Essay on the Geography of Plants : Alexander Von Humboldt And Aime´ Bonpland

كوكب الجغرافيا مارس 14, 2020 مارس 14, 2020
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Essay on the Geography of Plants 

Alexander Von Humboldt And Aime´ Bonpland 

Edited with an Introduction by 

Stephen T. Jackson 

Translated by 

Sylvie Romanowski

the university of chicago press :: chicago and london



preface, vii 
• note to the reader, xiii 
• note on nomenclature, xv
note on units, xvii 
• acknowledgments, xix

Introduction: Humboldt, Ecology, and the Cosmos :: 1
stephen t. jackson
Translator’s Note :: 47
sylvie romanowski
Essay on the Geography of Plants :: 49
alexander von humboldt and aime´ bonpland, translated by sylvie romanowski
Text of Humboldt’s Tableau physique :: 145
translated by sylvie romanowski
Humboldt’s Pictorial Science: An Analysis of the
Tableau physique des Andes et pays voisins :: 157
sylvie romanowski
Plant Species Cited in Humboldt’s Essay and Tableau physique :: 199
stephen t. jackson
Instruments Utilized in Developing the Tableau physique :: 221
stephen t. jackson
Biographical Sketches :: 227
stephen t. jackson
Bibliographical Essay and Bibliography :: 253
stephen t. jackson
Color plate, Tableau physique :: back pocket
illustrations follow pages 46 and 175.

Stephen T. Jackson is professor of botany and ecology at the University of Wyoming. Sylvie Romanowski is professor of French at Northwestern University and author of Through Strangers’ Eyes: Fictional Foreigners in Old Regime France. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637 The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London © 2009 by The University of Chicago All rights reserved. Published 2008 Printed in the United States of America


  This project had its origins in a chance conversation during a Chicago-toParis flight in the summer of 2003. Sylvie Romanowski and I were seated next to each other, and, upon chatting, we learned that we were respectively professors of French literature and botany. I mentioned my frustration in attempting to read a recently acquired reprint volume of Humboldt’s Essai sur la géographie des plantes. I was not sure whether my problems had to do with archaic idioms in the document or the sad state of my French-language skills after decades of neglect. Sylvie suggested she might be able to help and asked me to send a copy to look at. Upon my return to Laramie, I sent a copy of the Essai text to Sylvie. She was intrigued, and upon seeing a facsimile of Humboldt’s color plate that accompanied the Essai, she developed a definitive case of the “Humboldt virus.” 

  The Humboldt virus is an easy one to catch. All it takes is a reading of part of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative, or an essay from his Views of Nature, or simply a perusal of the Chimborazo profile which accompanied the Essai. You are confronted with a man who was interested in nearly everything, who could speak and write authoritatively about the electrical properties of muscles, the philology of the ancient Incas, the political economy of Mexico, and the mineralogy of the Urals; who was equally comfortable conversing with Gauss, Goethe, and Gay-Lussac (not to mention Thomas Jefferson, Tsar Nicholas I, Abraham Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, an anonymous, pedantic poison-master in the upper Orinoco, or Carlos del Pino, the Guayqueria whom Humboldt enlisted as his assistant in Venezuela); who dined on ants and monkeys in the Orinoco and foie gras and caviar in Paris salons; who was passionate in his love of political freedom and his hatred of slavery; who envisioned how hundreds of point-observations of temperature, magnetism, or plant form could be assimilated to reveal global patterns; who led the funeral procession for the fallen Berlin revolutionaries of 1848 at the same time he was serving as chamberlain and confidant to the Prussian king; who was happy to do chemical experiments in a flooded Paris basement, inventory plants while climbing the slopes of Cotopaxi, make exacting astronomical measurements in a mosquito-infested jungle, or dissect electric eels with a local savant in a dusty llanos village; who, when told he must ride across the Quindiu Pass aboard a sillero—a mulatto man saddled with a chair—strapped one of the chairs to his own back and insisted that he carry the sillero; who inspired the scientific career of Charles Darwin, the artistic career of Frederic Edwin Church, and the political career of Simón Bolívar; who was eulogized in America by Ingersoll, Emerson, and Agassiz (respectively an agnostic, a mystic, and a zealot); who was the subject of the dedication page of Edgar Allan Poe’s last major work; who spent his considerable inheritance self-funding his scientific explorations, underwriting his scientific monographs, and supporting his less fortunate colleagues; who made substantive contributions to nearly every branch of the natural and social sciences of his time; whose work laid the foundations for a dozen disciplines, ranging from geophysics to biogeography to political economy. 

