Humboldt’s Lingering Renaissance: Interests and Influences

Few intellects were as expansive and influential as that of the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). The still more famous brother of the famous Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), both served to radically alter the way that science was seen and taught in Germany, and through that, the world. It is a little known fact that in the 19th century, Europeans seeking an advanced degree in science had to go to Germany, and the early system of government funding for science established there was the envy of the scientific world. Thomas Henry Huxley and his group often used Germany as a model for what English science should be, and Alexander von Humboldt, with his expansive, cosmic interest in nature, romantic tendencies, and world traveling adventures, served as a major inspiration for Charles Darwin before the young naturalist decided to go on his voyage on the Beagle. Humboldt’s biogeography was also highly influential in Darwin’s interest in the topic, and thereby was influential in the development of evolutionary theory.

Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his own cosmology, Eureka, to Humboldt, and he lent his name to a score of animal species, most notably the Humboldt Squid, that taloned, intelligent, and vicious cannibal called by the natives of South America “Diablos rojos” Red Devils.

Admired by Goethe, (though less so by Schiller, who is reputed to have said that “Alexander impresses many, particularly when compared to his brother – because he shows off more!”), by Simon Bolivar and Thomas Jefferson, Humboldt was perhaps one of the last of the great Renaissance thinkers who embraced both science and culture with equal interest.

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_von_Humboldt

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

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

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