Skip to content

By Roger Highfield on

Adventures in the Anthropocene by Alexander von Humboldt, father of environmentalism

Roger Highfield describes a recent encounter between Royal Society science book prize winners Andrea Wulf and Gaia Vince, held in the museum to celebrate Wulf’s latest prize, awarded by the British Society for the History of Science.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was ‘one of those wonders of the world, like Aristotle…who appear from time to time, as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind,’ according to the 19th-century American essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

To celebrate the award of another major prize to her Humboldt biography, The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science, author Andrea Wulf discussed her critically-acclaimed book about the Prussian polymath, geographer, naturalist, explorer and scientist in the museum with Gaia Vince, a fellow winner of the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize.

Wulf explained to the packed lecture theatre that he was the ‘Shakespeare of the sciences’ in his day when ‘the whole world was utterly in love with Humboldt.’

This ‘forgotten father of environmentalism’ predicted harmful human-induced climate change and remains relevant today because he viewed nature as a ‘web of life’, pioneered the idea of the ecosystem and even described the Earth as a ‘living organism’, which chimes with ‘Gaia’, a holistic view of the world that the independent scientist James Lovelock put forward in the 20th century.

It was no accident, Wulf added, that Humboldt was a friend of fellow German polymath Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749 – 1832) and had many encounters with indigenous peoples, which together ‘inspired him to think differently about nature’.

During his extraordinary life, Humboldt voyaged through unexplored jungles and mountains in the Americas, met many of the most important figures of his age, and influenced many key figures, not least Charles Darwin.

He was at the heart of a spider’s web of contacts, sending over 50,000 letters in his lifetime and receiving over 100,000, as he added thousands of species of plants and animals to European knowledge, as well as transforming understanding across many fields.

Humboldt ‘understood nature in a new way,’ said Vince, who spent years investigating humankind’s relationship and impact on nature, just as Humboldt had done two centuries earlier.

Vince is the author of Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet we Made, which describes her two-and-a-half-year journey to explore our relationship with our planet, and how we are changing the climate, ocean currents, agriculture and cities.

The term ‘Anthropocene’ – from anthropo- for ‘man,’ and -cene, for ‘new’ – refers to how humankind has caused mass extinctions, polluted the oceans and altered or destroyed ecosystems.

Vince described how in her travels she came across Humboldt’s name again and again in South America, where it is borne by a squid, penguin, volcanoes, mountains and river, along with ‘a great upwelling current that gives life to the Pacific’.

Humboldt was a ‘remarkable man living at an extraordinary time,’ Vince said, adding ‘there is no more brilliant guide to Humboldt than Andrea Wulf’, who is now turning her multiple-award winning biography into a graphic novel.

The event was held to celebrate Wulf’s book being awarded the Dingle Prize for the best history of science book for non-specialist readers by the British Society for the History of Science.

Vince and Wulf were introduced by Society President, Patricia Fara, author and history of science lecturer at the University of Cambridge.

‘The British Society for the History of Science was delighted to work with the Science Museum to celebrate this fascinating book, winner of their Dingle Prize’, said Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History at the Science Museum, and current Vice President of the Society.

The event was also supported by the Royal Society.  Since 1988, the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize has celebrated outstanding popular science authors.

Header mage: Plate 19: ‘The Dropping Well’ in the book Phenomena of Nature, 1849, Josiah Wood Whymper