The 19th Century saw many transformations: the origins of ecology and modern climatology, new unifying theories of the living world, the first Big Science projects, revolutions in the Spanish colonies, new information systems for the storage and representation of data… Many of these can be traced back to the influence of one singular explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt was one of the last true polymathic individuals in whom the sum of human knowledge could be seated. As the known world grew, he leaned increasingly upon the work and minds of his collaborators — a kind of human bridge between the age of solitary pioneers before him and the age of international, interdisciplinary research he helped usher into being.
Reflecting on his life, we natives of the new millennium, living through another phase transition in the information architecture of society, have much to learn about the challenges of weaving everything together into one holistic understanding. After all, when everything’s connected, our individuality is cast in doubt, truth is often hard to separate from politics and ethics — and maverick explorers find themselves caught in between incumbent power and the burden of responsibility to act on what they learn...
Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.
This week we conclude a special two-part conversation with SFI Miller Scholar Andrea Wulf, author of six books — including the New York Times Bestseller The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. In this episode we build on our explorations in Part One and talk about the conflicts between truth and power, politics and science; the surprising unintended consequences of discovery; Humboldt’s influence on illustrator Ernst Haeckel’s development of the idea that nature is an art form; the role of embodiment in innovation, discovery, and creativity; and the effects of nature and the built environment on human thought.
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Related Reading & Listening:
Complexity 17: Chris Kempes on The Physical Constraints on Life & Evolution
Complexity 20: Albert Kao on Animal Sociality & Collective Computation
Complexity 31: Exponentials, Economics, and Ecology
Conflicts of interest improve collective computation of adaptive social structures
Brush, Krakauer, Flack
Complex Systems Science Allows Us To See New Paths Forward
COVID-19 lockdowns provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study wildlife in empty cities
American higher education must think outside the academy in a post-pandemic world
Cognition All The Way Down
Mentioned in this episode:
Alfred Russel Wallace
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Louis Comfort Tiffany
Andrea Wulf (0s): When he went to South America, one of the very first things he saw was a slave market. And he said that site has turned me into lifelong abolitionist and he writes about it very openly. There's permission off that Spanish King to travel through South America and repays him by very publicly criticizing Spanish rule there. As he travels through South America, he sees how the indigenous tribes are treated. He sees what missionaries are doing, how they treat the indigenous people so terribly. He sees slavery there.
He sees how the land and the people are exploited and he writes about it. He never quite dares to tell Jefferson in his face, but everybody else in DC gets homeboy's like, why is this? This is not right, because he looks at the human race as part of nature. So there is no better or worse, no inferior or superior. And he at some stage says something like nature is this realm of liberty. And he applies that also to the human races.
Michael Garfield (1m 24s): The 19th century saw many transformations, the origins of ecology and modern climatology, new unifying theories, the living world, the first big science projects, revolutions in the Spanish colonies, new information systems for the storage and representation of data. Many of these can be traced back to the influence of one singular explorer, Alexander Von Humboldt. Humboldt was one of the last true polymathic individuals in whom the sum of human knowledge could be seated.
As the known world grew he leaned increasingly upon the work and minds of his collaborators, a kind of human bridge between the age of solitary pioneers before him and the age of international interdisciplinary research he helped usher into being. Reflecting on his life we natives of the new millennium, living through another phase, transition in the information architecture of society have much to learn about the challenges of weaving everything together into one holistic understanding.
After all, when everything's connected, our individuality is cast in doubt. Truth is often hard to separate from politics and ethics and maverick explorers find themselves caught in between incumbent power and the burden of responsibility to act on what they learn. Welcome to Complexity, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I'm your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week, we'll bring you with us for far ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers, developing new frameworks, to explain the mysteries of the universe. This week, we conclude a special two-part conversation with SFI Miller scholar, Andrea Wulf, author of six books, including the New York times best seller, The Invention of Nature, Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World.
In this episode, we build on our explorations in part one and talk about the conflicts between truth and power politics and science, the surprising unintended consequences of discovery, Humboldt's influence on scientific illustrator earns tackles development of the idea that nature is an art form, the role of embodiment in innovation, discovery and creativity and the effects of nature and the built environment on human thought. If you value our research and communication efforts, please subscribe to complexity podcast, wherever you prefer to listen, rate and review us at applepodcasts and/or consider making a donation at santafe.edu/give.
