Alexander von Humboldt for Ecologists

by Bruce A. Byers

Can we call the great German polymath, Alexander von Humboldt—an explorer, scientist, and widely read author whose long life spanned the eighteen and nineteenth centuries—a founder of ecology? Without a doubt. Can Humboldt’s life and thought still challenge and inspire practicing ecologists today, as it did for so many of our ecological ancestors? Again, without a doubt.

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806. On display at the Smithsonian American Art Gallery’s Humboldt Exhibition, November, 2020. Photo courtesy of B. Byers.

If you haven’t yet become intrigued by Humboldt, a wonderful exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C., titled Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture, may help get you hooked. If you already know about Humboldt, the exhibition may reveal facets of this amazing man that you were not aware of.

The exhibition has now ended, but the good news is that it is still possible to visit it virtually and see and learn almost all of what you could have by visiting in person. Yes, you’ll have to use your imagination to feel the scale of the mastodon skeleton that was on display, but you don’t have to wear a mask and socially distance.

The coronavirus pandemic made for a difficult run of the in-person exhibition: it was scheduled to be on view from March 20 through August 16, 2020, but its opening was delayed by six months. When it reopened, its extended run (scheduled through January 3, 2021) was cut short when the Smithsonian again closed its museums due to rising coronavirus numbers. I just managed to sneak in an in-person visit on a timed-tour pass after the exhibit reopened but before it suddenly closed down for good on November 22.


Mastodon skeleton exhumed by Philadelphia scientist and Humboldt colleague Charles Wilson Peale in 1801 in upstate New York displayed at the SAAM Humboldt Exhibition. Photo courtesy of B. Byers.

The exhibition can still be accessed and enjoyed through an online smorgasbord of options: a guided video tour by the exhibition’s curator, Eleanor Jones Harvey; five recorded video lectures by distinguished scholars (including one by ecologist Tom Lovejoy); a digital catalogue of many of the works in the exhibit; a series of blogs about Humboldt, and a podcast, “The Last Man Who Knew It All.” You can take an imaginative “immersive” tour of Frederic Church’s grand landscape painting, Heart of the Andes, which was painted as a tribute to Humboldt and now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In the SAAM exhibition, we visit it digitally “up close and personal,” as Church originally wished viewers to do through opera glasses in his studio, as if they were looking at a real landscape in Ecuador. The exhibition’s comprehensive catalogue, published in association with Princeton University Press, is another way to enjoy the exhibition after the fact.

There has been a resurgence of interest in, and information about, Alexander von Humboldt in the past fifteen years or so. Books by environmental historians have fueled this rediscovery, beginning with The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism by Aaron Sachs (2006), The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America by Laura Dassow Walls (2009), and The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf (2015). But even Donald Worster’s Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, first published in 1977, had begun to stir awareness of Humboldt’s foundational role in ecological thought. We are coming to realize what a deep influence Humboldt had on science, nature conservation, and art as we rediscover his profound influence on natural scientists like Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, Ernst Haeckel, Asa Gray, and Louis Agassiz; social scientists like Franz Boas; nature writers like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and John Burroughs; explorers like John C. Frémont; and artists like George Catlin, and the many landscape painters of the Hudson River School such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Moran, and Edward Bierstadt. It is safe to say that Darwin never would have sailed on the H.M.S. Beagle and written On the Origin of Species, and John Muir never would have ended up in California, were it not for Humboldt and his Personal Narrative, the adventure story of his scientific explorations in South America.

This rediscovery of Humboldt and his legacy is long overdue. It’s probably useful to remind ourselves that Humboldt was the most popular, widely read scientist of his day. His book, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, was a bestseller; published in 1845, the first edition of the first volume sold out in two months. But after perhaps fifty years of acclaim, his name was largely forgotten in the literature and culture of the United States for almost a century—despite the fact that dozens of geographical features and cities and towns carry his name, including Humboldt Bay in California, the Humboldt Range in Nevada, Humboldt Peak in Colorado, and  towns and cities in eight US states. Eighteen species’ names honor Humboldt.  

