In 1845 a diplomat delivered a letter from Friedrich Wilhelm to Louis Philippe of France protesting the insults leveled at the Prussian king by expatriates living in Paris. King Louis had the radicals’ newspaper closed down and the group, along with one Karl Marx, deported.
This was not the first time Marx’s pen had piqued a monarch. A protest from the Tsar of Russia had Marx previously expelled from Germany. And he would be banished twice more before landing in England for the rest of his life.
There is a tapestry of ironies in this. In pushing the man from country to country, Europe’s monarchs exposed Marx to a series of epistemological niches that informed his later works, including Capital: German philosophy, French political thought, British economic theory and, of course, Belgian beer and chocolate. Marx’s mash-up would eventually frame and inspire revolutions and rebellions around the world, several culminating with European authorities expelled in a hurry from newly liberated territories.
But turn-around, however petty, can also be unfair play. Marx was more than willing to kick out those about him he thought unsuitable for his smaller kingdom. As Francis Wheen describes it in a sympathetic biography, Marx and partner-in-crime Fredrich Engels would interrogate prospectives for the Communist League in a London drawing room. After subjecting each poor probationary to a battery of questions—imagine those orals—Marx would inspect the interviewee’s head for its shape and bumps. The resident Communist phrenologist would next be invited in to complete the examination.
Wheen plays it for laughs. Imagine Ricky Gervais in a bushy beard. It is funny—peculiar and ha-ha—that a man who would help shape much of the 20th century acted as very much one of the 19th, an observation to which he would, shrugging, hardly object: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”
But that isn’t the twist that raises this eyebrow. There’s instead Wheen’s passing tidbit that the Prussian diplomat who delivered King Friedrich’s letter to the French court was none other than Alexander von Humboldt. The francophile father of modern biogeography, who inspired generations of researchers, Charles Darwin included, helped eject one of history’s premier social scientists.
I can think of no better parable for the current state of much of modern biogeography.
Upon laying claim to his inheritance at 30, Berlin-born Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) set out for what would be a stunning five-year journey across Latin America with the fortuitously named Aimé Bonpland, whom Humboldt had met in Paris. The journey was sanctioned by the Spanish government as one of several attempts at learning more about its vast American holdings both physical—Humboldt was once a mining inspector—and human—colonial elites increasingly chafed under the metropole’s directives.
Von Humboldt’s American travelogues, Mary Louise Pratt argues, treated much of the New World he visited as untouched territory, to the exclusion of the thousands of peoples he met or passed, an ethos that remains central to much biogeographic work today,
It was an intricate social fabric and a critical historical juncture into which Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland set foot when they arrived in South America in 1799. For the five eventful years that followed, they participated in the moment as they made their way around what they liked to call the New Continent. Their historic journey, and the monument of print it produced, laid down the lines for the ideological reinvention of South America that took place on both sides of the Atlantic during the momentous first decades of the nineteenth century. For thirty years, while popular uprisings, foreign invasions, and wars of independence convulsed Spanish America, Alexander von Humboldt’s vast writings on his equinoctial travels flowed in a steady stream from Paris, reaching thirty volumes in as many years.
Given the continent’s backdrop, what America did Humboldt see?
In the Old World the nuances and differences between nations form the main focus of the picture. In the New World, man and his productions disappear, so to speak, in the midst of a wild and outsize nature. In the New World the human race has been preserved by a few scarcely civilized tribes, or by the uniform customs and institutions transplanted on to foreign shores by European colonists.
About another of Humboldt’s oft-dazzling passages, Pratt writes,
In contrast with strictly scientific writing, the authority of the discourse here plainly does not lie in a totalizing descriptive project that lives outside the text. Here, the totalizing project lives in the text, orchestrated by the infinitely expansive mind and soul of the speaker. What is shared with scientific travel writing, however, is the erasure of the human. The description just quoted presents a landscape imbued with social fantasies–of harmony, industry, liberty, unalienated joie de vivre–all projected onto the non-human world. Traces of human history, unidentified, are there: the horse and oxen arrived through a force no less occult than the invading Spanish. But the human inhabitants of the Llanos are absent. The only “person” mentioned in these “melancholy and sacred solitudes” is the hypothetical and invisible European traveler himself.