You can find numerous other ways to engage with us at Santafe.edu/engage. Thank you for listening.
Andrea Wulf (4m 4s): If you think about like today, it's so difficult to be interdisciplinary, as in one person, because everybody has to be so specialized. So instead of a Humboldt, we have to have groups of people, which I think this is the amazing thing about the Institute, because you have these people together and then, you get people, they even invite people like me, historians, who are not scientists, because there is some cross-fertilization going on between all of this. And you never, you just never know about the serendipity of sitting next to someone at, at lunch talking about something you have absolutely no idea. Sometimes you also don't understand the word really, but then you kind of ask and you ask more and then someone will explain it to you. And then it's almost like these little tentacles was go into another discipline. And through that, it's like a little cheap. You collect, suck up a little bit of that knowledge and just have to have lots of enough of those tentacles to hold it all together I think. Someone will know something enough to feed the next person to get a little bit of that discipline.
Michael Garfield (5m 8s): It's funny that you speak this way because this really does get back to again where we started with thinking about the world, not as a machine, but as an organism. And so thinking about the scientific process, not as a machine, but as an organism, it almost looks like when I spoke with Chris Kempes on the show back in, I think episode 17, we were talking about the transition from unicellular life into multicellular life and how it's an information scaling thing. There comes a point when the cell becomes so big that it literally just can't copy all of its DNA in time to reproduce.
That's like one of several different pressures that seem to produce these more narrowly specialized cells that become differentiated tissues and so on. And that sounds exactly like what you described in the movement from generalists to specialists. And then into, as that system scales, you get more and more intermediaries. There's specialists that are now specializing in translation, carry the blood cells.
Andrea Wulf (6m 14s): Exactly. Then suddenly the communication becomes essential. Doesn't it? Because otherwise you have all these specialists, but no one can communicate with each other. I'm always amazed because when I think about who you interview, so you need to be able to think yourself into so many different topics to even ask these questions. Sometimes I just don't understand something. It's so far away from me. That's actually even hard to think of a question and to dig deeper. So you must have quite a kind of polymathic mind to be able to interview all these different people.
Michael Garfield (6m 50s): There is something about having that time to wander in one's youth, I think. To bring this back around to specific SFI research, David Krakauer and Jessica Flack and Albert Kao have worked on stalemates and conflicts of interest. If it takes longer for a system to arrive at an answer, to perform a computation than it arrives at a better answer than if it settles on an answer prematurely, there are ways in which this kind of thinking can be applied to situations like Humboldt's early life, where he didn't have to decide what he was doing or where he was going to be.
He wasn't pinned into a particular set of tasks. He was able to just wander and explore. And like you said, pivot to be out there in the field and on a lark, just go in a different direction and allow that kind of inspiration to guide him in the development of his associations and his maps.
Andrea Wulf (7m 53s): That's how to be a wealthy Prussian aristocrat. Doesn't it?
Michael Garfield (7m 56s): Exactly. And that's ultimately, when you talk about the etymological relationship between scholarship and leisure, there is a sense in which the university system was intended for this. It was intended to give people a space within which they could explore the world of knowledge in this way, and not merely as a preparation for pre-specified careers to bring this into contemporary situation and to ask about the future of education.
You know, our director of education, Carrie Cowan has spoken about how the future seems like it's going to be more accommodating to a plurality of paths to normalize the gap year so that people can go climb a mountain and have an epiphany before they settle into their desk life. I think there's something to that.
Andrea Wulf (8m 47s): I'm a great believer in very zig-zaggy routes to you in your careers. My career was never set to be out like this. There was point when a lot of people said to me,” oh, you're going to be a writer.” This is just a really bad jobs choice. And then, there were years when it was, but it was the right decision. If I look at my schooling and I think a lot of people have experienced as well. I think one of the big issues, one of the big problems in our education system, at least in the UK and also in Germany, I don't know how it is in the U. S. but I think as symbolize that very early on, you get put into this box of arts or science.
