The Forgotten father of ecology

Alexander von Humboldt is one of the greatest ecologists of all time – why didn’t I know more about him until now? A recent book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf (2015) was the cure for this unfortunate deficiency. I had heard Humboldt’s name thrown around in the past, but never really delved too much into what he had accomplished. It turns out he accomplished a lot.

Humboldt was born in Prussia and spent his life (1769-1859) traveling throughout Europe, the America’s, and Russia, meticulously studying the natural history of each in order to compile his theories about the connections in nature. He really created the field of ecology by shifting the focus from studying individual organisms on their own (the common practice at the time) to studying interactions between different species and between species and their environment (much more useful). While the prevailing view was that humans were improving the Earth through development, he proposed the novel idea that they were causing irreversible harm through pollution, deforestation, and over-hunting. Humboldt even wrote about human-induced climate change, many decades before a carbon emission greenhouse effect was used to explain it.

Much of Humboldt’s research experience reminded me of my own. The book describes him traveling across remote regions carrying extremely expensive scientific instruments (remember that time I had to haul half a million dollars worth of micrometeorology sensors across arctic Alaska). He was also a proponent for long-term standardized data collection, much like the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) which I currently work on.

The book covered his entire life, focusing a lot on his world travels and the impact he had on other people through history. The book makes it easy to see how Charles Darwin’s ideas were pretty directly dependent on Humboldt’s. Other notables that were influenced by Humboldt include Simon Bolivar, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and George Perkins Marsh.

Anyone whose done some traveling in Latin America will be interested in Humboldt’s influence on the history there. His adventures provide a glimpse of what it was like before everything was deforested and developed into the madness of modern Latin America. He may have provided the inspiration to Simon Bolivar to liberate South America from Spain.

Our own experience in Latin America probably bore little resemblance to Humboldt’s.

The book has a good mix of science, history, and adventure travel (three genres I like) all woven into one story.


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