In a recent letter to the editor in the Boston Globe Jeffrey Collins, director at…
Alexander von Humboldt influenced early ecologists.
Nineteenth century German scientist, plant hunter, and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) laid the groundwork for what we now call ecology.
He saw nature as united and interconnected. When one element changes, the entirety feels the impact.
He also influenced others, including some Americans, to think of nature in that way as well.
Andrea Wulf writes in her book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World that German scientist Ernst Heckel (1834-1919) mentioned Humboldt’s view of ecology in his own book Generelle Morphologie. Heckel wrote, “All the earth’s organisms belonged together like a family occupying a dwelling; and like members of a household they could conflict with, or assist, one another.”
Heckel wrote, according to Wulf, that ecology was the ‘science’ of the relationship of an organism with its environment.
Wulf credits Humboldt with influencing also the work of American naturalists Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.
Little did I know as I set out to read Humboldt’s biography that I would come to see his writing as the foundation for modern ecology.
My motivation in reading about him was that I wanted to see how he played out his role as plant hunter. He traveled in Latin America for five years to study its flora and fauna. In the midst of that process he was also expected to find and bring back plants for European gardens. At that time plant hunters traveled the world to enrich the gardens, mostly of the wealthy, with new ornamental plants.
Alexander von Humboldt however became much more than a plant hunter. He redefined nature for us.
As Wulf argues so well in her great book, we need to credit Humboldt with initiating a way of thinking about nature that has deep implications to this very day.