You are either rational, logical, or you're creative and artistic. So I was put into the creative artistic box very early on because I'm not very good with numbers. So I was not very good in all the science subjects. And I'm pretty sure that my science teacher would turn in their graves if they knew that, for example, I wonder Royal Society Science Book Prize. How dare she write about the history of science? She does not have a clue about science. And I will say that I was told wrongly.
I have actually, by now understood a lot of science. I was just taught wrongly. I need to be led into these complicated issues through a story. I got interested in the history of science through the story of these people. So I'm a people's person. I need this hooked on a person. And then you can take me down these labyrinthian difficult, difficult routes. It's the same with when I'm doing philosophy now like Hagle, well, it's difficult, but I'm going along with it because there's a reason for it.
And so I think one of the problems we have is that in our education system, we already tell children that you have to decide very, very early on. Now, how can you decide as a six-year-old or as a 16-year-old, what you're going to do? Why do I have to decide to do either this or that? And if you look back there, it's a very recent distinction. Look at someone like Goethe, for example, a whole lot of Leonardo da Vinci, you know, all these people never had to make a decision between the arts and the sciences. And I think if the education system changes and it allows us these gap years where you can wander where you can think, then I think it's all the better.
I know a lot of people in my generation who were much more straightforward in their careers, then knew exactly what they are going to do. They studies, they had that job. Now in their fifties they're deeply unhappy, quite a lot of them because they've basically powered themselves out. There's nothing left. Well, I have the feeling that I'm just starting. There's so many other things I want to write about. And frankly, I'm going to write until the pen falls out of my fingers, or I fall off the chair when I'm that old. So it's that sense of finding really the thing, having the privilege.
Let's just also say that having the privilege to find what you really want to do, and that makes you happy. That's incredible. And I think Humboldt was lucky in that sense too. He found what he wanted to do like in his mother died early enough, so he could afford doing this journey, but it's also grabbing them what you have and doing something with it and taking the risks. He took a lot of risks. He could have had a very comfortable life as a Prussian aristocrat. He risked his life almost every single day on this exploration.
Michael Garfield (12m 14s): So I want to get into that because there's another dimension in the sense that fellow Miller scholar, John Kaag talks about the Aristotelian golden meme in some of his writing. When I think about that, finding the thresholds and the balance points, I mean, this is something that complex systems science is rather preoccupied with finding sweet spots and critical transitions. There is carrying it too far. You can take maybe a gap year, but if you were to take a gap decade, the path that you cut through the world might be too tangled for you to properly ever return to society.
You talk about this in the book and it's fascinating. Upon returning from South America, Humboldt just did not fit in, in his homeland anymore. He only felt if he's not out in the wilderness exploring, he's really only at home in Paris where there's this boiling intellectual activity, lots of international Congress of ideas. From that point forward, most of his aspirations were foiled or frustrated or complicated in some way, by the political milieu into which she had to reintegrate.
And ultimately really couldn't his service to pressure and royalty is being part of it, his conflict with the east India tea company in British colonial operations. But then also in his early life, he was able to travel on his own dime through South America. And then as he gets older, he wants to go east into Russia. He has to go at the expense of desire and he's like escaping. He's like deviating from the agenda to go off on his own exploration, courting disaster.
The more he let the wilderness into him, the more he became a creature of the world and rather not so much a creature of the street level world that his family and everyone else was occupying. The more conflict he found himself in all of these, it seems like this political intrigue going on around him.
Andrea Wulf (14m 17s): I think it's actually Humboldt, very strange. He can be quite diplomatic. And I think his entire life is this balancing act between what he wants to do and what he can do. So he's a visionary, he's a really kind of quite revolutionary, but he still acts within the accepted norm, not entirely all the time, but within that. As he traveled through South America, for example, he is definitely more flexible than if he'd be on a big government expedition, but he still has to get permissions from the local governors from the Viceroys.
First of all, he has to get the permission from the Spanish king. As he goes along, he has a passport that gets stamped. So he has to negotiate the kind of the local rulers in order to do stuff. And he's very good at that because he's quite diplomatic and he’s quite charming. And then later it becomes even more difficult on that trip to Russia, because he's really watched by the Czar officials. So he deviates from the route, he does his kind of detours, but again and again, in his life, he has that problem. And then it really becomes very obvious in 1848, which is the time of the German revolutions and where there is a moment he's the premier counselor to the Prussian king.
