, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 581–584

Humboldtian science

Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland: Essay on the geography of plants. Edited with an introduction by Stephen T. Jackson and translated by Sylvie Romanowski. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009, xv+274pp, $45.00 HB


    • School of History and PhilosophyThe University of New South Wales
Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s11016-010-9480-6

Cite this article as:
Oldroyd, D. Metascience (2011) 20: 581. doi:10.1007/s11016-010-9480-6

The awesome story of von Humboldt’s (1769–1859) life and work is well known through his Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, 1814 (English translation 7 vols, 1814–1829; abridged Penguin Classic edition, 1995), his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, 1811 (English translation, 1966), his Cosmos (English translation, 5 vols, 1850), etc., and good biographies such as Douglas Botting’s Humboldt and the Cosmos (1973). Various scholars such as Nicolaas Rupke and Michael Detttelbach have made von Humboldt their field of research. The term ‘Humboldtian science’, coined by Walter (Susan) F. Cannon, has readily entered the discourse of historians of science. And there are innumerable articles and books on particular aspects of his mind-boggling accomplishments. Perhaps the nearest thing we have to Humboldt’s work in modern times is Joseph Needham’s monumental study of the history of science and technology in China.

Von Humboldt was interested in all aspects of the natural world: the Earth itself, its rocks, plants and animals, its oceans and atmosphere, its peoples, its commerce and civilisations, its physical attributes such as its magnetic and electrical properties, its temperatures, humidities, colours, its ‘ecology’ (as we would now say), its ocean currents, winds, mineral resources, and so on…, and on. He was himself interesting as a ‘political animal’, with his disdain for aristocratic privileges and a supporter of the (failed) revolutions of 1848.

Humboldt eventually tried to summarise his knowledge in his Cosmos, which brought together information about the stars, planets, Sun, Moon into his version of ‘totality’, as understood in the middle of the 19th century. Speaking for myself, however, I have found Cosmos unreadable (as are many other encyclopaedic works) because of the excess of information, though one can dip into it with profit if one wants to know about the state of scientific knowledge on some particular topic around 1850. Cosmos was, then, somewhat akin to the parody of Lockean empiricism that one finds in Tristram Shandy (9 vols, 1759–1767). If one is told everything, it can all become incomprehensible.

But this was/is not the case at all for the Essay on the Geography of Plants (1st French edn, 1807), where Humboldt was seemingly aware of the perils of the ‘Shandy Syndrome’, and made a conscious effort to provide the maximum information in a succinct form, and using illustrations to convey a vast amount of information in a concise and comprehensible form. Of the various images that he provided, the Tableau physique des Andes is the most important and famous. It provided information in general terms about the highest mountains of the Andes, shown in an East–West profile, right across the South American continent and its adjacent oceans, with the types of vegetation being indicated by colour and with particular plant species’ names inscribed at the appropriate heights on the mountain slopes to indicate their altitudinal ranges. (Animals are discussed similarly in the book but are not depicted on the profile.) We also see represented the changes of sky colour, and the clouds, as characteristically found at different altitudes. The different heights of mountains in other parts of the world are also indicated, along with the heights reached by balloonists, not to mention the astonishing height that Humboldt, his fellow traveller Aimé Bonpland, and a guide reached up Chimbarazo (6,327 m).

As to the nature of Humboldt’s results, he was not merely interested in finding, identifying, naming and classifying new species of plants and animals in the manner of Linné but seeing the patterns according to which they are distributed under different conditions of soil and climate. And as is well known, he sought to provide generalisations by means of various ‘iso-lines’ for temperature, vegetation limits, etc., considered globally. Thus, he was laying foundation stones for the new science of ecology. He was also apparently aware of the dangers of the ‘Shandy Syndrome’, for he deliberately aimed at concise and clear exposition and said that if he had taken more time to write his book it would have been shorter! Even so, the Essay is quite short and only occupies 83 pages of the present edition.

One should also note Humboldt’s devotion to the use of scientific instruments and quantitative information. He was not content to observe, describe, and sketch. He wanted to take measurements using the very best instruments available at the time, which were somehow lugged all round the Americas. This in itself marked a huge difference between Humboldt’s studies and those of (say) Linné.

