Posted by: Rob Viens | February 6, 2012

Darwin on Humboldt

On February 6th Darwin expresses that he was ready to move on, noting “I am becoming rather impatient to see tropical Vegetation in greater luxuriance than it can be seen here.” It is clear from the entry that the “newness” of Cape Verde had warn off, though he hasn’t forgotten the thrill of his first few days on the island:

“During the first week every object was new & full of uncommon interest & as Humboldt remarks the vividness of an impression gives it the effect of duration.” (Feb 6)

Ah, the impatience of youth.

This is not the first time, or the last, that Darwin mentions one of idols – Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt was the David Attenborough of his day, making a name for himself by traveling the globe, observing the world, forming new hypothesis and publishing his studies for others to read.  Much like for Darwin, it was Humboldt’s 5-year voyage of discovery to the Americas (from 1799 to 1804) that really solidified his reputation in scientific circles. I can picture Darwin as a young boy in the 1810’s and early 20’s reading about the adventures of the German naturalist.  Speculating, I can only wonder if this was one of the reasons he became a naturalist himself. Those of you more familiar with Darwin’s early years please feel free to comment.

Alexander von Humboldt shortly after his return to Europe in 1806 (by Friedrich Georg Weitsch):

Alexander von Humboldt

Humboldt was a true naturalist – having studied and made contributions to astronomy, biology, botany, geology, meteorology, and oceanography. And he was well known for making quantitative observations – traveling with a set of state-of-the-art equipment he used to measure virtually everything he could think of. In geology (my field) he was one of the first naturalists to suggest the continents had once “fit together” and noticed that volcanoes in Latin America lined up in “chains” (we now call these chains volcanic arcs).  Both of these observations lent early support to what would much later be known as the theory of plate tectonics. In meteorology he helped explain the formation of tropical storms and other atmospheric disturbances, and he is probably best known for describing bioclimatic zones – globally and locally as it pertained to elevation change. In other words, when you go up, temperature goes down and the type of vegetation you find there changes (as illustrated in Humboldt’s diagram below).

Humboldt’s image of Mt. Chimborazo – which he climbed to an elevation over 19,000 feet! (Click on the image to see a detailed, interactive version of the image.)

Humboldt’s alpine biogeography

In any case, it was Humboldt who Darwin seemed to idolize, and he mentions him frequently during the first few months.  He brought Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the Years 1799-1804 Volume 1 and 2 with him on the Beagle and seemed to pass the time at sea reading and dreaming of tropical vegetation (often as a distraction for his bouts with seasickness):

“I spent a very pleasant afternoon lying on the sofa, either talking to the Captain or reading Humboldt’s glowing accounts of tropical scenery. — Nothing could be better adapted for cheering the heart of a sea-sick man.” (Dec 31)

“Already can I understand Humboldt’s enthusiasm about the tropical nights, the sky is so clear & lofty, & stars innumerable shine so bright that like little moons they cast their glitter on the waves.” (Jan 6)

In a later entry he describes Humboldt’s writing as “the rare union of poetry with science” and notes that “I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another Sun illumines everything I behold.” (Feb 28). (Yes, I’m jumping ahead – its hard not to!)

In the world of science we always build on the work of our predecessors.  Humboldt was one of those people who laid the groundwork for Darwin, and helped pave the path to discovery.

Hey, I know we are concentrating on Darwin here by if you feel inspired to read Humboldt’s original works, you can visit the Humboldt Digital Library(RJV)



  1. […] grew up dreaming of the great adventurer Alexander Humboldt (see the earlier post – Darwin on Humboldt). By the 1850′s I imagine that young explorers-to-be read Voyage of the Beagle and idolized […]

  2. […] a young man Darwin read about Humboldt’s adventures in the tropical forests (see Darwin on Humboldt).  With his friends back in England he plotted a trip to the Canary Islands to revel in it’s […]

  3. […] more on Humboldt be sure to see Darwin on Humboldt. (RJV) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  4. […] of historic voyages of exploration, such as George Anson’s Voyage Round the World, Humboldt’s Personal Narratives, Cook’s Voyages and La Perouse’s Voyage Round the World. (This category seems to have […]

  5. […] seemed to love tales of adventure – from the scientific explorations of Humboldt (see Darwin on Humboldt) to the voyages of George Anson (see George Anson’s Voyage Round the World).  The Beagle library […]

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