Andrea Wulfulf on the significance of Humboldt
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.