But at the same time, he's outspoken. He's written a lot about the South American Bolivar’s revolution. He is a great fan of the American revolution of the French Revolution. So he’s really a child of the revolutionary age. So his political ideas are with the revolutionaries. One day, he stands at the back of the balcony behind the Prussian King, as the Prussian King is addressing the revolutionaries in 1848.
And the next day he's marching in the first row of the funeral to the fallen revolutionaries. A lot of people who criticize him for that, that he's someone who says like, “oh, homeboy,” you know, always he's a Republican who was like one foot in the enter chamber of the king. So they see that this is problematic, but until he dies, he's basically trying to act within that constraint of society because I think you is that there's no other option, really.
So he is a revolutionary, but he doesn't like the mop. He doesn't like bloody revolutions. He still like some older and control. The bloodshed that happens then later on in South America. And then when Bolivar declared himself dictator, that is something where Humboldt is very critical about. He admires the American revolution, but at the same time, he's a lifelong abolitionists. So when he is older and he has all these young American scientists visiting him in Berlin, he asks every single one about what's going on.
Why do you still have slavery again and again, because, and he says, so when he went to South America, one of the very first things he saw was a slave market. And he said that side has made me turn me into lifelong abolitionist. And he writes about it very openly. In his books there's permission off the Spanish King to travel through south America and repays him, repays the cake by very publicly criticizing Spanish rule there. As he travels through South America, he sees how the indigenous tribes are treated.
He sees what missionaries are doing, how they really treat the indigenous people so terribly. He sees how slavery there. He sees how the land and the people I exploited. And he writes about it. He never quite dares to tell Jefferson in his face, but everybody else in DC gets home, was like, you know, why is this? This is not right, because they're no superior racist. He says, because he looks at the human race as part of nature. So there is no better or worse, no inferior or superior.
And he at some stage says something like nature is this realm of liberty. And he applies that also to the human races.
Michael Garfield (18m 27s): This is on display time and time again in great scientists and philosophers, this tension between natural law and human law, biting the hand that feeds you. You get government funded research or government approved research. And then my loyalty is to the truth. You paint such a rich portrait of how his ecology informed his ethics. I'm glad we got here because it's not just slavery. It's also local food production and subsistence farming versus cash crops, anti-deforestation, critical of dams, generally an anti-colonialist thinker.
It's funny because I see in Humboldt's work something kind of like what we saw with Albert Einstein, where his ideas end up accidentally creating this horror, this emancipatory philosophy that he espouses, like you said, the revolutionaries in Prussia, that he can point to a different way of seeing things, but he doesn't lead people through it bloodlessly. And you see the same thing with like Einstein sort of pivoting into like anti-nuclear oversight and all of this stuff.
It's like an attempt to mop up, knock on effects of his problem child.
Andrea Wulf (19m 50s): There's one extraordinary example where, because he's a scientist he's interested in a lot of different things. He was a mining inspector in his youth in Germany, and he inspects minds as he travels through Mexico. And there's this terrible thing that happens where basically speculators later use his information to speculate in Mexican silver, and he's appalled by it. And then there's this other thing where he brings back someone from Peru and the European scientists realized that this is a great fertilizer, which then results in, first of all, the Peruvian farmers don't have it anymore who just used a little bit of it. And it just destroys an entire ecosystem and hormone kind of regrets these things very much so because he's in search of truth. But I think because he's such a system thinker, he also understands these connections. I mean, we haven't really talked about this, but one of the reasons why I wrote this book, because really the forgotten father of environmentalism, and that was my starting point with all of this, because that's what speaks to my soul. Why have we destroyed this planet so much? So, and as a historian, I want to know where's this all coming from or who tried to help already before?
So Humboldt as he traveled through South America, because he sees these connections to nature actually sees how humankind is destroying nature. So there's this historian a moment at Lake Valencia, which is in today's Venezuela, which was this very rich agricultural region. And he sees how deforestation has completely destroyed this area. And as he's there, he understands. And he's the very first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem, without using the word ecosystem, because the term actually was then coined by Ernst Haeckel later on inspired by Humboldt.
