Humboldt's Personal narrative and its influence on Darwin

An introduction by Gordon Chancellor

Alexander von Humboldt's Personal narrative (1819-1829, 7 vols.) has been fully transcribed by Darwin Online and made available for electronic searching along with Darwin's works for the first time. Beagle voyage scholar Gordon Chancellor has contributed this important introduction to accompany the volumes. To search all of Humboldt's book go to Advanced search, replace Darwin's name (which appears by default) with 'Humboldt', add 'Personal narrative' in the Title field and then any desired text to search for in the Full text field. Push enter to search.

John van Wyhe

Henslow's parting gift

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) spent two years at Edinburgh University from 1825 to 1827, studying for a medical degree. Although the teenage Darwin showed some aptitude for doctoring the lectures bored him and he could not stand witnessing operations. He did not find it difficult to divert his attention from medicine to his real interest which, since childhood, was natural history.

Professors in Edinburgh provided the very latest teaching in all the sciences, including zoology and geology, for anyone willing to pay. Once Darwin had realised, half way through his medical course, that his father would leave him enough money for him never to have to work, he effectively lost all real motivation for his medical training and threw himself passionately into scientific studies. He pored over the specimens in the natural history museum, went on geological excursions, collected marine animals from the shores of the Firth of Forth and engaged in scientific debates with some of the brightest and most competitive young naturalists in Europe. Some of these men, notably Robert Grant, told Darwin how much they admired his paternal grandfather Erasmus, who had published evolutionary ideas in the 1790s when such ideas were extremely radical. While in Edinburgh Darwin also learnt taxidermy from a man called John Edmonstone who had explored the jungle of Dutch Guyana and that may have fired Darwin's zeal to go to South America himself.

Having abandoned medicine as a career in April 1827, the only other career his father could imagine for Charles was that of clergyman. Darwin took the rest of the year off to revise his Greek ready to go to Christ's College, Cambridge. Darwin came up at the beginning of 1828 to obtain a BA. He also indulged his passions for collecting beetles, hunting, riding, socialising, reading, visiting the continent and other pursuits of the country gentleman.

J. S. HenslowIt was in Cambridge that Charles met the man who fanned the flames of his scientific ambition. John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861), Professor of Botany, was perhaps the first man really to recognise Darwin's exceptional abilities (Walters and Stow 2009). It was Henslow who nurtured Darwin's passion for travel and natural history and inspired him to resume his study of geology, a subject Darwin much later claimed to have been put off by academic sniping between the lecturers in Edinburgh. Henslow encouraged Darwin to read Alexander von Humboldt's (1769-1859) account of his travels to the 'New World' which inspired Darwin to plan his own expedition to see sights such as the dragon tree of the Canary Islands. In fact Darwin became obsessed with the idea of this expedition and started to learn Spanish in readiness. In his Autobiography, written forty-five years later, he recalled that he 'copied out from Humboldt long passages about Tenerife, and read them aloud' to Henslow and other keen natural history students, on one of Henslow's field excursions. This incidentally indicates that Darwin did not, at this stage, have his own copy of Humboldt and was using a borrowed copy, perhaps Henslow's (a point observed by John van Wyhe). Darwin even went so far as to get 'an introduction to a merchant in London to enquire about ships' for his planned trip to the Canaries.

Henslow also taught Darwin botany and geology and in the summer of 1831 arranged for him, having taken his degree, to train under Professor Adam Sedgwick, already one of the world's leading geologists. Sedgwick at the time was engaged on a crucial geological research project on some of the oldest rocks of North Wales, rocks which appeared to contain the earliest fossil traces of ancient life. Darwin's geological fieldwork with Sedgwick was perfect training for what lay ahead. (See Barrett 1974)

Above all it was Henslow who, on being consulted by the Admiralty while Darwin was away on his field trip with Sedgwick, nominated Darwin as naturalist to Captain Robert FitzRoy's surveying voyage to South America in H.M.S. Beagle (1831-1836). Henslow regarded Darwin as the most promising young British naturalist of independent means and through Henslow's influence Darwin's father agreed to bankroll his son's place on the voyage, thus launching literally and metaphorically one of the greatest scientific careers in history. One can only imagine Darwin's excitement, no doubt mingled with some trepidation, when he realised that he was actually going to follow at least in some of Humboldt's footsteps and that he had at last found a useful outlet for his scientific passions. Sedgwick backed this up by recommending books for Darwin to take with him, including Humboldt which 'will at least show the right spirit with which a man should set to work' (Correspondence, vol. 1: 157).Henslow's inscription on the flyleaf of Humboldt's Personal narrative, from the Darwin Library.

Henslow's parting gift to Darwin when he set sail on the Beagle was a set of the seven volumes of Helen Maria Williams's English translation of Humboldt's Relation historique du voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent (published 1814-1825), which she called Humboldt's Personal narrative. The Personal narrative described roughly the first third of Humboldt's expedition from 1799 to 1804 to the 'New Continent' on which he was accompanied by the French botanist Aimé Bonpland. Its publication spanned two decades and the latest chapters did not appear until a generation after Humboldt and Bonpland had started their expedition. In the intervening period three key and interrelated changes had taken place: the Napoleonic wars had ended, transatlantic slavery had been abolished almost everywhere except Brazil, and South America had been liberated – often by bloody revolution - from European rule.

It is important to realise that when Henslow made his gift to Darwin the later volumes of the Personal narrative had only been published a few years earlier so that, although describing an expedition completed before Darwin was born, the book was in 1831 by no means an old one. Darwin's set is now bound at Cambridge University Library as six matching volumes (volumes 1 and 2 are bound together; see the photographs in Pearn 2009, half title and pp. 13, 32). Whoever bound Darwin's set as it is today trimmed some of Darwin's marginalia proving that the books must have had different bindings on the Beagle. Darwin's set is in wonderfully fresh condition with most if not all Humboldt's extraordinary maps and diagrams in an excellent state of preservation.