Why should ecologists be interested? Here are a few of my favorite reasons:

First and foremost is Humboldt’s boundless curiosity; he wondered about all of the phenomena of Earth, whether about its geology, climate, plants and animals, or political and social systems. He was a systems thinker, seeking a “unified field” theory of science and culture. In 1834, as he was beginning to write his multivolume masterwork, Cosmos, Humboldt said in a letter to his friend and confidant Karl August Varnhagen, “I have the extravagant idea of describing in one and the same work the whole material world—all that we know to-day of celestial bodies and of life upon the earth—from the nebular stars to the mosses on the granite rocks—and to make this work instructive to the mind, and at the same time attractive, by its vivid language.”  In the Introduction to Cosmos, Humboldt wrote: “In considering the study of physical phenomena, not merely in its bearings on the material wants of life, but in its general influence on the intellectual advancement of mankind, we find its noblest and most important result to be a knowledge of a chain of connection, by which all natural forces are linked together, and made mutually dependent upon each other; and it is the perception of these relations that exalts our views and ennobles our enjoyments.“

It was Humboldt’s curiosity and sense of wonder, I think, that led him to become a polymath. He was a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary thinker and synthesizer; perhaps his most important contribution to the science of his day was a systems approach that sought interconnections and patterns. It was his holistic worldview that laid a foundation for the science of ecology. Although he is often described as the father of geography, many of his recent biographers and historians of his influence recognize his foundational contribution to ecology. The German zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), a passionate student of Humboldt (and Darwin), coined the name of our discipline in his 1866 book Generelle Morphologie der Organismen. According to Humboldt historian Andrea Wulf:

Generelle Morphologie was… the book in which Haeckel first named Humboldt’s discipline: Oecologie, or ‘ecology’. Organic and inorganic nature made a ‘system of active forces’, he wrote… using Humboldt’s exact words. Haeckel took Humboldt’s idea of nature as a unified whole made up of complex interrelationships and gave it a name. Ecology, Haeckel said, was the ‘science of the relationships of an organism with its environment’.”

When it came to humans, Humboldt promoted that view that humans are part of nature and embedded in it, and warned that our species was risking our own future because of our ignorance of how nature worked. “Man can only act upon nature, and appropriate her forces to his use, by comprehending her laws,” Humboldt wrote.

A good place to start unpacking his perspective is with his 1805 book, Essay on the Geography of Plants, based on his travels in the Andes, and coauthored with his traveling companion, Aimé Bonpland. In Ecuador, in 1801, they almost managed to climb the giant volcano, Chimborazo. Climbing without oxygen or anything close to modern climbing gear, they reached an altitude of almost 20,000 feet, only about 1,000 feet below the summit—a mountaineering record that stood for thirty years. Humboldt illustrated the distribution of vegetation on Chimborazo in altitudinal zones in a figure in the Essay, recognized as one of the most creative pieces of scientific art and communication ever.

Illustration of the vegetation zones of Chimborazo, Ecuador. Alexander von Humboldt, 1805.


In his Preface to Cosmos, Humboldt reflected on what he was thinking when he wrote the Essay on the Geography of Plants:

“Descriptive botany, no longer confined to the narrow circle of the determination of genera and species, leads the observer who traverses distant lands and lofty mountains to the study of the geographical distribution of plants over the earth’s surface, according to distance from the equator and vertical elevation above the sea. It is further necessary to investigate the laws which regulate the differences of temperature and climate, and the meteorological processes of the atmosphere, before we can hope to explain the involved causes of vegetable distribution; and it is thus that the observer who earnestly pursues the path of knowledge is led from one class of phenomena to another, by means of the mutual dependence and connection existing between them.”

An informational label at the Smithsonian exhibition says that “This idea—that plants, animals, and climate are related in ecosystems—is widely accepted today, but was a radical concept when Humboldt first wrote about it.”

Donald Worster wrote:

“The central concept of the Geography of Plants was that the plants of the world must not only be considered in their taxonomic relations but also grouped in relation to the geographic conditions in which they live. Humboldt called these groups ‘divisions physiognomiques,’ of which he identified fifteen general categories: there were groups dominated by palms, firs, cacti, grasses, mosses, and so forth. The effect of this procedure was to emphasize the visual patterns in vegetation, leading to a basically aesthetic approach [emphasis added] to the ‘ensembles’ of nature.”

Henry David Thoreau, who was familiar with Humboldt’s writings, described the vegetation zones on Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire in 1844 in much the same way as Humboldt did for the zones on Chimborazo. And Edward F. Ricketts (1897-1948), a polymath marine ecologist of the Pacific coast, took a Humboldtian, “aesthetic” approach in his ecologically oriented field guide to the Pacific intertidal zone, Between Pacific Tides. Ricketts described ecological communities and their physical environments, rather than working taxonomically from flatworms to chordates as academic marine biologists had done previously. Stanford University Press finally published Between Pacific Tides in 1939, after some opposition from academic reviewers. Ricketts’s approach provided a guide to the Pacific shore for curious, nonacademic, lay naturalists, and the book eventually became one of the top-selling titles in the Stanford University Press catalogue.