But he understands that trees enriched the atmosphere that they store water, that they protect against soil erosion. He starts to speak out against monoculture, irrigation, deforestation, because he understands what the long-term effect is of that that is so extraordinary and that it actually predicts harmful human induced climate change, which is just insane if you think about it. He couldn't know the effect of CO2, but he talks about the effect of the steam that comes out of industrial centers, for example.
So he is someone who understands this when he travels through South America. He sees what happened when trees are taken away from river banks, how that destroys the river. He sees how missionaries collect X of turtles at the Orinoco, which they used to oil off the turtle eggs for their lambs and how then the locals tell him that every year there are less and less turtle eggs, because of course the missionaries just take what they want.
So he develops this ecological understanding, which I would also argue helps and is informed by his very close contact with indigenous people. So his idea of earth as a living organism is something that comes out of Yana. But I think it is something that's then confirmed and pushed in even harder direction through the contact he has with the indigenous people. He travels with a very small team, so that sometimes only two or three people with him. They're his guides.
And he, again and again, talks about how they are the best observers of nature, the best geographers, because he relies on their knowledge. So I think that living organism that everything hangs together, that's partly the kind of German nature philosophy, and partly the indigenous knowledge he encounters in South America.
Michael Garfield (23m 34s): That's perfect because that brings us right to the hail Mary pass. I wanted to throw here, which is this work about this seminal historic figure, a visionary, a pioneer, an innovator is also about the development of a way of seeing the world and of being in the world that in part undermines that kind of great man narrative structure. You do a great job of, of explaining this in the chapter on Charles Darwin and the way that Darwin was influenced by not only by Humboldt, but by the enormous body of thinking on the transmutation of species that existed at that time and his own grandfather, Erasmus, Darwin, Lamarck all these other people really just the way that we currently seem to like to tell these stories, again, this gets back to like the narrative compression of information is someone was sitting at their desk and had a great idea.
Really all the pieces were there already, which is why you get that code discovery. It just as a side note, you get the co-discovery of natural selection by Alfred Russel Wallace. It's interesting. When you talk about the privilege that Humboldt had and his ability to take the time to develop his ideas. Wallace was like blue collar specimen collector working in the South Pacific, who did not have the family backing the wealth and the luxury, the leisure to develop these ideas, except on the side.
There's something about, ultimately, even though this is a story about a deeply important, in many ways under- appreciated, at least in the United States individual it's also a story about the communal enterprise of discovery and how none of these people really were capable of doing this on their own. And we completely leave out the indigenous piece of this in so many accounts of scientific discovery. I'm glad you brought that up.
Andrea Wulf (25m 36s): So I think there are several things. One weirdly, no one quite believes me, but this is for me is not biography of Alexander Humboldt. IT’s a biography of an idea. That's why the book is called the invention of nature, which of course he didn't invent. And that's why I have eight chapters in there about the people who were influenced by Humboldt, because I was interested in how do these ideas travel through history? Humboldt did a lot of things that he never finished. For example, all his ideas about environmentalism. He never became an activist. It's then people like John Muir or George Perkins Marsh, who kind of pick up these ideas and follow it through.
For me, I'm really glad that you brought this up because it's something that a lot of people don't actually understand. This is not a biography about this great white man at all. This is a biography about an idea and also about how this came from so many different people, because Humboldt, one of the reasons I would argue that he's not famous anymore today is because there's not one big discovery attached to his name. It didn't come up with a theory of evolution. He didn't discover a planet or natural law. And none of this stuff he comes up with is plucked out of the nothingness.
Everything is floating around. What he is doing is he's putting a lot of stuff together that's floating around. He sees a lot of things on his travels that other people who sit in their kind of little study, don't see. So he can actually put these things together. And he's a great communicator. These ideas are there. So for example, shelling with his idea of nature philosophy in the unity, but is Humboldt who takes that and then applies it to science and to nature and explains it in a way in his bestselling books, that it reaches a huge audience and talking about like the army of people who's helping him because he relies on that.
And he always talks about it. And it's the same with indigenous people. The big problem we have as historians is that we have very, very little documentation about this, which is one of the reasons I think why they get a smaller place than they should have, because even people like Humboldt, don't think they're important enough to kind of write about. So when you look at his very lavish books, there's engravings in his landscape engravings, he draws them.