There is no absolute proof that Henslow gave Darwin all seven volumes since his inscription is only in the first volume. It is true that references to Humboldt in Darwin's Beagle Diary seem mainly to refer to volume 1 and to be in the first six months of the voyage. There are, however, several references in the Diary and Darwin's other voyage manuscripts to the later volumes of which the most conclusive is the quote from volume 3, p. 355 about the transparency of the atmosphere which Darwin gives in his Beagle Diary for 2 June 1832. Also, the fact that he asked his family at an early stage in the voyage to find out if an eighth volume had been published indicates that he had all seven on the Beagle. (However FitzRoy also had a set in the Beagle library.) There never was an eighth volume (see Correspondence, vol. 1: 258, 314).

Humboldt and his American expedition

Alexander von Humboldt, (detail) by Joseph Stieler, 1843Alexander von Humboldt was an aristocratic Prussian with enough money to self-finance his extravagantly-equipped expedition (Sponsel 2009, pp. 13-15). Humboldt was immensely influential and was widely regarded as the most famous 'natural philosopher' in the world at the time Darwin was on the Beagle. Humboldt was a friend of the Romantic poet, botanist and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and followed the philosopher Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) view of nature as a great web of interconnections. Humboldt's whole approach amounted to a giant interrelated system which he termed 'physique générale' and has been characterised by historians as 'Humboldtian Science' (Cannon 1978; Dettelbach 1996).

Humboldt had the benefit of an exceptional multi-disciplinary education and from an early age was enthusiastic about the natural sciences. His first scientific publications were on volcanic rocks and plants and his most important position before his expedition was as Councillor of Mines (1794-1796). In that role he became a first rate geologist and his deep knowledge of mining is reflected in many pages of the Personal narrative. His entire life was devoted to science and he published several major books after the Personal narrative, culminating in Kosmos (completed posthumously in 1862). This was subtitled 'a sketch of a physical description of the universe' and certainly demonstrated the vast range of Humboldt's contributions to knowledge. Darwin's copy of the English translation (re-titled Cosmos) is today at Down House (see Correspondence, vol. 2: 222). We know from his notebooks that Darwin re-read the Personal narrative in 1840 and read volume 1 of Cosmos in 1845 (Correspondence, vol. 4: 461, 470, and CUL-DAR119).

Humboldt was inspired to be a scientific explorer by Georg Forster (1754-94) who served on the Resolution as naturalist to Captain James Cook's (1728-1779) second voyage to the Pacific from 1772 to 1775. In 1790 Humboldt travelled to England with Forster who published an acclaimed account of their journey and this no doubt spurred Humboldt to go further. During the Napoleonic wars it was difficult to travel eastwards so Humboldt turned west and was extraordinarily fortunate to secure a passport from King Charles IV of Spain to enter the Spanish American possessions. This was at a time when foreign scientists were virtually banned from the Christianised 'New Continent', so when Humboldt's Personal narrative appeared it was read with amazement for its accounts of jungles and mountains which were largely unknown outside the Spanish speaking world. Even today seasoned globetrotters can expect to find something startling in the Personal narrative, such as Humboldt's extraordinary account of the cave dwelling oilbird, a creature which few readers will ever have heard of, let alone seen.

Map of Humboldt's travels from Wiki Commons

Humboldt's American expedition started in Spain in 1799, took in the Canaries and Venezuela, then Cuba (1800), Colombia (1801), Ecuador and Peru (1802), Mexico (1803), Cuba again (1804), then Philadelphia, where he was a guest of the great enlightenment President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), finally ending in Germany in 1805. Darwin's own travels on the other hand were almost entirely confined to the southern half of South America where Humboldt never went. In fact, the only place Darwin and Humboldt both visited was Lima in Peru and although Darwin would have known this the Personal narrative does not include Humboldt's Peruvian travels.

It seems that for some reason Humboldt ordered the volume of the Relation historique covering the years mid-1801 to 1804 to be destroyed and the English translation is similarly incomplete. Thus the Personal narrative covers Humboldt's travels as far as northern Colombia in May 1801 but not those in southern Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico or the United States. Parts of the rest of the expedition including Humboldt's record breaking attempt to climb Chimborazo in Ecuador (the highest volcano in the world and at that time thought to be the highest mountain in the world) were described by Humboldt in his Aspects of nature. This was published in French and German in 1808 and an English translation by Elizabeth Sabine appeared in 1849 which was read by Darwin in 1852 (Correspondence, vol. 4: 487, and CUL-DAR128). Other unpublished parts of the rest of the expedition have quite recently been published on the basis of his manuscript diaries (Faak 1986).

Humboldt's world view of one vast interconnected system, through which he drew three-dimensional lines tracing, for instance, rock formations, atmospheric and oceanic currents and ecological communities is probably the most impressive feature of his Personal narrative. The book is a rich store of facts, history and observations which Darwin and many other writers have been plundering for almost two centuries. While still a great travel story, it is perhaps too prolix for modern readers and the ratio of science to (somewhat tedious) history certainly shrinks in the later volumes. Nevertheless, few books can provide such an insight into a world divided between 'Old' or 'New' in a way very hard to appreciate today. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818 she had his 'creation' declare that he and his bride 'will go to the vast wilds of South America', a place as far from 'civilisation' as possible where they can do no harm. Those vast wilds were probably known to her from the Personal narrative.

Darwin's copy of the Personal narrative

The set of the Personal narrative on Darwin Online is composed of mostly the same editions as Darwin's set, although volume 3 is the first edition of 1818, not the 3rd as in Darwin's. (The correct edition of vol. 3 will be added when a copy can be procured.) It commences with a preface by Williams followed by an introduction by Humboldt. This introduction explains why and how Humboldt and Bonpland undertook their expedition and refers to the liberation of South America which took place after their return. It ends with a beautiful map of equatorial America.

