An academic fourth great-grandchild of Humboldt

Humboldt's 250 anniversary is an opportunity to honour my natural science professors – they follow Humboldt's holistic legacy, using all the senses and understanding how physical and natural elements interconnect with each other.

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   In a botany class, professor Phillip A. Silverstone-Sopkin drew us a pedigree on the whiteboard. It was not about plant taxonomy. The pedigree described our academic nobility as academic fourth great-grandchildren of Alexander von Humboldt*.

   Professor Silverstone passed away last year. This essay homage his teachings and other professors' teachings in my alma mater (Universidad del Valle). They teach biology students by going out to the field, understanding nature with a passionate and holistic approach.

   The holistic basis – understanding life as a process that depends on everything happening on Earth, comes from the methodologies used by Alexander von Humboldt.

 The natural sciences are connected by the same ties which link together all the phenomena of nature [...] and it would be injurious to the advancement of science, to attempt rising to general ideas, whilst neglecting the knowledge of particular facts. (Humboldt 1869, Introduction).

   In his expeditions, Humboldt observed all sorts of natural phenomena, studied and treated them as parts of a single entity called nature. He ambitiously investigated how natural forces interact with each other, and how they influence the environment and affect flora and fauna. His inquiries paved the ground for modern biogeography, and were a keystone in Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection (Heyd 2018).

   Biological research in Colombia follows Humboldt's comparative methodology to study biodiversity. Emulating Humboldt's expeditions, we observe geographical features to discover species distribution patterns; we learn about mineral cycles to understand what affects resources' availability; we study geological timescales to understand evolution. Combining independent and specialized sciences allows us to know nature as a unity. 

Geoscience class (May 2012) crossing over the Magdalena River. (Photo courtesy of  E. Londoño-Cruz).

   South America is a luxury place for biodiversity research, and Humboldt knew it. In 1801, he landed in the Viceroyalty of New Granada, in modern-day Colombian territory. From Cartagena, he went down to Lima, travelling through the Andes (Humboldt 1801). As the Tropical Andes are diversity hotspots, Humboldt not only discovered new species but also experienced the altitudinal climatic richness just by climbing hundreds of meters up in the mountains:

This portion of the surface of the globe affords in the smallest space the greatest possible variety of impressions from the contemplation of nature. Among the colossal mountains of Cundinamarca, of Quito, and of Peru, followed by deep ravines, man is enabled to contemplate alike all the families of plants, and all the stars of the firmament. (Humboldt 1858).

  Today, naturalists don't embark on years of expeditions but still spend some time in contact with nature. During my studies, our classes required travelling around Colombia, researching almost every ecosystem. We learned about coral reefs in the Caribbean and about mangrove forests on the Pacific coast. We collected fossils in xeric shrublands, and snakes and frogs in the rainforests. The Tatacoa Desert was the best place to study constellations, while observing the receding snowcaps in the Andes peaks illustrated to us the consequences of climate change.

  Those field activities influenced my life and my passion for learning natural sciences. As Humboldt said, contact with nature provides enjoyment:

The magic power exercised upon our minds by the physical world […] and of every imposing scene in nature, depends so materially upon the mutual relation of the ideas and sentiments simultaneously excited in the mind of the observer. (Humboldt 1858).

  Although my classmates and I are Humboldt's direct academic descendants, his universal scientific approach influences all natural scientists. In this field, we embrace adventure and discovery regardless of the weather and the terrain's toughness. Nowadays, we conduct life surveys, list and classify species, and observe and take notes about everything concerning this planet.

   Despite modern habitat degradation, there is much to be discovered 250 years later. As Humboldt's successors, we know that our anthropogenic actions also affect natural phenomena. Our duty is to restore the heavily threatened ecosystems, and hope for discoveries and expeditions such as the ones of Alexander von Humboldt.



*Humboldt mentored Louis Agassiz in Paris. Agassiz taught David Starr Jordan at Cornell, who led George S. Myers in Stanford. Myers taught Jay M. Savage at Stanford, who taught my professor Phillip at the University of Miami.
-   Heyd, T. Alexander von Humboldt y la unidad de la naturaleza. HiN: Alexander von Humboldt im Netz; International Review for Humboldtian Studies, 25-37 (2018).
-   Humboldt, Alexander von. 1869. Personal narrative of travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America. Translated by Thomasina Ross from 1907 George Bell & Sons edition, (available in http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/6322/pg6322-images.html, consulted on 5 September 2019).   
-   Humboldt, Alexander von. 1801. The American Travel Journals, Journal II and VI, entry on 26-28 March 1801, available in Spanish at the Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango del Banco de la República (available in http://www.banrepcultural.org/humboldt/diario/1.htm, consulted on 5 September 2019). 
-    Humboldt, Alexander von. 1858. Cosmos: A sketch of the physical description of the Universe, Vol. 1.  Translated by EC Otte, Harper & Brothers, (available in http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14565/14565-8.txt, consulted on 5 September 2019).

A. Ortega

Biologist, KAUST