Alexander von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature: Creating a Holistic View of the World Through A Web of Interdisciplinary Knowledge

In his piece in 2014’s Edge collection This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress, dinosaur paleontologist Scott Sampson writes that science needs to “subjectify” nature. By “subjectify”, he essentially means to see ourselves connected with nature, and therefore care about it the same way we do the people with whom we are connected.

That's not the current approach. He argues: “One of the most prevalent ideas in science is that nature consists of objects. Of course, the very practice of science is grounded in objectivity. We objectify nature so that we can measure it, test it, and study it, with the ultimate goal of unraveling its secrets. Doing so typically requires reducing natural phenomena to their component parts.”

But this approach is ultimately failing us.

Why? Because much of our unsustainable behavior can be traced to a broken relationship with nature, a perspective that treats the nonhuman world as a realm of mindless, unfeeling objects. Sustainability will almost certainly depend upon developing mutually enhancing relations between humans and nonhuman nature.

This isn't a new plea, though. Over 200 years ago, the famous naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859) was facing the same challenges.

In her compelling book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World, Andrea Wulf explores Humboldt as the first person to publish works promoting a holistic view of nature, arguing that nature could only be understood in relation to the subjectivity of experiencing it.

Fascinated by scientific instruments, measurements and observations, he was driven by a sense of wonder as well. Of course nature had to be measured and analyzed, but he also believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the senses and emotions.

Humboldt was a rock star scientist who ignored conventional boundaries in his exploration of nature. Humboldt's desire to know and understand the world led him to investigate discoveries in all scientific disciplines, and to see the interwoven patterns embedded in this knowledge — mental models anyone?

If nature was a web of life, he couldn’t look at it just as a botanist, a geologist or a zoologist. He required information about everything from everywhere.

Humboldt grew up in a world where science was dry, nature mechanical, and man an aloof and separate chronicler of what was before him. Not only did Humboldt have a new vision of what our understanding of nature could be, but he put humans in the middle of it.

Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants promoted an entirely different understanding of nature. Instead of only looking at an organism, … Humboldt now presented relationships between plants, climate and geography. Plants were grouped into zones and regions rather than taxonomic units. … He gave western science a new lens through which to view the natural world.

Revolutionary for his time, Humboldt rejected the Cartesian ideas of animals as mechanical objects. He also argued passionately against the growing approach in the sciences that put man atop and separate from the rest of the natural world. Promoting a concept of unity in nature, Humboldt saw nature as a “reflection of the whole … an organism in which the parts only worked in relation to each other.”

Furthermore, that “poetry was necessary to comprehend the mysteries of the natural world.”

Wulf paints one of Humboldt’s greatest achievements as his ability and desire to make science available to everyone. No one before him had “combined exact observation with a ‘painterly description of the landscape”.

By contrast, Humboldt took his readers into the crowded streets of Caracas, across the dusty plains of the Llanos and deep into the rainforest along the Orinoco. As he described a continent that few British had ever seen, Humboldt captured their imagination. His words were so evocative, the Edinburgh Review wrote, that ‘you partake in his dangers; you share his fears, his success and his disappointment.'

In a time when travel was precarious, expensive and unavailable to most people, Humboldt brought his experiences to anyone who could read or listen.

On 3 November 1827, … Humboldt began a series of sixty-one lectures at the university. These proved so popular that he added another sixteen at Berlin’s music hall from 6 December. For six months he delivered lectures several days a week. Hundreds of people attended each talk, which Humboldt presented without reading from his notes. It was lively, exhilarating and utterly new. By not charging any entry fee, Humboldt democratized science: his packed audiences ranged from the royal family to coachmen, from students to servants, from scholars to bricklayers – and half of those attending were women. Berlin had never seen anything like it.

The subjectification of nature is about seeing nature, experiencing it. Humboldt was a master of bringing people to worlds they couldn’t visit, allowing them to feel a part of it. In doing so, he wanted to force humanity to see itself in nature. If we were all part of the giant web, then we all had a responsibility to understand it.

When he listed the three ways in which the human species was affecting the climate, he named deforestation, ruthless irrigation and, perhaps most prophetically, the ‘great masses of steam and gas’ produced in the industrial centres. No one but Humboldt had looked at the relationship between humankind and nature like this before.

His final opus, a series of books called Cosmos, was the culmination of everything that Humboldt had learned and discovered.

Cosmos was unlike any previous book about nature. Humboldt took his readers on a journey from outer space to earth, and then from the surface of the planet into its inner core. He discussed comets, the Milky Way and the solar system as well as terrestrial magnetism, volcanoes and the snow line of mountains. He wrote about the migration of the human species, about plants and animals and the microscopic organisms that live in stagnant water or on the weathered surface of rocks. Where others insisted that nature was stripped of its magic as humankind penetrated into its deepest secrets, Humboldt believed exactly the opposite. How could this be, Humboldt asked, in a world in which the coloured rays of an aurora ‘unite in a quivering sea flame’, creating a sight so otherworldly ‘the splendour of which no description can reach’? Knowledge, he said, could never ‘kill the creative force of imagination’ – instead it brought excitement, astonishment and wondrousness.

This is the ultimate subjectivity of nature. Being inspired by its beauty to try and understand how it works. Humboldt had respect for nature, for the wonders it contained, but also as the system in which we ourselves are an inseparable part.

Wulf concludes at the end that Humboldt,

…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.

Maybe this is where the subjectivity of nature has gone. But we can learn from Humboldt the value of bringing it back.

In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective, Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary.

A little imagination is all it takes.