Volume 1 continues with chapter 1 covering preparations for the expedition, the scientific instruments taken, the sailing from Corunna on the Pizarro and the landing in the Canaries in June 1799. The next chapter includes Humboldt's descriptions of the Canaries, including the fabled dragon tree Dracaena draco (Personal narrative, 1: 144-5):

We were assured, that these last were as little productive here as on the coasts of Cumana. Although we were acquainted, from the narratives of so many travellers, with the dragon-tree of the garden of Mr. Franqui, we were not the less struck with it's enormous magnitude. We were told, that the trunk of this tree, which is mentioned in several very ancient documents as marking the boundaries of a field, was as gigantic in the fifteenth century, as it is at the present moment. Its height appeared to us to be about 50 or 60 feet; its circumference near the roots is 45 feet. We could not measure higher, but Sir George Staunton found, that, 10 feet from the ground, the diameter of the trunk is still 12 English feet; which corresponds perfectly with the assertion of Borda, who found its mean circumference 33 feet 8 inches, French measure. The trunk is divided into a great number of branches, which rise in the form of a candelabrum, and are terminated by tufts of leaves, like the yucca which adorns the valley of Mexico. It is this division, which gives it a very different appearance from that of the palm-tree*. Among organised beings, this tree is undoubtedly, together with the adansonia or baobab of Senegal, one of the oldest inhabitants of our globe.

* I have given, in the Picturesque Atlas which accompanies this narrative, (Pl. 58 of the folio Atlas,) the figure of the dragon-tree of Franqui, from a sketch made in 1776 by M. D'Ozonne, at the time of the expedition of Messrs. de Borda and Varela.

The third chapter (in volume 2) takes the voyage across the Atlantic to Tobago and eventual landing at Cumana in Venezuela. The account of the ocean crossing includes the sad death from fever of a young man sent by his mother to find fortune in the New World, together with this empathetic paragraph concerning the night sky:

The pleasure we felt on discovering the Southern Cross was warmly shared by such of the crew as had lived in the colonies. In the solitude of the seas, we hail a star as a friend, from whom we have long been separated. Among the Portuguese and the Spaniards peculiar motives seem to increase this feeling; a religious sentiment attaches them to a constellation, the form of which recalls the sign of the faith planted by their ancestors in the deserts of the new world. (Personal narrative, 2, p. 21).

This passage was singled out by Darwin as he himself experienced the same pleasure of gazing at the same constellation, in his Beagle Diary entry for 26 March 1832.

Descriptions of Cumana and northern Venezuela continue into chapters 4 and 5 and there are Darwin marginalia on p. 225. There is a great deal of geology in these chapters and it is a surprise to find how often Humboldt digresses, especially in his footnotes, into quite detailed comparisons with European geology. He generally, however, eschews theoretical speculation. Take for example this last section of a long footnote on p. 263, volume 2 on salt deposits:

I flatter myself, that I may render some service to the small number of geologists, who prefer the knowledge of positive facts to speculation on the origin of things, in furnishing them with materials, from which they may generalize their ideas on the formation of the rocks in both hemispheres.

Darwin's notes are attached to the inside back cover of his copy of this and several of the other volumes.

Volume 3 commences with detailed accounts of northern Venezuela in chapters 6 and 7 including the oilbirds (Guácharos, Steatornis caripensis) referred to above (Personal narrative, 3: 125). Humboldt occasionally allowed himself a wistful reflection on the feelings of being a long way from home; there is a fine, if borderline purple example of this in volume 3, p. 90:

Nothing can be compared to the impression of majestic tranquillity, which the aspect of the firmament inspires in this solitary region. Following with the eye, at the entrance of the night, those meadows that bound the horizon, that plain covered with verdure, and gently undulated, we thought we saw from afar, as in the deserts of the Oronoko, the surface of the ocean supporting the starry vault of Heaven. The tree under which we were seated, the luminous insects flying in the air, the constellations that shone toward the south; every object seemed to tell us, that we were far from our native soil. If amid this exotic nature the bell of a cow, or the roaring of a bull, were heard from the depth of a valley, the remembrance of our country was awakened suddenly in the sound. They were like distant voices resounding from beyond the ocean, and with magical power transporting us from one hemisphere to the other. Strange mobility of the imagination of man, eternal source of our enjoyments, and our pains!

Chapter 8 covers New Andalusia and chapter 9 is a detailed account of the various tribes there, with discussion of the relationships of all the American aboriginal peoples. Chapter 10 discusses earthquakes and various meteorological phenomena and was probably very important to Darwin as it gave him numerous facts linking volcanoes and earthquakes in the Americas. Humboldt's lengthy discussion posed many questions about the stability of the Earth's crust and the origin of mountain ranges, subjects central to Darwin's own emerging research agenda.

Chapter 11 takes the reader to Caracas in November 1799, with chapters 12 and 13 in Caracas in early 1800, including the 'excursion to the summit of Silla' on which Humboldt made important observations concerning plant biogeography (see below). There are some beautiful maps and diagrams at the end of the volume.

Volume 4 commences with a chapter on earthquakes in Caracas and their relationship to volcanic eruptions in the West Indies and includes references to similar events which took place at least thirteen years after Humboldt was there. Chapters 15 to 17 cover the inland expedition across the Llanos (plains) from February to March 1800. There are many memorable passages in these chapters, such as the description of Indians using horses to catch the dangerous electric eel Electrophorus electricus (see Personal narrative, 4: 344-77). This expedition continues almost entirely on rivers from April to June through chapters 18 and 19 to the end of volume 4. Again there are notes by Darwin at the end of his copy of this volume.