Somewhere in the background of the painting of Humboldt and Bonpland reproduced above (and better seen here) are a few unidentifiable natives, only one of the copious taxa arranged across the diorama.
Humboldt, bestiarist, is something of an oversimplification. He wrote extensively on all orders of topic, including several volumes on Latin American geopolitical intrigue alone. So polymath were his preoccupations that, as Nicholaas Rupke explains, German regimes of antithetical politics one after the other pressed Humboldt into ideological service,
Some six major, distinct Humboldt representations can be identified. We can recognize a Humboldt who played a major role in the revolutionary struggle for “freedom and national unification”…of Germany during the period 1848-71…When about 25 larger and smaller German kingdoms and principalities had merged to become the Kaiserreich, several versions were created of a distinctly Wilhelmian Humboldt, who could carry the banners of Germany’s army in World War I and serve the purpose of post-WW I reconstruction during the Weimar Republic…In the Third Reich the National Socialists recast Humboldt to suit their supremacist ideology…He acquired a split personality when, after World War II, East and West Germany produced opposing Humboldts, one a Marxist-Leninist…, the other a free market internationalist…Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, Humboldt assumed an altogether new identity, that of a supranational information network pioneer and a supporter of popular causes ranging from environmentalism to gay rights…
Graphing a anthroperipheral Humboldt onto the biogeography that followed is in its own way also unfair. To the public and to each other, many modern biogeographers routinely raise the deleterious effects of human intervention on natural systems. Their ostensible objective is, after all, to ‘save the environment’ from human impact, not, as Pratt imbues von Humboldt’s oeuvre, to introduce European capital to lands on which, in this case, Spain was losing its grip. But the self-consciousness, if it is to be believed, only emphasizes the field’s naiveté, however well-meaning:
There are no ‘natural’ systems. There remains no place on Earth’s surface and no organism untouched by humanity in one way or another. Global warming, urbanization, agriculture, stockbreeding, overhunting and depleted fisheries, pollution, herbicides, antimircobials, and geo-engineering intentional and inadvertent have together changed Earth forever. If humans were all removed tomorrow, our short tenure would still set biology’s subsequent trajectory. Even the smallest taxa are affected. While many microscopic pathogens clearly have origins before humanity’s emergence and continue to manifest their own agency, all have since been entrained directly or indirectly into the anthrosphere.
Worse, many physical geographers and population biologists appear hobbled by prelapsarian fantasies about the systems they study, which are often underpinned by hopes that humanity’s environmental destruction can be reversed and nature can rebound to some previous or related state. Their biophilia orbits about an ache for a return to Eden’s warm womb, wherein human populations, folded double back into civilization’s fetal position, would act as only one of an organismal assembly with access to Earth’s commons.
The resulting work is freighted with a concomitant distaste for any interdisciplinarity beyond the natural sciences (outside perhaps the lip service the granting agencies like these days). It’s a provinciality that is starting to be eaten away at by gruesome realities on the ground but remains shockingly prevalent, locking down academic jobs and grants alike. The self-indulgent myopia, losing the deforestation PACs for the tree rings, explains in part why we lost on climate change. Long-term atmospheric data and shifting home ranges were mistaken as enough of an argument in the face of industrial lobbies that owned policymakers lock, stock and barrel across political parties.
And yet, even that characterization may offer too much credit. This particular brand of empiricism is itself a function of the imperial designs that threaten the biosphere its practitioners claim they aim to protect. In other words, the Eden Ache is but another in capitalism’s arsenal of illusions, this one allowing first-world environmentalists to run roughshod over objections to neoliberal development, all in Earth’s name.
