Tuesday, February 14, 2017

They Doubted Alexander Humboldt's Intellectual Ability

I started reading Andrea Wulf's The Invention of Nature:  Alexander Humboldt's New World while Z was getting her swimming lessons.  (That's another wonderful story.)

You know - Humboldt like in the Humboldt Current, or Humboldt County, or any number of mountains, bays, glaciers, towns named after him all over the world.

The introduction talks about the 100th anniversary of his birth,
"On 14 September 1869, one hundred years after his birth, alexander von Humboldt's centennial was celebrated across the world.  There were parties in Europe, Africa and Australia as well as the Americas.  In Melbourne and Adelaide people came together to listen to speeches in honor of Humboldt, as did groups in Buenos Aires and Mexico City.  There were festivities in Moscow where Humboldt was called the 'Shakespeare of sciences', and in Alexandria in Egypt where guests partied under a sky illuminated with fireworks.  The greatest commemorations were in the United States, where from an Francisco to Philadelphia, and from Chicago to Charleston, the nation saw street pa were in the United Strades, sumptuous dinners and concerts.  In Cleveland some 8,000 people took to the streets and in Syracuse another 15,000 joined a march that was more than a mile long.   President Ulysses Grant attended the Humboldt celebrations in Pittsburg together with 10,000 resellers who brought the city to a standstill."
Somehow I missed that in American history.  The next paragraph talks about the celebrations in New York City.

So what did Humboldt do that made him such a hero around the world?
"Most important . . . Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world.  He found connections everywhere.  Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own.  'In this great chain of causes and effects,' Humboldt said, 'no single fact can be considered in isolation.'  With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today."
He got his insights from a strong scientific education, a strong interest in nature, a wealthy family that allowed him to make amazing journeys around the world collecting observations of nature.
"After he saw the devastating environmental effects of colonial plantations at Lake Valencia in Venezuela in 1800 [just as the United States was becoming a country], Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about harmful human-induced climate change.  Deforestation there had made the land barren, water levels of the lake were falling and with the disappearance of brushwood torrential rains had washed away the soils on the surrounding mountain slopes.  Humboldt was the first to explain the forest's ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion.  He warned that humans were meddling with the climate and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on 'future generations.'"
Wolf talks about how his ideas influenced others.
"Thomas Jefferson called him 'one of the greatest ornaments of the age'. [Is that a compliment?] Charles Darwin wrote that 'nothing ever stimulated my zeal so much as reading Humboldt's Personal Narrative,' saying that he would not have boarded the Beagle, nor conceived of the Origin of Species without Humboldt.  William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both incorporated Humboldt's concept of nature into their poems.  And American's most revered nature writer, Henry David Thoreau, found in Humboldt's books an answer to his dilemma on how to be a poet and a naturalist - Waldon would have been a much different book without Humboldt.  Simon Bolivar, the revolutionary who liberated South America from Spanish colonial rule, called Humboldt the 'discoverer of the New World' and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's greatest poet, declared that spending a few days with Humboldt was like 'having lived several years'."
So it seems spending a few weeks with Humboldt via Wulf's book, seems like a good use of my time.  

This is all background to better understand the title of this post.

Alexander and his older brother learned  Latin and Greek and Enlightenment science and humanities from tutors,  one of whom was particularly stingy with praise.  He was important in their lives because their father had died when Alexander was ten and the tutor was with them a number of years.
". . . Kunth was never quite satisfied with their progress.  Whenever they made a mistake, Kunth reacted as if they had done so to hurt or offend him.  For the boys, this behavior was more painful than if he had spanked them with a cane.  Always desperate to please Kunth, as Wilhelm [the older brother] later recounted, they had felt a 'perpetual anxiety' to make him happy.
  It was particularly difficult for Alexander, who was taught the same lessons as his precocious brother, despite being two years younger.  The result was that he believed himself to be less talented.  When Wilhelm excelled in Latin and Greek, Alexander felt incompetent and slow.  He struggled so much, Alexander later told a friend, that his tutors 'were doubtful whether even ordinary powers of intelligence would ever be developed in him'." (emphasis added)
Judgments of teachers can do great good and great harm.  Different kids react differently to different ways of teaching.  One of my very best teachers was stingy with praise and quick to dismiss, but I learned more from him than any other teacher.  

And somehow Alexander got past these challenges to become the kind of scientist who was able to synthesize vast amounts of information and see how all the pieces fit together.  Looking forward to this book.


  1. Wulf is a wonderful writer in natural history. I first read her book, "The Brother Gardeners" (2008) a year ago. Gave me wonderful insight to what became British gardening mania.

    I'll plan to pick up "The Invention of Nature" as well. Thanks for the review.

  2. Jacob, I'm just getting started, but already there was so much to think about.


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