The river expedition includes the Apure, the Orinoco and the Rio Negro and continues from chapter 20 to 22 in volume 5. These are long, dense chapters containing many discussions of a vast range of subjects and Darwin no doubt paused often to ponder on Humboldt's digressions, for example on plant geography. Chapters 23 and 24 deal with the Guiana Highlands, the Rio Negro, the Cassiquiare and the Upper Orinoco up to June 1800 and this continues into volume 6 up to his return to Cumana. Humboldt's objective on this expedition was to determine if and how the Orinoco was linked to the Amazon and in this he succeeded. He also wanted to unravel truth from fiction in the writings of earlier adventurers such as Raleigh and these later chapters are increasingly laden with his historical scholarship. There is a list of page numbers on the end papers of volume 5, which is the thickest volume with 850 pages. Darwin actually refers to his notes on this volume on p. 5a of his Despoblado notebook, dated no later than May 1836, proving that he had volume 5 during at least the later stages of his voyage (Chancellor and van Wyhe 2009).

Volume 6 has chapters 25 covering the last stages of the expedition in Venezuela before the departure for Cuba and 26 on the 'natural productions', people and trade of Venezuela and Colombia. The remainder of volume 6 is mainly taken up with Humboldt's 'sketch of a geognostic view of South America north of the River Amazon and east of the meridian of the Sierra Nevada de Merida'. This 'view' constitutes a major part of the Personal narrative and amounts to Humboldt's attempt at a systematic geological description of South America, largely on the basis of comparison with the geology of the rest of the world.

Volume 6 ends with chapter 27 which includes the passage to Havana. The final two chapters 28 and 29, in volume 7, are devoted to detailed accounts of Cuba and the end of the Narrative at Cartagena in what is now Colombia in March 1801. Writing in the late 1820s, Humboldt explained that his original plan of crossing the Pacific had to be abandoned which instead gave him the opportunity to travel overland via Bogotá and Quito to Lima, arriving in September 1802:

This change of direction gave me occasion to trace the map of the Rio Magdalena, to determine astronomically the position of eighty points, situated in the inlands, between Carthagena, Popayan, and the upper course of the river of the Amazons and Lima, to discover the error in the longitude of Quito, to collect several thousand new plants, and to observe on a vast scale the relations between the rocks of syenitic porphyry and trachyte with the fire of volcanoes. The result of those labors, of which it is not for me to appreciate the importance, have long since been published…..

He reflected on the explorers who came after him:

The narratives of voyages in America are now singularly multipled. Political events have led a great number of persons to those countries which have given themselves free institutions; and those travellers have perhaps too hastily published their journals on returning to Europe…These works, several of which are agreeable and instructive, have familiarized the nations of the Old World with those of Spanish America, from Buenos Ayres and Chili as far as Zacatecas and New Mexico.

Although he was not impressed with the opinions of some of them…

It is however to be regretted, that the want of a thorough knowledge of the Spanish language, and the little care taken to acquire the names of places, rivers, and tribes, have occasioned the most singular mistakes: and it is also afflicting (and the inhabitants of South America have above all to complain) that, in language without taste or dignity, the manners of the natives are described in the most unjust and disdainful terms. (volume 7, chapter 29, pp. 468-70)

At the end of this last volume there is a list in Darwin's hand of all pages in all volumes he thought were of special interest.

What was Darwin's response to Humboldt?

Darwin idolised Humboldt even before he left England, for his vivid descriptions of the volcanoes and vegetation of the Canaries and the jungles of South America. He seems to have had ready access at least to volume 1 of the Personal narrative in April 1831, as he speaks in a letter of coming home (i.e. to his rooms in College) to read it (Correspondence, vol. 1: 122; Armstrong 2004). Darwin copied out Humboldt's written account of Tenerife and this fuelled his plans for an expedition to the Islands. Obviously the Beagle opportunity had instantly 'knocked on the head' such plans, so it was an agonising moment for Darwin when Captain FitzRoy ordered the Beagle to head southwest while actually anchored off Tenerife. A cholera quarantine prevented the crew landing and FitzRoy was eager to reach American shores.

Darwin thought Humboldt peerless; on entering the forests of Brazil Darwin wrote that Humboldt 'alone gives any notion of the feelings which are raised in the mind on first entering the Tropics' (Correspondence, vol. 1: 237). The Personal narrative served Darwin as the model for his own Beagle diary, which with the addition of material from his scientific diaries became his published Journal of researches (1839). This in turn became the model for the narratives of the next generation of travelling naturalists such as Hooker, Bates and Wallace, the last two of whom actually explored parts of the jungles originally described by Humboldt. These intrepid men would have understood the extraordinary privations, ranging from serious diseases to injuries, almost continual plagues of biting insects and appalling food, suffered by Humboldt and Bonpland. Darwin wrote to Wallace in 1864 encouraging him to write up his Malay Archipelago travels, advising him that the format is 'a convenient vehicle for miscellaneous discussion' (Correspondence, vol. 12: 248).

There is an important point to be made about Humboldt's literary style. Jason Wilson's recent Penguin translation is 'plainer' than Helen Maria Williams's, though at least as engaging for modern readers. Wilson in his introduction shows that Humboldt's French was less flowery than early nineteenth century English readers, including Darwin and his family, were led to believe. This probably explains why Darwin's sister Caroline (1800-1888) warned him in a letter dated 28 October 1833 against trying in his Beagle diary to emulate his literary hero and to stick to his 'own simple straight forward & far more agreeable style' (Correspondence, vol. 1: 345).

Although Milton's Paradise Lost was the only book Darwin often had with him on his expeditions inland, Humboldt was perhaps the writer he most looked forward to communing with every time he stepped back onto the decks of the Beagle. Right at the start of the voyage, on New Year's Eve 1831, Darwin noted in his Beagle diary:

I spent a very pleasant afternoon lying on the sofa, either talking to the Captain or reading Humboldts glowing accounts of tropical scenery. — Nothing could be better adapted for cheering the heart of a sea-sick man.

Philip Sloan seems to agree, when he writes that Darwin's Beagle diary can be read as a sort of continual intellectual dialogue with Humboldt (Sloan 2009). One can imagine Darwin's envy when he found Humboldt's casual boast in chapter 11 that he was lucky never to have suffered from sea-sickness!