Zonation of algae in the intertidal zone, Cape Arago, Oregon. Photo courtesy of B. Byers.

I’m fascinated by the relationship—and synergy—of art and ecology. I’ve written elsewhere of the commonalities in perception and intention that ecologists and artists share. Scientists and artists are very similar in their modes of perception and methods of working. If you compare the Myers-Briggs personality profiles of artists and scientists with those of the full range of other human occupations, you will see that scientists and artists mostly fall in the same quadrant of human “personality space.” The commonalities are that artists and scientists observe carefully but seek underlying patterns below the surface of sensory information, which they then abstract and represent symbolically, whether in hypotheses, paintings, or poems. For an artist or an ecologist, the underlying pattern is where the meaning lies.

Humboldt included a chapter in Cosmos on the influence of landscape painting on the study of the natural world and expressed his opinion that it ranked as one of the highest expressions of the love of nature. He challenged artists to portray the unity of the interconnected systems that underlie any landscape—in essence to portray the ecosystem as well as its component parts. Historian Laura Dassow Walls says:

“Here is the heart of Humboldt’s aesthetics: art can incorporate and surpass science in conveying the perceptual truth of the whole, but only if the artist paints the truth of particulars. By truth Humboldt means natural historical truth. The artist cannot paint just “plants,” but must become botanist and know each species, its growth and habits; clouds are not puffs of pigment but studies in meteorology; mountains are visual embodiments of geological principles, water of hydrology. Landscapes become not static portraits but dynamic historical ecologies.”

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) was an important member of the Hudson River School, a group of artists who, “with Thomas Cole as their leader… created an American landscape vision based on the exploration of nature, seen as a resource for spiritual renewal and an expression of cultural and national identity,” according to the interpretive signs at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where many of their paintings are displayed. The Hudson River School became the dominant artistic vision among American artists from 1825 to 1875. Its members were all enthusiastic Humboldtians, none more so than Church.

Church traveled to Ecuador in 1853 and again in 1857, attempting to follow the footsteps of his hero, Humboldt. His giant oil-on-canvas landscape painting, The Heart of the Andes, completed in 1859, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and could not travel for the Smithsonian exhibition. It shows the volcano Chimborazo, far in the distance, and depicts the full range of climates and ecosystems that Humboldt had described in his “infographic” in the Geography of Plants.  

The Heart of the Andes. Frederic Edwin Church. 1859. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A few years ago, when I was in New York City, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to see The Heart of the Andes.  After sitting on a bench below the painting for a few minutes, taking in the landscape view—I had missed the memo to bring my opera glasses—I wandered close to the canvas to study Church’s technique. It was like walking along a trail into the scene: the closer I got, the more details appeared.  Invisible from a distance, I was suddenly in the midst of blooming epiphytic plants, bright birds on branches, and butterflies fluttering over flowers. In the lower left of the painting, the date 1859 and the artist’s name is carved on the trunk of a giant tree stuck by a shaft of sunlight beside blooming epiphytes. A quetzal perches on a dead limb, its cascading tail juxtaposed with a small waterfall in the background. All of the details, the component parts of the scene, are there. But, stepping back again and taking in the landscape in all its grandeur, one feels the power of the whole emerge, greater than the sum of the parts.

Detail from The Heart of the Andes. Photo by B. Byers.

Humboldt’s travels and wide-ranging curiosity led him to be the organizer and leader of an international network of hundreds of scientific correspondents. In a way, in writing Cosmos, Humboldt “acted as the editor of a large, international, collaborative team,” says Nicolaas Rupke, a Humboldt scholar. While writing Cosmos, “Humboldt was again at the center of the world, in his walk-up flat in the heart of Berlin, stacked with boxes, books, papers, maps, and mementoes,” wrote Walls. His internationalist, collaborative personality can be viewed as a foundation for later international scientific collaboration, from the International Council for Science to the International Geophysical Year, International Biological Program, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program, and US national networks such as the LTER and NEON programs.

