An­drea Wul­fulf on the sig­nif­i­cance of Hum­boldt

Down to Earth - - REVIEW -

What are Hum­boldt's big­gest con­tri­bu­tions to mod­ern sci­ence?

There are many! One of the most im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions was that he came up with the con­cept of na­ture as a web of life—an idea that still shapes our think­ing to­day. He de­scribed Earth as a liv­ing or­gan­ism where ev­ery­thing was con­nected from the small­est in­sect to the tallest tree. Un­der­stand­ing the nat­u­ral world as a web also al­lowed Hum­boldt to see na­ture's vul­ner­a­bil­ity—if one thread was pulled in this tapestry of na­ture, the whole might un­ravel. To­day, as sci­en­tists are try­ing to un­der­stand and pre­dict the global con­se­quences of cli­mate change, Hum­boldt's in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary meth­ods are more rel­e­vant than ever be­fore.

Why do you think his­tory has ig­nored him?

There are sev­eral rea­sons. One is that there is no sin­gle dis­cov­ery at­tached to his name—he did not come up with a the­ory of evo­lu­tion like Dar­win or ex­plained nat­u­ral laws like New­ton. He came up with a holis­tic world­view and his ideas have be­come so self-ev­i­dent that the man be­hind them has dis­ap­peared.

Se­condly, he was the last of the great poly­maths, and by the time he died in 1859, the sci­ences had be­come so spe­cialised that sci­en­tists looked down on thinkers like Hum­boldt as be­ing gen­er­al­ists. And thirdly, af­ter World War I, anti-Ger­man sen­ti­ment be­came so strong in the English­s­peak­ing world that it was not the time any­more to cel­e­brate a Ger­man sci­en­tist.

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