One can imagine Darwin's set of the Personal narrative sitting on the Beagle's poop cabin bookshelves throughout the almost five year voyage. It may have taken pride of place alongside the only book which had more direct influence on Darwin: Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology(1830-1833), the first volume of which was a present from Captain FitzRoy, who had his own set of Humboldt on board. Since Darwin spent two-thirds of the voyage working or lying down within arms' reach of these shelves he must surely have devoured every page of both books. This is strongly indicated by the numerous references to them in Darwin's voyage manuscripts and by the marginal scorings and notes in his Humboldt, although it is certain that most of, if not all, the marginalia are of post-voyage date (DiGregorio and Gill 1990; Correspondence, vol. 1: 120 note 2).

Humboldt and Lyell were both critically important to Darwin's development as a theoretical naturalist and it is fascinating to realise that the later volumes of the Personal narrative were written a few years after Humboldt and Lyell had actually met in 1823 (Wilson 1975). Lyell convinced Darwin at an early stage in the Beagle voyage that given enough time the geological forces observable today could explain the entire known geological record. Darwin, like most geologists including Humboldt, was less convinced by Lyell's claim that these forces have always operated at the same intensity.

There are strong parallels between Humboldt's accounts of his reactions to natural phenomena, such as his 'first' earthquake in November 1799 (volume 3, chapter 10, p. 320), and Darwin's descriptions of his own experience of similar phenomena such as the Chilean earthquake of February 1835. Humboldt also made some fundamental contributions to geology, largely based on his experiences in the Cordillera of South America, such as his emphasis on the parallelism over huge distances of structural features such as folding and cleavage, for which he used the term 'loxodromism' in volume 6, p. 100 (Herbert 2005, pp. 172-4). He also stressed that where geological systems displayed marked parallelism, for example in mountain ranges, the parallel systems were likely to be of similar dates of origin. He argued that volcanoes and earthquakes had common fundamental causes. Darwin was to take this idea much further in his great theoretical paper of 1840 (Darwin 1840).

Humboldt's geology was a little dated by Darwin's time, partly because Humboldt's first geological work was influenced by the Wernerian 'neptunist' tradition (Rudwick 2009). Abraham Werner, who in 1791 studied with Humboldt in Freiburg, believed that granite and other crystalline rocks had been precipitated under the sea, rather than formed by the cooling of molten rock (the Huttonian or 'vulcanist' tradition). By the time Humboldt was writing his later volumes he was, however, a committed 'vulcanist':

Being a disciple of the school of Freiberg, I could not but pause with satisfaction at the rock of Uinumane, to observe the same phenomena near the equator, which I had so often seen in the mountains of my own country. I confess, that the theory, which considers the veins as clefts filled from above with various substances, pleases me somewhat less now, than it did at that period; but these modes of intersection and driving aside, observed in the stony and metallic veins, do not the less merit the attention of travellers, as being one of the most general and constant of geological phenomena (volume 5, p. 401).

It is worth noting that the very rare case of 'dykes' of sediment which have filled fissures in underlying (i.e. older) rocks are to this day still referred to by geologists as 'neptunian dykes'. The word 'dyke' would, however, almost always today refer to igneous rocks injected into the country rock in a molten state from below. Darwin had himself been immersed in the neptunist/vulcanist debate while in Edinburgh where Robert Jameson had tried to convince the seventeen-year-old Darwin that dykes cutting lava at Salisbury Crags had been precipitated from the sea. Darwin's chemistry teacher Thomas Hope's view, on the other hand, that the dykes were injected from below in a molten state, fitted the facts far better in the young Darwin's view.

When the time came for Darwin to publish his own South American geological research, almost twenty years after his Edinburgh experiences, he was able to make mature use of Humboldt's geology. This applies especially to Humboldt's long 'geognostic view of South America' which is chapter 26 in volume 6, pp. 390-799. 'Geognosy' at this time was the science of the structural relations of the different rocks which were being described from around the world. Humboldt was one of the first to use the word 'formation' for such rock units, such as the Old Red Sandstone or the Chalk. Humboldt published a book owned by Darwin and thought to have been on the Beagle, the Essai géognostique surs le gisement des roches dans les deux hemisphères (1826). This book is closely linked to the 'geognostic view' in the Personal narrative and was the first systematic attempt to compare the rocks of the 'Old' and 'New' Worlds. It was described by Martin Rudwick as 'by any measure one of the most important geological works of its time'. Darwin referred to it in Volcanic islands and there is a photograph of his copy in Pearn 2009, p. 32. Herbert (2005, p. 375) points out that Darwin refers in his Beagle notes to the English translation of the Essai although there is no evidence that he owned a copy.

Darwin apparently did obtain a copy of the Humboldt's Political Essay on the kingdom of New Spain (1811) while in Buenos Ayres. Back in England in 1837 he made considerable use of the information concerning the mining of precious metals, detailed in the third volume of this book. The last twenty pages or so of his famous Red notebook, the first of the purely theoretical notebook series, are full of references to and quotes from it.

Darwin also had Humboldt's recently published Fragmens de geologie et de climatologie asiatiques of 1831. Judging from Darwin's inscription in the second volume, he obtained this book in Monte Video in November 1832; the same month he received the important second volume of Lyell's Principles, which had just been released (see Correspondence vol. 1: 258). Darwin made several references to the Fragmens in his geology notes, the most significant of which relates to his his view of the Pacific as an area of subsidence (Herbert 2005, chapter 7). In his note Darwin compares his theory that the elevation he had proved in America would be balanced by subsidence of the Pacific, with Humboldt's observation in the Fragmens that the rising mountains of eastern Asia seem to be balanced by subsidence across western Asia. Darwin's note occurs in his highly original 'Coral Islands' essay (CUL-DAR41.1-12, Stoddart 1962) which eventually became his first scientific monograph Coral reefs of 1842. (See Chancellor's introduction to Coral reefs)

[See some of Darwin's reading notes on Humboldt on Darwin Online:

Darwin, C. R. Humboldt, Personal narrative vol 6. Text & image CUL-DAR40.84

Darwin, C. R. Humboldt, `Superposition'. Text & image CUL-DAR41.73

Darwin, C. R. Humboldt, Personal narrative VII: 52. Text & image CUL-DAR42.100

Darwin, C. R. Humboldt, Personal narrative VI: 586, 25; Notebook RN pp 84, 105, 124. Text & image CUL-DAR42.117v

Darwin, C. R. Humboldt, Personal narrative IV: 384. Text & image CUL-DAR42.162

Darwin, C. R. and Emma Darwin. Humboldt, Personal narrative IV: 515-522, 416. Text & image CUL-DAR85.A72

Darwin, C. R. Humboldt, Personal narrative IV: 527. Text & image CUL-DAR189.130]

Did Darwin's theory of evolution owe anything to Humboldt?


