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on 31 December 2013
I admit to not reading the whole of the introductory text but what I read was useful. I then skipped to Humboldt's narrative and was pleased with how enjoyable it was to read and felt familiar with his way of discovering new places despite the centuries of time in between. Very much a travel story describing the natural environment, people and places but light on his more scientific findings. I sat with large maps of both Tenerife and Venezuela by my side which helped in understanding the scale of exploration on foot, with mules and in canoes. Would definitely recommend reading this for fireside pleasure and certainly if lucky enough to visit these places.
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on 22 October 2014
This abridged version of Humboldt’s “Personal Narrative” gives us an enjoyable taste of the travels of the scientist and explorer in South America between 1799 and 1804.

Humboldt did not just study nature; he also enjoyed its beauty, and the book contains vivid descriptions of the sights he saw. He wrote that: “No words can evoke the feelings of a naturalist who first steps on soil outside Europe.”

This is very similar to how Charles Darwin later described his feelings on first setting foot in a Brazilian forest in “The Voyage of the Beagle”.

Humboldt’s Narrative had a big influence on Darwin when he first read it as a student at Cambridge. It contributed both to Darwin’s urge to travel and to his desire to contribute something to scientific knowledge. He even took a copy of Humboldt’s book on the Beagle with him. Later, when Darwin’s own “Voyage” book was published, Darwin was delighted when Humboldt himself praised it.

Another link between Humboldt and Darwin is the fact that both were strongly opposed to slavery. Humboldt wrote this, for example:

“Nowhere else in the world seems more appropriate to dissipate melancholy and restore peace to troubled minds than Tenerife and Madeira. These effects are due not only to the magnificent situation and to the purity of the air, but above all to the absence of slavery, which so deeply revolts us in all those places where Europeans have brought what they call their “enlightenment” and their “commerce” to their colonies.”

In his science Humboldt was a polymath whose research covered anthropology, biology, botany, geography, geology, zoology and more. But he also saw that nature was an interconnected whole and that “Everything is interrelated”. This view, that we need to see the unity of nature whilst trying to understand the parts that make up the whole, is similar to an aspect of what Marxist (but non-Stalinist) scientists such as Richard Lewontin refer to as the dialectical view of nature.

Sadly, Humboldt is not widely remembered today. But it is not surprising that his name is not as well known as Darwin’s. Humboldt contributed a great deal to science, but he did not make such a world-shattering breakthrough as Darwin did when he came up with natural selection as the mechanism for evolution.

Phil Webster.
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