Cosmos was Alexander Von Humboldt’s masterpiece, taking him so long to complete that the scientific community at the time had virtually given up on its publication. In it, Humboldt (1769-1859) presented a vision of the earth and everything in it as being interconnected. Humboldt conceived of nature and mankind relying on each other physically through ‘webs of life’ and ‘chains of effect’. He was among the first to consider humanity’s environmental damage, and how this could have an effect on future generations. But he also hinted towards humanity’s emotional reliance on the nature and the feelings it excites in us. The study of nature was, for Humboldt, inseparable from the study of the mind in its material, social, and cultural context.
Quote and passage
“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 the chain of connection, by which all natural forces are linked together, and made mutually dependent on each other and it is the perception of these relations that exalts our views and ennobles our enjoyments.” (Cosmos, Vol 1, 1864)
Cosmos was unlike any previous book about nature. Humboldt took his readers on a journey from outer space to earth, and then from the surface of the planet to its inner core. He discussed comets, the Milky Way and the solar system as well as terrestrial magnetism, volcanoes and the snow line of mountains. He wrote about the migration of the human species, about plants and animals and the microscopic organisms that live in stagnant water or on the weathered surface of rocks. Where others insisted that nature was stripped of its magic as humankind penetrated into its deepest secrets, Humboldt believed exactly the opposite. How could this be, Humboldt asked, in a world in which the coloured rays of the aurora ‘unite in a quivering sea flame’, creating a sight so otherworldly ‘the splendour of which no description can reach’? Knowledge, he said, could never ‘kill the creative force of imagination’ – instead it brought excitement, astonishment and wondrousness.
The most important part of Cosmos was the long introduction of almost 100 pages. Here Humboldt spelled out his vision – of a world that pulsates with life. Everything was part of this ‘never-ending activity of the animated forces’, Humboldt wrote. Nature was a ‘living whole’ where organisms were bound together in a net-like intricate fabric’.
The rest of the book was composed of three parts: the first on celestial phenomena; the second on the earth which included geomagnetism, oceans, earthquakes, meteorology and geography; the third on organic life which encompassed plants, animals and humans. Cosmos was an exploration of the ‘wide range of creation’, bringing together a far greater range of subjects that any previous book. But it was more than just a collection of facts and knowledge, such as Diderot’s famous Encylopédie, for instance, because Humboldt was more interested in connections. Humboldt’s discussion of climate was just one example that revealed how different his approach was. Where other scientists focused only on meteorological data such as temperature and weather, Humboldt was the first to understand climate as a system of complex correlations between the atmosphere, oceans and landmasses. In Cosmos he wrote of the ‘perpetual interrelationship’ between air, winds, ocean currents, elevation and the density of plant cover on land.
Questions for reflection
- Humboldt inspired many more writers and scientists, like James Lovelock, to see all of creation as connected. How does this influence or change your views on humanity’s position in creation?
- Why do you think nature inspires such strong emotions in us? Do you have any personal experience of this? Are there any natural sights you would particularly like to see in person?
Some further reading
Andrea Wulf (2015), The Invention of Nature (biography of Humboldt)
Robert McFarlane (2009) The Wild Places
Amy Liptrot (2015) The Outrun