Humboldt in His Library, 1856, Eduard Hildebrandt. Image courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Besides being an explorer and scientist, Humboldt was a moral and political activist. He wanted to make the world a better, more moral place. His thought touched on philosophical and ethical questions about the relationship of ecology and society that still need much more attention than they receive. During his six-week visit to the young United States in 1804, Humboldt met many times with President Thomas Jefferson, who shared Humboldt’s interests in exploration, political geography, and natural science. One favorite topic of their conversations was mammoths, such as the one—really a mastodon—exhumed by Charles Wilson Peale in upstate New York in 1801. Humboldt was a great admirer of Jefferson, and of the US democratic experiment, but he was not shy about criticizing slavery in America (knowing that Jefferson himself was a slaveholder, of course). According to Walls, “Humboldt believed in the equality of all races and would advocate for the abolition of slavery throughout his life. His views were shaped by his training in ethnography and his experiences among the indigenous peoples of South America.” (This strand of Humboldt’s science-based political and moral activism inspired the work of Franz Boas, the great German-American anthropologist.) Humboldt strongly criticized the treatment of indigenous American Indian peoples, and expressed special scorn for the proslavery, anti-Indian policies of President Andrew Jackson. Humboldt became a friend and supporter of American artist George Catlin, whose sympathetic portraits of American Indians helped to record their rapidly vanishing lifeways. In the 1830s, Catlin visited more than fifty tribes and made more than 500 paintings; he took some of those paintings, and a dance troupe of Iowa Indians, on a European tour in 1839, where they met Humboldt.

Shon-ta-yi-ga, Little Wolf, a Famous Warrior, by George Catlin, 1844–45. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

We ecologists of the present day can learn from all of these facets of Humboldt’s life and work.

One of Humboldt’s central themes is the importance of holistic, synthetic science. Ecology is fundamentally a systems science, although some of its practitioners have been tempted from time to time toward reductionism. Past swings toward reductionism may have begun as some ecologists began to take to heart criticisms that they were not “real” scientists, like chemists or physicists. Perhaps I’m naïve and over-optimistic, but I view the current interest in ecological networks, the relationship between biodiversity and ecological function and resilience, landscape ecology, ecosystem management, ecosystem services, and ecosystem-based strategies for adapting to climate change as evidence for the strength of holistic, systems-science ecology.

I mentioned the podcast that is part of the online exhibition, titled “The Last Man Who Knew It All.” Sure, Humboldt was a polymath; a remarkable diversity of deep knowledge in many fields allowed him to be the great synthetist that he was. But Humboldt, I’m sure, would not have claimed that he “knew it all.” In fact, I think, his amazing life was motivated by a desire to know more, and more, knowing he could never know enough. Humboldt’s thought, as I understand it, has a kind of humility that arises naturally from holism. It is reductionism, I think, that fuels human hubris: thinking that if we can just know enough, and understand how to manipulate all the little pieces of nature, then we will be able to control it, to have “dominion” over it. No way, I think Humboldt would say: stay humble.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow. Thomas Cole, 1836. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Dr. Hans Sues, a Smithsonian paleontologist, says in that podcast: “In some sense, Humboldt was one of the last people who kind of knew everything that there is to know about science because this was in the period long before any kind of specialization. Obviously, the body of knowledge in those days was much, much smaller, but because he had this broad exposure to different areas of science, he was able to sort of combine things that probably most modern scientists could no longer do, you know. We’re just way too specialized and to get sort of a whole picture, we now need basically a group of people.” Yeah, but… but… I’m not convinced that groups can always create the same holistic synthesis that one rich mind can. Maybe we need both: synthesizing transdisciplinary groups and synthesizing polymathic individuals.

While we can never aspire to know everything—nor should we—Humboldt can perhaps inspire some of us to aspire to a higher level of polymathy; of broad, transdisciplinary learning and thinking that bridges disciplinary divides and the supposed gap between the sciences and the arts and humanities. To solve the ecological challenges humans face, many of our own creation, we’ll need all the creativity we can muster.


Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture. September 18 – November 22, 2020; and online.

Humboldt, Alexander von. Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, Volume 1. Introduction by Nicolaas A. Rupke. 1997. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Sachs, Aaron. 2006.The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. Viking Penguin.

Walls, Laura Dassow. 2009.The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

Walls, Laura Dassow. 2009. “Introducing Humboldt’s Cosmos”. Minding Nature. August 2009: 3–15.

Worster, Donald. 1994. Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press.

Wulf, Andrea. 2015. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World . Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Byers, Bruce A. 2018. Ecology, the humbling science. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. April 2018. Ecological Society of America.

Anderson, Kevin M. 2016. The Evolution of Nature: Von Humboldt, Darwin, and the Systematic Universe. Austin Water Center for Environmental Research. Web presentation.

Van Wyhe, John. 2002. Humboldt’s Personal narrative and its influence on Darwin.