This article is part of the feature „Great guys. Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt

“We protect the things we love”

5 min read

with Andrea Wulf

Andrea Wulf is now the world’s most famous biographer of Humboldt. Millions of copies of her book, the invention of nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s new world, have been sold worldwide, and in Germany it made it to number five on SPIEGEL’s bestseller list. In an interview, the successful author talks about what fascinates her about this renowned natural scientist.

Ms Wulf, as an author and journalist you have frequently focused on scientific history around the turn of the nineteenth century. What do you find so exciting about this era?

Andrea Wulf: I essentially see my books, which examine this period in time, as a reflection on the relationship between humans and nature. Particularly the era of the Enlightenment and the early Romantic era – the time of Alexander von Humboldt, in other words – continue to influence our worldview today. For example, the way we approach nature was primarily shaped during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was then that the notion that humans can control nature through knowledge was enforced. Industrialization also alienated people from nature. So if we truly wish to understand what makes us tick today, then we have to better understand the era of Alexander von Humboldt.

That would also imply that one can only understand Alexander von Humboldt as a product of his time?

Yes, it’s the only logical approach. People like to refer to me as the Humboldt biographer, but the subtitle of my biography is The Invention of Nature, meaning the book is not only a biography of Humboldt, but it also represents an idea – the idea of nature and the world as a living organism. Of course it was Alexander von Humboldt who effectively invented this notion, but my book also includes eight additional mini biographies of contemporaries who influenced Humboldt’s thinking, individuals such as Thomas Jefferson or Goethe. One can never tear contemporary figures out of their historical contexts, and the same is true of Alexander von Humboldt. Recently people have repeatedly asked me what Humboldt would have said about different problems today. These are questions that I cannot answer, of course. I can only refer to aspects of Humboldt’s work that can still inspire our thinking today.

The contemporary context and the history of ideas are certainly important when it comes to understanding a person’s life, but his or her specific character also plays a significant role. What type of person was Alexander von Humboldt really?

If I had to describe his character in only one word, I would choose “restlessness”. Humboldt himself once said that he at times felt as if he were being chased by a thousand sows. There was so much frenetic energy in him that he feared he might lose his mind. In other words, Alexander von Humboldt was man possessed. If I could choose a second word to describe him it would have to be “curiosity”. Humboldt wanted to know what holds the world together at its very core, and in his search to find the answer he was driven by his great love of nature. He may have carried forty-two scientific instruments with him during his travels through the Americas, but he also repeatedly stressed that one had to be able to “feel” nature. For me, this is one of Humboldt’s greatest messages, and in my opinion it is something that is missing from science today. We talk about data, but no one dares talk about feelings. We will only enduringly protect and preserve the things we love.

You were certainly aware of the fact that Humboldt was a thinker who was able to connect things on a grand scale when you began your research. But what was the greatest surprise you encountered in focusing on this exceptional talent?

The connection between art and science. Previously, I had almost exclusively thought of Humboldt as a scientist. That was the way I saw him. But the bridges he built between feeling and knowledge, between objectivity and subjectivity, truly surprised me. This was also the reason I decided to write a second book on Humboldt after The Invention of Nature in which I focus more on him as artist. I believe the obvious connection between the arts and the sciences is something we lack today. I myself am the best example of this: when I was in school I was often told that my talents were more artistic than logical or scientific. Today I write books about the history of science. That means my education was completely wrong. In our schools we force our children into the categories of “artistic/creative” and “mathematical/scientific”. This is a huge problem in our society.

Viewed in this light, it seems only logical that the Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss, an exhibition venue that aims to bring together art and science, is named after the Humboldt Brothers, don’t you think?

That remains to be seen. If the Humboldt Forum really can offer a venue for interdisciplinary thought and action and present a holistic view of the world, that would be wonderful. Only time will tell.

Interview: Ralf Hanselle

Photo by Andrea Wulf
Andrea Wulf

Andrea Wulf, born in India and raised in Germany, lives in London. Since studying design history at the Royal College of Art, she has worked as a non-fiction writer and journalist. She has been awarded numerous international prizes.