  Resistance is pointless once you have begun to engage Humboldt. Though his personality is often remote (his Personal Narrative is anything but personal), his insatiable curiosity and intellectual power are always close at hand. Within a few months of our first meeting, Sylvie and I had agreed to work together on a complete translation of Humboldt’s Essai, and before the project was long underway we were both inspired to write accompanying essays.

  The Essai sur la géographie des plantes, with its accompanying Tableau physique des Andes et Pays voisins, is one of Humboldt’s most influential works. It has long been regarded as one of the foundation texts of ecology and biogeography, but it is more than that. It is the first mature, integrated statement of Humboldt’s view of a unified nature, with diverse properties showing coherent patterns in space at local to global scales. The Essai (and its German equivalent, Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen) has been reprinted at various times since its first publication in 1807. But it has never appeared in an English translation. 

  Since the Second World War, English has emerged as the lingua franca of science. As a consequence, native-born English speakers working in the sciences no longer have to develop fluency in French, German, or other languages. In fact, scientists at universities in the United States often view foreign languages as a burden, discourage students from taking them, and even try to purge them from the required curriculum. It is an unfortunate fact that most scientists in the United States and other English-speaking nations are unable to read and appreciate Humboldt’s Essai. 

 The primary purpose of this volume, then, is to bring Humboldt’s Essai to an English-speaking audience at relatively low cost. But why should anyone in the early twenty-first century read a 200-year-old scientific work, however canonical? The question is obviously easy to answer for historians or humanists, but why should scientists interrupt their busy lives to read Humboldt, or any of the old masters? Scientists have a well-deserved reputation for being focused on the “here and now”—the burning questions that are at the frontier of knowledge. They tend not to be concerned with the questions and concepts of a decade ago, let alone a century. This is paradoxical, because science is inherently a historical enterprise. The body of current knowledge is built on years, decades, or centuries of previous scholarship and research, and it is subject to the same kinds of historical contingencies and artifacts as any other human endeavor. Some scientists recognize this, and acknowledge the need to step back and examine where a question or concept has come from, how it has evolved, and whether something important has been overlooked along the way. At its most fundamental level, this is good scholarship and leads to a healthy sense of humility. Furthermore, concepts tend to evolve in time, and so confusion and pointless controversy can be avoided by looking at their lineages. And occasionally, long-neglected ideas are rediscovered and brought back to life, helping to solve current puzzles or opening new avenues for discovery. Historical examination is particularly critical for ecology, evolution, and biogeography, because these are inherently historical sciences. Obviously so, in the sense that the phenomena that they attempt to explain — the abundance and distribution of organisms across the globe, the diversity of life at local to global scales, the origin of features of organisms that fit them to their respective environment, the movement of energy and materials in space and time—all have historical components. None can be fully explained without some knowledge of history, because different processes occur at different rates, Earth’s environment changes through time, and system states at any given time are contingent on previous states and events. However, ecology, evolution, and biogeography are historical in another sense: virtually all of the core concepts date back to the nineteenth century or before, and ideas proposed one or two or even three centuries ago remain relevant and topical today. This undoubtedly arises from the sheer diversity and complexity of the subject material. Ecologists and evolutionary biologists are probably no more susceptible than physicists and chemists to Francis Bacon’s “Idols of the Theatre” (i.e., unquestioned paradigms and notions inherited from previous generations), nor are they necessarily more prone to equivocation in resolving important issues. Issues can and do get resolved, and paradigms are subjected to scrutiny. But the nature of the subject matter makes these fields susceptible to erroneously rejecting real mechanisms and processes, and to overestimating the importance or universality of others. Definitive falsification of a mechanism in one case, for one class of organisms at one spatial scale and one temporal scale, provides no insurance that the mechanism is not important in some other case or at some other scale. The historical, contingent nature of the phenomena under investigation compounds this problem. 