The new Chicago edition of the Essay provides a first-rate preface and introduction about Humboldt’s life and work by Stephen Jackson, professor of botany and ecology at the University of Wyoming. Anyone wanting to ‘get a handle’ on Humboldt cannot do better than read Jackson’s essay. Concisely and elegantly, it paints a picture of what Humboldt did in his early years and gives an idea of his amazing strength of/and character. For example, though an aristocrat, when offered a man and a chair to cross the Quindio Pass between Popayan and Bogota he preferred to carry the man and the chair himself. Hardly surprising, then, that he later supported the 1848 revolutions!

As said, the Essay is relatively short. The general reader may be uncomfortable with the large number of Latin plant names. But Jackson provides a comprehensive table giving the scientific and common names and modern equivalents and the Families (or ‘groups’) to which they belong. He also provides detailed notes on the scientific instruments that were used by the explorers and helpful thumbnail biosketches of the book’s dramatis personae. The paragraph on Bonpland particularly interested me. He was the main botanist for the expeditions but has always been cast in shadow by Humboldt’s dazzling light. The two friends are commonly thought to have had a homosexual relationship, so it was interesting to learn that Bonpland eventually returned to South America, got himself kidnapped and was in captivity for 7 years; but he was eventually released as a result of ‘international pestering’ and settled on a plantation in northwest Argentina, where he practised medicine and raised a family with a native woman. In his way, he was as much a hero as Humboldt.

Sylvia Romanowski, an associate professor of French at Northwestern University, has done the actual translating for the Essay and has also provided an analysis of the Tableau physique and the other illustrations from the perspective of those interested in art and illustrations. It is well that she has done so, as the legibility and general quality of the illustrations other than the main Tableau physique in this edition is poor, due to the great reductions of scale necessitated by the book’s modest-sized format, the quality of the originals, and the type of paper used by Chicago. However, the (sensible) compromise reached is that Romanowski provides direct translations of all the written information found on Humboldt’s Tableau and Jackson provides general information on the other, less important, pictures. And most importantly, the main Tableau is reproduced, full size and in colour, in a pocket at the back of the book.

This picture, Romanowski correctly says, is “a structure, in the modern structuralist sense of the word—so that each element is dependent on every other element and is inseparable from the whole” (p. 162). She then proceeds to identify the elements of the whole and how they ‘hang together’. It is a non-perspectival image, so that the eye can wander over it without becoming focused on one particular point or aspect. She notes (taking a cue from Edward Tufte) that the picture emphasises comparisons of different kinds, such as the relative altitudes reached by balloonists, climbers, and clouds. However, she points out that the viewer of the Tableau may find it difficult to get a clear view of what Humboldt wanted to convey, with all the plethora of information that the picture contains (the ‘Shandy Problem’ again!). Nevertheless, she judges that “seen as a whole the plate does not appear unharmonious” (p. 166). And given the very novelty of Humboldt’s representation, it can be said that “the plate is a remarkable work of both science and art that stands up to a critique informed by modern experts in graphics who have seen many illustrations both good and bad” (p. 167). Humboldt’s was a pioneering effort in the line of conveying information; and although it does have a somewhat antique appearance, it also showed the ‘shape of things to come’.

Romanowski’s translation is both fluent and elegant and captures well the style of the period when Humboldt was writing. With my personal interests, I naturally turned to the section headed ‘Geological Considerations’ and noted Humboldt’s suggestion that for each region the ‘slants’ and ‘orientations’ (i.e., dips and strikes) of the various strata are determined by a particular set of forces, so that there is a ‘local law’ for the altitude that the various formations reach above sea level. So, Humboldt thought, for any particular area there is an upper limit for sandstones (say), just as there is an upper limit for any particular plant type (!). But “one cannot make a geological scale for the equatorial regions, unless one wishes to model nature according to theoretical ideas, in other words, to consider as general some phenomena occurring only in a very small part of the Andes” (p. 121). So, one might say, the ‘general tableau’ for geology cannot be based on altitudes. It would have to depend on relative ages—as was done post-Essay in the 19th century, as the stratigraphic column was developed. The parameter of time was needed and that was mostly lacking in this first synoptic account of Humboldt’s thinking. He had, after all, been voyaging in space, not time. In that sense, his thinking in this early work was that of the eighteenth century. Recalling the title of Toulmin and Goodfield’s well-known book (The Discovery of Time, 1966), we can say that time had not yet been discovered in natural history.

But Humboldt himself certainly has been discovered and displayed in this excellent scholarly volume, which does great credit to Jackson and Romanowski, and of course to Humboldt and Bonpland themselves. We can travel quite a distance with H and B on the basis of this book alone.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010