So, they are not devoid of them. He writes about them a bit in his diaries for us to really properly write about them. Not enough. There's a very long section, for example, in his diary where he describes the production of Curare poison and where he describes how the shaman does it. And it goes on for pages and pages, because he's absolutely fascinated by it. He's interested in, you must try. You know, he's like all these things he wants to, he wants to experience, he wants to learn.
And the, in the indigenous people are his, are his guides. There's one scene where one of them, they can distinguish 15 different types of trees by eating the bark. And of course Humboldt has to kind of try it and is it all tastes the same. How can they do that? There's a lot of that. So for me, this is why the title is not Alexandra Von Humboldt’s life, but the title is the invention of nature.
Michael Garfield (28m 51s): It feels like the perfect time to get into some of that last piece of your book on the impact of his ideas and his work broadly. We've already touched on Darwin, but I do want to make sure that we get to Ernst Haeckel because Haeckel as perhaps the sort of err scientific illustrator holotypic individual, aside from, like you said, coining the word ecosystem is also deeply influential in ways that are kind of largely invisible or subterranean to people in terms of his influence on the way that we think about this stuff.
I want to toss it over to you, but just briefly after saying earlier, when you were talking about extending a tentacle or out between one mind and another mind in this multicellular knowledge project. This reminds me of a documentary that was made about Haeckel’s life Proteus in which they situate his work on the descriptions and illustrations of deep sea and vertebrates that political and economic context that created that, which was, we were trying to lay that telegraph cable across the Atlantic in order to communicate stock prices between New York and London, they kept breaking the cable and having to dredge it back up and finding out that our beliefs about the ocean floor were completely wrong.
We thought it was this frozen wasteland and it was fall of life. And these cables were in crusted with things that is where this documentary Proteus puts that threshold moment, where they start to articulate Haeckel’s development of nature itself as an art form, as an artwork, as a product of a kind of mathematical cosmic intelligence. This is again like here there be tigers. As far as this being a conversation about complex systems science. Multi-scale thinking this deepening revelation of the living world as an organism does tend to lend itself to this lofty thinking that results not only in gorgeous architecture, like you show by his illustrations, that beginnings of what we might think of now is sort of like biomimicry in architecture, but also lends itself to this understanding of humanity as participating in a mentation greater than our own.
Andrea Wulf (31m 10s): I can't remember the last time someone asked me about Ernst Haeckel is so weird. It's one of the chapters I never really get asked about. You just suddenly kind of brought me back to it because I loved writing that chapter. And I loved writing the research because it was so rich and so different. I think he's an extraordinary scientist who believe it or not was also in Yena, but it just much later. So there's something going on in that little one there, but I mean, he's much much later there. He's this young scientist who was completely obsessed with humbled and reads his books.
And he has like a humbled portray in his study and on Humboldt’s birthday, like a wreath rounded it, is forced by his parents to become a doctor and he hated, it kind of basically eventually ends up studying marine organisms. And he has that incredible talent, which I've talked to quite a lot of people about it, which is, seems to be very, very rare that he could look in the microscope with one eye and the other eye could be on the paper so he could draw, which when you look at his incredible paintings, you understand that it's not possible, can't be possible otherwise, but there are so stunningly beautiful.
And I think he was, again, someone who makes sense of nature with a pen in his hands. He needs to draw it, to actually understand it. He draws these incredible tiny, tiny marine organisms, which he can only see through a microscope, publishes them as these large, beautiful colored plates. It's like a magazine which comes out in several parts and people love it. It becomes something very important. I think that's what interested me also very much is becomes an inspiration for artists, for architects, for furniture designers.
So Tiffany, for example, Louis Tiffany is obsessed with him. And a lot of his lambs and jewelry is kind of inspired by that this kind of the kind of quality of these organisms. There's something so beautiful and alive in it. So art nouveau is inspired by these tentacles, by these curvaceous, by this kind of these shapes from nature. And, and this is at a time when the machine age takes over.
So we feel this loss, this, this connection to nature. Haeckel provides them through a science with something that becomes part of a very different aspect of life. And that great moment when at one of the, and I forgot which year it is because it's like seven years ago that I did the research for that. But in one of those Paris expositions, the gate was a French architect kind of created and people could work through it.