Darwin did not specifically cite many of Humboldt's zoological or anthropological observations and it would be going too far to say he received any direct evolutionary ideas from Humboldt. The sheer range of references made by Darwin to information from Humboldt is, however, remarkable. There is no better way to attest this than by searching for "Humboldt" in Darwin's writings on Darwin Online; the more than 400 search results show resoundingly how important Humboldt was to Darwin throughout his scientific life. (See a search here)

There are many ways in which Humboldt's views on nature contributed more subtly to Darwin's emerging belief in descent with modification, as has been ably demonstrated by Egerton (1970, 2010). Humboldt's profound knowledge of three-dimensional plant biogeography – a science he practically invented – was fundamental to Darwin's emerging understanding of the origin and distribution of organisms. The Personal narrative is pervaded with this subject and many of Humboldt's discussions, such as his attempts to explain why Africa and South America were stocked with different plant families, would have challenged any young naturalist:

In the vegetable as well as in the animal kingdom, the causes of the distribution of the species are among the number of mysteries, which natural philosophy cannot reach. (volume 5, p. 180)

A sober view of Humboldt's importance as a source of evolutionary ideas must, however, acknowledge Darwin's assessment scribbled at the end of volume 6: 'Nothing respect to species theory', by which he probably meant his theory of natural selection. There are, however, some hints that Humboldt understood the interrelatedness of all life, as for example in his discussion of the 'milk' yielding 'cow-tree'. Finding this plant recalled to his mind 'all the powerfulness and the fecundity of nature' and demonstrated that the barriers between plants and animals were illusory:

I have described the sensations, which the cow-tree awakens in the mind of the traveller at the first view. In examining the physical properties of animal and vegetable products, science displays them as closely linked together; but it strips them of what is marvellous, and perhaps also of a part of their charms, of what excited our astonishment. Nothing appears isolated; the chemical principles, that were believed to be peculiar to animals, are found in plants; a common chain links together all organic nature. (volume. 4, p. 217).

In a lengthy footnote Humboldt extended this discussion to question whether fungi might also produce varieties of 'milk' and he even suggested links between mammalian milk and certain types of plant fluids.

Perhaps the most intriguing possible connection with Darwin's theorizing may be Humboldt's philosophical statement about 'the history of organic forms'. This is part of perhaps the most 'evolutionary' part of the Personal narrative and is a discussion of plant biogeography based on observations of the species and genera of plants found during the excursion to the Silla mountain near Caracas in volume 3. In this discussion Humboldt stresses that similar environments (for example on mountains in similar climate zones) tend to support closely related genera of plants, even when these environments are on different continents. He notes that the species are rarely, if ever, identical unless one can prove historical introduction by human agency. This causes him to speculate on the dispersal of 'organic beings' from their place of origin (he never uses the word 'creation' in this discussion):

This phenomenon is one of the most curious in the history of organic forms. I say the history; for in vain would reason forbid man to form hypotheses on the origin of things; he still goes on puzzling himself with insoluble problems relating to the distribution of beings......How can we conceive the migration of plants through regions now covered by the ocean? How have the germs of organic life, which resemble each other in their appearance, and even in their internal structure, unfolded themselves at unequal distances from the poles and from the surface of the seas, wherever places so distant present any analogy of temperature? (volume 3, p. 491, see also Wilson 1995, p. 138 for an abridged and slightly different translation)

When considering Humboldt's influence on Darwin's intellectual development we should recall that the Prussian's career trajectory spanned the schism between the German Naturphilosophie in which he was educated and the French functionalism championed in extreme form by Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). Cuvier taught that organic structures developed primarily in response to the 'conditions of existence', so that dogs and cats have similar teeth mainly because they eat meat, not because they are closely related. Humboldt's view that there was something linking all life to a grand plan was far more sympathetic to the views of Etienne Geoffroy St Hilaire (1772-1844). Geoffroy believed, much to Cuvier's disgust, that there are powerful underlying reasons why, for example, the human hand is built to the same plan as a bat's wing. Of course it was Darwin who first explained convincingly that the 'plan' was actually descent with modification, or evolution.


Humboldt's book is peppered with anthropomorphic descriptions of the behaviour of monkeys and he often mentioned his disgust at the Indian's love of eating them, implying that he understood their close relationship to humans. He seems to have believed in the consanguinity (i.e. common inheritance) of all races and this may have made its mark on Darwin:

It is civilization only, that has made man feel the unity of the human race; which has revealed to him, as we may say, the ties of consanguinity, by which he is linked to beings, to whose language and manners he is a stranger. (volume 7, p. 442)

Humboldt's detailed documentation of the various interrelated peoples and languages of South America must have deeply impressed the young Darwin as he himself encountered the natives of that continent at first hand. Humboldt's hatred of slavery may also have contributed to Darwin's conviction that all mankind was one species which had migrated and diverged as it spread into new territories. Erasmus Darwin had speculated on these matters and Humboldt clearly believed that humans were a single species, by no means a universally accepted view at that time.

