Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America by Laura Dassow Walls

The legacy of Humboldtian science
Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt achieved worldwide renown for his daring scientific expedition to South America from 1799 to 1804. In his research of the natural world and the publishing his findings, Humboldt established a whole new method of conducting natural science by collecting mountains of empirical data and comparing and connecting the evidence to form an interdisciplinary view of nature as a holistic ecological system. Among his achievements, Humboldt founded the fields of ecology, environmentalism, and nature writing, and he was an outspoken advocate for Indigenous rights and the abolition of slavery. His career culminated in the publication of his magnum opus, the five-volume work entitled Cosmos. In her book The Passage to Cosmos, published in 2009, Laura Dassow Walls explores the broad range of Humboldt’s intellectual pursuits and traces the lasting ramifications of Humboldtian thought in both the sciences and the humanities. Walls also shows how some scientific and political figures perverted Humboldt’s scientific methods and liberal ideals to promote racist, nationalist agendas in favor of manifest destiny, slavery, and imperialism, much like Charles Darwin’s works were co-opted by Fascists to justify racism and genocide.

I have read several books on Humboldt over the past couple years, and this is one of the best. If you don’t know much about Humboldt, however, this probably isn’t the best book to start with, as it goes into a degree of scholarly depth perhaps too arcane for novice readers. If you want to learn the basic facts about Humboldt’s adventures in South America, Humboldt’s Cosmos by Gerard Helferich provides a good blow-by-blow summary. Overall, probably the best introductory book on Humboldt is Andrea Wulf’s 2015 study The Invention of Nature, which strikes a good balance of coverage between Humboldt’s life and legacy. The Passage to Cosmos is much more concerned with his legacy than his life. Only two chapters are biographical; the rest focus on Humboldt’s formidable influence on American history, science, politics, arts, literature, and environmentalism. While Wulf and other recent writers have pointed out Humboldt’s profound effect on key figures like Darwin and Henry David Thoreau, Walls delves far deeper into Humboldt’s scholarly network and paints a much more comprehensive and precise picture of his worldwide impact. Though I went into this book thinking I knew a lot about Humboldt and the importance of his works, Walls delivers surprising connections and keen insights on every page. Her prose is smooth and articulate throughout, making for an enjoyable and quotable reading experience.

How did Humboldt go from being perhaps the second most famous man in the world (behind Napoleon) two centuries ago to being largely forgotten in America today? Walls has a lot to say on that subject, while asserting that the world would be a better place if we had listened closer to what this genius had to say and took his advice to heart. As she argues and convincingly defends, “What the twenty-first century needs, now that biodiversity as well as cultural diversity are everywhere in crisis, is a neo-Humboldtian concept of Cosmos.” I was an admirer of Humboldt before I read Walls’s elegant and well-defended argument, but reading her take on the man has exponentially increased my esteem for him. This excellent and enlightening book is a must-read for Humboldt enthusiasts.
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