Alexander von Humboldt was a biogeographical maximalist, if that makes any sense. The Prussian-born von Humboldt had traveled through much of Latin America by the time he was 40, where he scientifically documented many of its surface features for the first time, and forwarded research that developed the burgeoning fields of meteorology and physical geography. His approach was holistic—by the end of the nineteenth century, “Humboldtian science” was the term generated for the combination of scientific empiricism, precise instrumentation, and the pursuit of the interconnectedness of all things von Humboldt found in his approach to the natural world.
A recent profile in Nature Conservancy magazine, “Humboldt’s New World,” takes on the explorer-scientist and his encounters in Latin America, many of which involve terrain protected by the Conservancy. Of his journey, Julian Smith writes:
The Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was midway through a five-year, 6,000 mile voyage of scientific discovery through Latin America that would revolutionize thinking in fields form astronomy to zoology. Charles Darwin himself called Humboldt “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived,” and when Darwin set off on his own journey aboard the Beagle . . .
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Guest blogger: Ryo Yamaguchi
It is hard to imagine the world—or ourselves for that matter —without DNA, but for most of our intellectual history we knew nothing about those slender molecules. The modern microscope was invented near the beginning of the seventeenth century, with Friedrich Miescher isolating DNA in the late nineteenth, and between those times theories regarding biological formation and reproduction were explored by Enlightenment thinkers and scientists such as John Locke, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, Carl Linnaeus, and Comte de Buffon. We overlook it now as common knowledge, but biological reproduction was something these people had to think through, to explain without DNA, and the debates between concepts such as God, mechanics, fermentation, homunculi—and how they could inform life’s larger lineages, of the differences between species, of a natural history as a whole—abounded.
Enter Immanuel Kant. Many of us do not think of Kant as a biologist, but he was deeply interested in natural history throughout his career, an interest that Jennifer Mensch takes up in Kant’s Organicism, published last month. Situating Kant among the above thinkers, she shows not only that Kant had theories of his own on the . . .
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