Humboldt's account of a man who breast fed his son (volume 3, chapter 6, p. 46) may have caused Darwin to wonder why men have nipples. This was a subject Darwin treated, albeit without mentioning Humboldt, in Descent of man as one of the proofs that humans had evolved. Humboldt compiled abundant evidence that the different races of man shared a common physiology, manifested for example in their identical responses to insect bites.

Humboldt stressed the power of tiny insects to influence human civilisation. There is a massive section in chapter 20 on the influence of biting insects on the industriousness of people living in different environments and he ends the chapter with a reflection on how termites can destroy paper archives, this influencing the spread of civilisation. This idea of tiny organisms changing the face of the Earth was a constant in Darwin's view of nature, though he chose to exalt corals, barnacles and earthworms.


Probably in the second week of September 1838, Darwin wrote the following in his transmutation Notebook D, p. 79: "seeing what Von Buch (Humboldt) G St Hilaire, & Lamarck have written I pretend to no originality of idea….." This note was written eighteen months after Darwin became a committed evolutionist but just before he read Malthus on or around 28 September and discovered the mechanism of natural selection.

As is well known, during those weeks Darwin was avidly studying the laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith, with its central idea that competition leads to improvement. In his voracious reading at that time he also chanced upon a forceful statement of the superfecundity principle in a study of sex ratios by Adolphe Quetelet. When he then read Thomas Malthus's Essay on the principle of population (1826) 'for amusement', as Darwin put it in his Autobiography in 1876, he was therefore well prepared to understand how the struggle for existence could lead to the modification of a species.

Malthus in particular stressed how populations are only checked from unsustainable growth at a geometrical ratio by continual checks such as famine, disease or predation. Humboldt in his Personal narrative had speculated that the only reason for the large numbers of chiguires (i.e. capybaras, Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) on the Orinoco, in the face of massive predation by jaguars and crocodiles, was their prodigious rate of breeding (volume 4, chapter 18, p. 426). This may have prepared Darwin in a small way for his Malthusian insight of September 1838. This idea is supported by Darwin's amazing pencil note in the margins of Humboldt's discussion of jaguars around p. 590 of volume 5 of the Personal narrative:

To show how animals prey on each other - what a 'positive' check. Think of death only in Terrestrial vertebrates - smaller carnivora - Hawks. What hourly carnage in the magnificently calm picture of Tropical forests. Let him from some pinnacle [view] one of these Tropical [forests] how peaceful and full of life. Probably two or three hundred thousand jaguars in S America. What slaughter & as many pumas.

There are obvious echoes of this note in a famous entry in Notebook D (p. 135) and this can be followed through all of Darwin's writings on natural selection. So the quintessential Darwinian view of an apparently peaceful and harmonious natural economy actually being a merciless struggle for life can be traced, at least in part, to a pencilled comment on Humboldt's calculation of jaguar populations.

Is it too fanciful to wonder whether the following passage from volume 4, pp. 505-6 finds an echo in the last paragraph of the Origin?

How vivid is the impression produced by the calm of nature, at noon, in these burning climates! The beasts of the forest retire to the thickets; the birds hide themselves beneath the foliage of the trees, or in the crevices of the rocks. Yet, amid this apparent silence, when we lend an attentive ear to the most feeble sounds transmitted by the air, we hear a dull vibration, a continual murmur, a hum of insects, that fill, if we may use the expression, all the lower strata of the air. Nothing is better fitted to make man feel the extent and power of organic life. Myriads of insects creep upon the soil, and flutter round the plants parched by the ardour of the Sun. A confused noise issues from every bush, from the decayed trunks of trees, from the clefts of the rock, and from the ground undermined by the lizards, millepedes, and cecilias. There are so many voices proclaiming to us, that all nature breathes; and that, under a thousand different forms, life is diffused throughout the cracked and dusty soil, as well as in the bosom of the waters, and in the air that circulates around us.

What did Darwin think of Humboldt in later years?

In the 1840s Darwin asked his best friend Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) to tell Humboldt that his (Darwin's) 'whole course of life' was due to having 'read & re-read as a Youth' Humboldt's Personal narrative (Correspondence, vol. 3: 140). The tables were turned somewhat when Darwin sent Humboldt a copy of Journal of researches in 1839. The venerated naturalist wrote Darwin an extraordinarily long letter of appreciation (in French; see Correspondence, vol. 2: 218 and English translation at Correspondence, vol. 2: 425) but when Darwin actually met Humboldt in 1842 he was disappointed by the old man's frailties.

In 1865 Darwin wrote to Wallace "I have always thought that Journals of this nature [i.e. travel books] do considerable good by advancing the taste for Natural history; I know in my own case that nothing ever stimulated my zeal so much as reading Humboldt's Personal Narrative".

As an aged man himself, on 6 August 1881, Darwin wrote the following eulogy of Humboldt in a letter to Hooker:

I believe that you are fully right in calling Humboldt the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived. I have lately read two or three volumes again. His Geology is funny stuff; but that merely means that he was not in advance of his age. I should say he was wonderful, more for his near approach to omniscience than for originality. Whether or not his position as a scientific man is as eminent as we think, you might truly call him the parent of a grand progeny of scientific travellers, who, taken together, have done much for science. (Life and Letters 3: 247)

...and a week later on 12 August 1881:

I think that I must have expressed myself badly about Humboldt. I should have said that he was more remarkable for his astounding knowledge than for originality. I have always looked at him as, in fact, the founder of the geographical distribution of organisms. (More Letters 2: 26)

Ironically Darwin's Origin of species appeared in the same year as Humboldt's death (1859) and from that time onwards Darwin has rather eclipsed Humboldt as the great South American traveller scientist, at least in the Anglophone world. In truth both men were giants of scientific exploration whose works were fundamental contributions to our understanding of the natural world.

There is no better proof of how Darwin treasured his Personal narrative to the end of his life than his ink note written inside the back cover of volume 3 of his own copy: "July 6 1881 to p. 417 – April 3rd 1882 finished". So the book given to Darwin by Henslow half a century before must have been one of the last Darwin ever read, or in this case re-read. He was too ill in the following weeks to do much else. Darwin died on 19 April 1882.