  Thus, ecologists, biogeographers, and evolutionary biologists can still profit from reading classical texts. What Charles Darwin said about animal behavior, ecological competition, or natural variation has more to say to us today than what, for example, Joseph Priestley said about phlogiston or James Clerk Maxwell said about the ether. In ecology and evolution, we live with the legacy of Darwin’s emphasis on competition, and many are rereading Darwin, Wallace, Lyell, and others to see how we got where we are today, and to examine whether we got on a wrong track a long time ago. 

  There is yet another reason to read Humboldt today. He worked in a time of widespread revolution, repression, and seemingly endless war. Science and scientists have never been immune to larger political, economic, and societal currents. In the United States and most of the rest of the western world in the second half of the twentieth century, science benefited from a liberal political culture that was largely willing to let science run its course and even to embrace the application of scientific knowledge to policy. A prime example is the blossoming of the environmental sciences and their direct incorporation into environmental policy and resource management. 

  There is no guarantee that the good times for science will continue, however. I write at a time when forces of political reaction have been ascendant in the United States and elsewhere. No part of our society or culture, including science, has been unaffected. From stem-cell research to teaching of evolution to application of climate-change science and conservation biology, powerful political and economic forces are bearing down to subvert, divert, or simply shout down science, its practitioners, and its products. This is bad for science and society. Good science can flourish only in an open society, and as governments become more secretive and authoritarian, and societies more close-minded and self-absorbed, science will suffer. Conversely, science, with its dynamism, skepticism, and progressivism, is essential for a healthy democracy. The one requires the other, and erosion of one will degrade the other. It should be no surprise that many of the leaders of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment movements for liberal political democracy were also scientists themselves. 

  Alexander von Humboldt and his contemporaries can provide solace and inspiration in what may appear to be a darkening time. I believe they represent the best our culture has to offer: on the one hand, a commitment to applying our senses and minds systematically toward understanding nature and to applying scientific knowledge to help advance society and enrich people’s lives, and, on the other, a commitment to an open, democratic, and egalitarian society. They saw triumphs as well as tragedies in their lifetimes, just as we have seen great successes and grievous failures in human progress, social justice, and environmental health in ours. Many of Humboldt’s scientific contemporaries suffered, and some died, for their thoughts and deeds. In our time, at least in the United States and Western Europe, the costs of free thought and speech have not been so high. We can only hope this will not change. 

  Humboldt spent the last ten years of his life under police surveillance, with all of his correspondence opened and inspected by government censors. Only his long-standing association with the King of Prussia prevented worse treatment. In an 1849 letter to his close friend, the physicist François Arago, Humboldt reflected on the failed political revolutions of 1848: “1849 is the year of reaction. I have saluted 1789 . . . and now, at the age of eighty, I am reduced to the worn-out hope that the fine and ardent wish for free institutions is maintained in the people, that, periodically, it may appear to be asleep but that it is eternal as the electromagnetic storm which sparkles in the sun.” 1 

   The intervening century-and-a-half suggest that Humboldt’s “worn-out hope” was at least partly justified. The chattel slavery Humboldt so despised was outlawed worldwide by the late nineteenth century, universal suffrage and liberal democracy were established over most of Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world in the second half of the twentieth century (though not without violent reversals or resistance in many countries), and a concept of universal human rights has been made explicit in the United 

1. From a letter dated Potsdam, 9 November 1849, translated and quoted in L. Kellner, Alexander von Humboldt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 218. An alternative translation is provided in E. R. Brann, The Political Ideas of Alexander von Humboldt (Madison, Wis.: Littel, 1954), 30.

Nations Charter and given at least nominal support by governments in much of the world.

   It is my hope that publication of this important work of Humboldt’s will lead not only to a greater appreciation of the scholarly debt nearly all earth, ecological, and environmental scientists owe to Humboldt but also to a renewed commitment among scholars to Humboldt’s dual vision of scientific pursuit as a key element of an open society and an open society as an essential support for continued scientific progress. 

Stephen T. Jackson


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