It was like a single cell organism just kind of blown up and people were absolutely enthralled by it because they had never seen anything like it. For Haeckel give really becomes a believer in monoideism. So he sees that there's this one divine force in everything that God has kind of everything is one because he's internalized this idea of the living organism and interesting, Humboldt for example, is someone who never writes about God or religion. So he kind of think in his very diplomatic way keeps out of it.
I think Humboldt was an atheist. You know, he believes in a life force, but not in a divine force where Haeckel believes in the divine. There's another aspect to that.
Michael Garfield (34m 44s): I love there's a section prior to this, where you talk about Humboldt describing the germination, blooming foliage, fecundity, fading, withering, and corruption of stars, which is again like a gesture towards, you talk again and again, how he's decentering human exceptionalism in this network, ecological worldview, and this is a Copernican move, right? It's moving us sort of off to the side to participate in a much greater thing. And he's doing that in time there too.
And so again, this rings with me into ways. I feel like SFI attracts a lot of weird people, not just people here on campus, not the people doing the research, but tilting a spear after really profound questions tends to invite a lot of usually adorable lunacy. And one of them, I would say, honey traps for that kind of thing is in this conversation around the collective computation of societies, the notion of all of human civilization, as like a giant single superorganism having its own thoughts that are ineffable to us. Whether you want to talk about God or not, it does still reach out into, you know, the point where you can, as Haeckel did talk about Koons foreman, art forms in nature.
I mean, this is so confused now because people are so polarized and touchy around the difference between evolution by blind forces of natural selection and random mutation and the idea of intelligent design. But then you get people like Michael Levin, who came and spoke here recently, Tufts developmental biologists, collaborator of SFI, external professor, Daniel Dennett, who's working on stuff that seems positively 19th century like the role of electromagnetic fields in governing the development of organisms, like the regeneration of limbs and the coordination of tissues and being able to use fields to shape the ontogeny. Dennett and Levin just wrote this fabulous piece for Ayaan a couple months ago about cognition all the way down.
The idea that we're not just talking about thinking brains, we're talking about thinking cells. I've heard our president, David Krakauer talk about a kind of complex systems panpsychism that you can accept once you think of cognition as a property of adaptive matter, rather than something that is like locked up in one given scale or one given substrate.
Andrea Wulf (37m 26s): That's why I'm totally obsessed with that Merlin Sheldrake book Entangled Life, because that's exactly what he's talking about. Once you leave, you're kind of preconceived categorie,s suddenly everything's just open up and he's also one of those scientists who says you need to use imagination because you need to leave these categories behind to understand there's a whole, now it's become accepted knowledge of world wide web. But when they started out with that, everybody's thought those early scientists were completely mad.
Trees are communicating with each other. It's just kind of mad. And I think when you started looking about fungal systems, then it just goes, there's a whole other world of there. And we just have to open our minds. And someone like Humboldt was someone who just very open to anything, any possibility. You just let your mind roam. And very often there's a dead end, but then you just start again and start again, rather than going on that, that one motorway you have. That's why I think zigzagging is so good because only when you get off and go one, but, and down one of those kinds of dead ends, you will find like this path that leads you somewhere else.
Michael Garfield (38m 38s): I feel like the place to bring this down for a landing is in embodiment of understanding and knowledge and cognition. You just mentioned thinking with a pen in your hand. I consider what we're doing here a form of kind of like termite collaborative mound building. We're creating a conceptual object that emerges somehow from between us, but we're just sitting here throughout the entire record of great scientific discovery. You hear, “oh, I was going for a walk.”
And you talk about Wordsworth and Coleridge is walking poets. And I think that just for those who have been sitting at a desk, listening to us for this whole conversation, this seems like a good place to invoke the movement of the body as a cognitive act as like a part of the process of, of discovery. And I'd just love to hear you wax on that for a bit.
Andrea Wulf (39m 32s): Humboldt would always say, “I don't want to be one of those geologists who judged the creation of the earth by looking at the local hill.” One thing is to kind of get out and see and feel. I give you an example for me to do my research for this book I think might be an example for this, why I really believe that you have to put your body out there. So it became pretty clear pretty early on for me that I will not be able to write this book if I've not actually seen some of these landscapes. What I thought I need to see them in order to describe them to make sense of them, whereas what kind of more intellectually almost, but then actually it turned out that was a much more visceral experience, much more physical.