Gordon Chancellor

March 2011

[Editor's note. See also: Barlow, N. ed. 1967. Darwin and Henslow. The growth of an idea. Text Click to see illustrations;
The Humboldt Digital Library
and the well-illustrated pages on Humboldt at The academy of natural sciences]


Bibliographical appendix

The Personal narrative was originally published as the Relation historique, comprising the last three of the lavish 30 volumes of Humboldt's Voyage aux régions équinoxiales…(completed 1834). The Williams translation appeared in various editions over a fifteen year period from 1814 to 1829.

In 1851 Thomasina Ross published a 'new' three volume edition of the Personal narrative which appeared in Bohn's Scientific Library and later in 'Sir John Lubbock's Hundred Books' series. According to Jason Wilson, Ross's edition is little more than a 'corrective translation' of Williams's but there are some significant omissions, such as the section on mud volcanoes at the end of volume 3, and the Ross edition has no maps or illustrations. Ross also has some chapters not present as separate chapters in Darwin's set (her chapter 25 which covers a range of subjects such as El Dorado and 31 on Cuba and the slave trade) and the 'Geognostic Description' is moved to the end of her translation. There are also footnotes in Ross (e.g. volume 2, p.165 citing a discovery of 1830 and p. 447 referring to work on Indian poisons published after Humboldt's book) not present in Williams.

Wilson's excellent new abridged translation (with an introduction) was published in 1995 by Penguin. His edition also benefits from a historical introduction by Malcolm Nicolson.

The details of Darwin's set of Humboldt, now in Cambridge University Library are as follows:
Humboldt, Alexander von and Bonpland, Aimé. 1819-29. Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of the New Continent during the years 1799-1804. Helen Maria Williams, trans. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown: vols. 1 and 2, 3rd. (1822, in one binding); vol. 3, 3d ed. (1822), vol. 4, 1st ed. (1819), vol. 5, 1st ed. (1821), vol. 6, 1st ed. (1826), vol. 7, 1st ed. (1829); Inscribed in vol. 1 by Henslow: 'J.S. Henslow to his friend C. Darwin on his departure from England upon a voyage round the World 21 Septr 1831'. This mixing of editions is normal with the Williams translation as it was published when books were often printed with cheap covers rebound by purchasers in various combinations of volumes in bindings of their choice.

(Links to the full text of Humboldt available on Darwin Online:
Vols. 1&2 Text Vol. 3 Text Vol. 4 Text Vol. 5 I Text, II Text, Vol. 6 I Text, II Text Vol. 7 Text)


Armstrong, Patrick. 2004. Darwin's other islands. London. Continuum.
Chancellor, G. and J. van Wyhe eds. 2009. Charles Darwin's notebooks from the voyage of the Beagle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cannon, S. F. 1978. Science in culture: The early Victorian period. New York: Science History Publications.
DiGregorio, Mario A. assisted by Nick Gill. 1990. Charles Darwin's marginalia. New York: Garland.
Egerton, Frank N. 1970. Humboldt, Darwin and population. Journal of the History of Biology 3: 325-360.
Egerton, Frank N. 2010. History of Ecological Sciences, Part 37: Charles Darwin's voyage on the Beagle. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 91: 398-431.
Faak, Margot. 1986. Alexander von Humboldt: Reise auf dem Rio Magdalena, durch die Anden und Mexico. Berlin.
Herbert, Sandra. 2005. Charles Darwin, geologist. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Pearn, Alison ed. 2009. A voyage around the world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rudwick, Martin J. S. 2009. Worlds before Adam. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Sloan, Philip R. 2009. The making of a philosophical naturalist. in Hodge and Radick eds. The Cambridge companion to Darwin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 21-43.
Walters, S. M. and Stow, E. A. 2009: Darwin's mentor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wilson, Jason. 1995. Alexander von Humboldt: personal narrative of a journey to the equinoctial regions of the new continent. Abridged and translated with an introduction by Jason Wilson; historical introduction by Malcolm Nicolson. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Wilson, Leonard G. 1975: Charles Lyell. The years to 1841: the revolution in geology. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Humboldt books owned by Darwin

Humboldt, Alexander von and Bonpland, Aimé. 1819-29. Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of the New Continent during the years 1799-1804. Helen Maria Williams, trans. London: Longman, hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown. [Darwin Library, CUL and on Beagle; vols. 1 and 2 (1822, in one binding); vol. 3, 3d ed. (1822), vol. 4, 1st ed. (1819), vol. 5, 1st ed. (1821), vol. 6, 1st ed. (1826), vol. 7, 1st ed. (1829); Inscribed in vol. 1: "J. S. Henslow to his friend C. Darwin on his departure from England upon a voyage round the World 21 Septr 1831"]
Vols. 1&2 Text Vol. 3 Text Vol. 4 Text Vol. 5 I Text, II Text, Vol. 6 I Text, II Text Vol. 7 Text

Humboldt, Alexander von. 1811. Political essay on the kingdom of New Spain. 2 vols. John Black, trans. New York: I. Riley. [Darwin Library, CUL, on Beagle, Inscribed in both volumes: 'Chas Darwin Buenos Ayres']

Humboldt, Alexander von. 1826. Essai géognostique sur le gisement des roches dans les deux hémisphères. 2d ed. Paris & Strasbourg: F. G. Levrault. [Darwin Library, CUL, on Beagle]

Humboldt, Alexander von. 1831. Fragmens de géologie et de climatologie asiatiques. Paris: Gide, A. Phian Delaforest, Delaunay. [Darwin Library, CUL, on Beagle, Signed in both vols., vol. 2 'Chas Darwin Monte Video Novem: 1832']

Humboldt, Alexander von. 1846. Cosmos. trans by E. Sabine 2 vols., trans. London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans. [Darwin Library, Down]

RN7 Edited by John van Wyhe.


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