomes transmuted, as it were, in Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”


Is one view of life, of a living nature, closer to the truth, whatever that means, than the other? Does it matter? Both Alexander Von Humboldt and Charles Darwin deserve our admiration and attention. Reading them is forever refreshing, renewing our faith in our ability to see beyond appearances, to catch a glimpse, however dimly and intermittently, into the reality of life itself.



On September 16, 1869 one hundred years after his birth, Alexander von Humboldt’s centennial was celebrated across the world…In New York City the bobbled streets were lined with flags. City Hall was veiled in banners, and entire houses had vanished behind huge posters bearing Humboldt’s face. Even the ships sailing by, out on the Hudson River, were garlanded in colorful bunting. In the morning thousands of people followed ten music bands, marching from the Bowery and along Broadway to Central Park to honor a man ‘whose fame no nation can claim’ as the New York Times’ front page reported. By early afternoon, 25,000 onlookers had assembled in Central Park to listen to the speeches as a large bronze bust of Humboldt was unveiled. In the evening as darkness settled, a torchlight procession of 15,000 people set out along the streets, walking beneath colorful Chinese lanterns.”

“Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. ‘In this great chain of causes and effects,’ Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.” Andrea Wulf