a forgotten scientist

Image: Pieter Bruegel


Alexander von Humboldt and the environment

In Berlin in January 2020, shortly before the World Health Organization announced that the worldwide spread of the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19), which causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS-Cov-2, had resulted in a pandemic, life in general seemed to run smoothly and normally. That January, the Museum of Natural History in Berlin ended a beautiful exhibition commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), inaugurated in September 2019.

The connection between these two events does not seem to exist or even to have any significant significance. However, if we delve deeper into Humboldt's work, we can infer that the pandemic caused by COVID-19 is one of the countless consequences of the systematic and continued degradation of nature, as a result of interference caused by human activities. And, above all, that the way in which we see nature today was initially conceived by Humboldt in the XNUMXth century and detailed in his vast scientific work.

It is curious to note that Humboldt's name, more than anyone else's, was given to cities, rivers, mountain ranges, a penguin, a giant squid, and even a "sea" on the Moon, the Mare Humboldtianum.

Very little remembered nowadays, the writer Andrea Wulf considers him as “the great lost scientist”, in her masterful biography of Humboldt's intellectual life [1]. His ideas, however, revolutionized science, influenced movements for the protection of nature, politics, art and, not least, the conception of the theory of evolution. His way of thinking was way ahead of his own time and his thoughts and all of his work remain relevant to this day. He was even able to predict, as early as the 19th century, climate changes induced by human activities and interventions. And, to the misfortune of humanity and natural environments, too accelerated in the last three decades, causing, for example, global warming, extreme meteorological phenomena, mass human migrations and zoonoses resulting from the destruction of forests, including the Ebola virus, MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome caused by a type of coronavirus) and Covid-XNUMX, among others, according to recent scientific reports.

His best known and also his favorite work is Auschten der Natur [2], or Visions of Nature, published in 1808 in Germany, in which Humboldt exposes his innovative thoughts on the structure of vegetation cover and its origins from climate patterns. Visions of Nature, a combination of detailed scientific information with poetic descriptions of the natural landscapes observed by Humboldt, greatly influenced several recognized great writers and naturalists, including Goethe, Darwin, Emerson and Thoreau.

Although Kosmos be his most extensive work, comprising a total of five volumes, published in Germany between 1845 and 1862, and considered as Humboldt's "Book of Nature", Visions of Nature remains his most important and most impactful work to date.

Visions of Nature it has additional appeal because the work was based virtually entirely on detailed observations and measurements made by Humboldt and his French friend, Aimé Bonpland, particularly in South America (1799-1804), in the early XNUMXth century.

One of the objectives of the trip to the South American continent was to confirm the existence of the mysterious Cassiquiare River, reported 50 years earlier by a Jesuit priest as being the link between the two largest hydrographic basins on the continent, the Orinoco River and the Amazon river. Humboldt proved that, in reality, the Rio Cassiquiare constitutes a link between the Orinoco and Negro rivers. But, as the Rio Negro is a tributary of the Rio Amazonas, consequently, the two basins are in fact connected, concluded Humboldt.

The remainder of the trip was occupied with observations and measurements carried out at certain points in the Andes mountain range, mainly in Ecuador and Peru. The great merit of Humboldt's work from his expedition to South America was to gather information about geography, geology, meteorology, fauna and flora in a completely innovative way. Humboldt showed for the first time the intimate interrelationship and interdependence between living beings and their respective environments.

During the trip, Humboldt also went to Cuba, where he had the opportunity to see the atrocities committed by the slave system that reigned in the sugar cane plantations there, leaving him extremely appalled. He also noted the problems arising from soil depletion, in addition to finding several natural environments completely devastated as a result of the indiscrimable use of land to make way for sugar cane plantations. The worsening of this type of environmental scenario, which we are witnessing today, is even more evident in the modus operandi of XNUMXst century agribusiness.

After returning to Europe, in 1804, Humboldt met Simon Bolívar, in Paris, and also started new preparations to carry out a second expedition to South America in order to continue his measurements and observations. However, this new expedition ended up never taking place. It was Bolívar who returned to the continent in 1807, with the intention of freeing his country from Spanish colonialism. He took with him the Enlightenment ideals of freedom, the separation of powers, and the concept of a social contract between the people and their rulers. The removal of the Spaniards ended up taking almost two decades and the struggles fought during this period had as one of their sources of inspiration the writings of Humboldt, disseminated by Bolívar among the colonized peoples. These, in turn, were able, from the descriptions made by Humboldt about nature and the people he met in South America, to appreciate how special and magnificent the continent in which they lived was. “Only with his pen Humboldt awakened all of South America”, Bolívar later said. This fact further reinforces the importance and scope of Humboldt's monumental work, which even resulted in profound political changes.

Humboldt never visited Brazil and the impact of his work in the country was not as great as that which occurred among the peoples of South America, subjugated by Spanish colonization. The impact occurred almost exclusively in Brazilian academic circles [3]. Humboldt, however, influenced several European naturalists, his contemporaries, who came to Brazil on scientific expeditions during the XNUMXth century.

Remembered in 2019, on the anniversary of his 250th birthday, Humboldt, “the forgotten scientist”, whose innovative ideas and thoughts continue to be advanced even today, may, who knows, inspire a profound revolution in thought and ideas , and ultimately lead to the proper protection of the natural environments that still remain in the country that Humboldt ended up not visiting on his only trip to South America.

*José Eduardo Pereira Wilken Bicudo is a retired full professor at the Institute of Biosciences at the University of São Paulo (USP).


[1] Andrea Wulf. The Invention of Nature. The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt. The Lost Hero of Science. John Murray (Publishers), Great Britain, 2015.

[2] Alexander von Humboldt. Views of Nature. eds. Stephen T. Jackson & Laura Dassow Walls. Translated by Mark W. Pearson. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago & London, 2014.

[3] Helmut Andrä. Alexander von Humboldt and his relations with Brazil. History Magazine, vol. 25, no. 52: 387-403, 1962.


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