Rather than acting against the corrosive interests of the governments and multinationals which fund them, Western environmentalists routinely act to greenwash development or box out indigenous groups from their own lands. Recently,
- The International Union for Conservation of Nature, initially convened by the UN, accepted money from, and defended efforts by, developers interested in building along India’s coastline, one of only three places in the world where the olive ridley sea turtle beaches to lay eggs.
- The Netherlands’ African Parks Foundation attempted to lease and manage the Omo and Nech Sar National Parks in Ethiopia. The Foundation’s plans for Omo included evicting local tribes—the Suri, Dizi, Me’en, Nyangatom, Kwegu, Bodi, and Mursi—from their ancestral land or blocking access to traditional agriculture and grazing. The Foundation was beaten back and gave up its lease.
- By way of his political access and influence, former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his environmentalism, has transformed himself into a multi-millionaire ‘green’ investor, with stakes in the world’s largest carbon credit trading market and an array of companies in bio-fuels, fish farming, electric vehicles, waterless urinals, and solar power. His right-wing critics claim Gore’s ‘scare-mongering’ on climate change a means to personal fortune. One utility company in which he’s invested just won a key government contract. As the Times reports,
The company, Silver Spring Networks, produces hardware and software to make the electricity grid more efficient. It came to Mr. Gore’s firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital providers, looking for $75 million to expand its partnerships with utilities seeking to install millions of so-called smart meters in homes and businesses.
Mr. Gore and his partners decided to back the company, and in gratitude Silver Spring retained him and John Doerr, another Kleiner Perkins partner, as unpaid corporate advisers.
The deal appeared to pay off in a big way last week, when the Energy Department announced $3.4 billion in smart grid grants. Of the total, more than $560 million went to utilities with which Silver Spring has contracts. Kleiner Perkins and its partners, including Mr. Gore, could recoup their investment many times over in coming years.
- Gore has responded he’s put his money where his mouth is, which is, for those of us who do indeed believe climate change real, a damning admission. Gore, profiteer, misrepresents the economics that have brought humanity near destruction as the means of its salvation.
The failures of judgment extend beyond blatant corruptions personal or political. Most scientists, after all, try their best to play by the rules, something of its own problem. Some, indeed, suffer a socially selected inattentional blindness that allows them their good works, however incomplete, as long as the resulting research avoids challenging the prime directives of power: capitalism is right; inequities are natural; despoliation is just, not a big deal, accidental, or caused by those exploited; and war—when waged by the rich—peace.
The thinking goes that if I can avoid mentioning power’s precepts, and so eschew addressing the world’s political order (and, ergo, its problems), I will be allowed the environmental fight, a clear conscience, my funds and affiliations, and the right to pretend honesty to my children at home and my grad students at work. Logistically, I can still draw tenure while remaining hermetically sealed from my colleagues in the human disciplines however often I show up to the department’s coffee hour.
As Pratt describes it, Humboldt’s Platonic idealization was similarly dependent on the imperial project it left conveniently unspoken,
Despite the emphasis on primal nature, in all their explorations, Humboldt and Bonpland never once stepped beyond the boundaries of the Spanish colonial infrastructure–they couldn’t, for they relied entirely on the networks of villages, missions, outposts, haciendas, roadways, and colonial labor systems to sustain themselves and their project, for food, shelter, and the labor pool to guide them and transport their immense equipage. Even the canonical images of interior plains, snow-capped mountains, and dense jungles did not lie outside the history of humankind, or even the history of Euroimperialism. The inhabitants of the Venezuelan llanos and the Argentine pampas, however removed from colonial center, were about to be recruited as soldiers in the wars of independence. The jungle had been penetrated by the colonial mission system, whose influence extended far beyond the mircocosmic social orders of its outposts.
As we will learn in the posts to follow, this kind of structural maculopathy hampers the study of pathogens. Our difficulties in seeing the bugs stem from more than their microscopic size.