For example, going up to Chimborazo for me was, and it sounds maybe a little bit esoteric, but what I'd done is like I read the diary beforehand and then I decided, you know, these are the points I need to see. And then I took the transcriptions of those parts of Humboldt’s journey with me. So when I went to the Orinoco or to Chimborazo, then I would kind of reach wherever I needed to go and then read what he had read. So it was this very strange intellectual and physical experience where I really felt I was coming closer to him than if I'd not done that because his diary made so much more sense by breathing thin air.
Once you are at 16,500 feet, your brain just doesn't work quite as well anymore. And then reading something and then you suddenly realize what he did. For example, paddling down the Orinoco was I had never been to the rainforest and I was so excited to go to the rainforest and it was kind of exciting for a day. And then I suddenly realized because I'm not a botanist. I’m not a biologist, it's just a big green wall. It doesn't, you know, nothing made sense. And there was none of that overview and you would just attack by mosquitoes the whole time.
So it's something that comes up and in my writing, because I suddenly realized that homework and almost every single diary entry, he writes the mosquitoes. So the mosquitoes featured in the book, which probably would have not featured if I'd not been with my body in that place. Sometimes I have a writer's block when I go for a walk and I think, “oh, well maybe now something's going to come.” And nothing's going to. It's only, I mean, for me, it happens when I, when I put my hands on the soil and I garden, then it happens more. Sometimes weeks later, there's never an epiphany where I like, oh, I need to run inside and write this paragraph.
But I do think that physicality and intellect belong together because in a way our thinking is in our body somehow, also, so is connected. So it is completely logical that that should happen in effect. And it's very strange in this pandemic, for example. This is a book, you know, the last 14 months, I basically sat on this chair, writing this book and it turned out that this is a book, the new book is a book about the self and weirdly I've written it in this very enclosed just with myself way.
So I don't know if that has an effect on the writing of the book. I don't know, but it kind of feels like the pandemic had happened while I was riding the Humboldt, but we would have been an absolute disaster because I was out in the world for years, traveling across the South America and America. And this has been very much physically also what it is intellectually, just about, you know, the world through the prison of my mind.
Michael Garfield (43m 6s): Well, I mean, there's a reason that churches have tall ceilings, right? The influence of the built environment on our thought processes is real, which is why when you talk about this, you talk about throw in this and Walden, you bring this up also in relation to Haeckel and his talk about urban flight from the polluted European cities of the latter 19th century, people just being desperate to get out. I remember in high school, I was given a creative writing assignment on the transcendentalists to just go out and sit behind my house.
And I remember sitting there in like a, kind of a wooded area and just being annoyed by the sounds of car traffic and airplanes flying overhead until it clicked for me, which is unity of the human and the natural world. And so like, that's a kind of a revelation that can only happen when we are living in the wake of these discoveries and their consequences when the natural world inspires architecture and design and brings some kind of warmth and organic quality into the environments that we have created for ourselves after hundreds of years of pushing all that stuff out and seeking this like orderly regulated linear kind of world space around us.
So it's just in a way it's hopeful to urban planning and sustainable design and all of this as a consequence, ultimately of the impact that all of these people that you've written about have had on society, bringing nature, as we now think of it back into cities in a way, because we understand having trees improves academic outcomes. People in treeless neighborhoods are dying from mental disorders from not being surrounded by nature. In a way where we're stuck.
Things are going to look very different. Moving forward the world has integrated some of Humboldt's world we've taken up enough of it to start asking ourselves questions about what it means to be able to have that kind of indigenous appreciation for the systems in which we exist without having to leave the city.
Andrea Wulf (45m 23s): One of the things is I've always thought that it's quite important. It's not just about going into the wilderness and that's very much white privilege. You can go and spend a lovely time in a national park or go up the Andes or something like that. Very few people. So in order to make this world better, we have to bring nature also into cities like cities have to be livable. That's incredibly important. And sometimes I have a problem with this whole kind of wilderness obsession. I think what is very, very important to actually set aside quite a lot of wilderness so that we kind of keep our biodiversity, but not for us to go and visit, but just to leave it undisturbed. For me when the pandemic started, the thing that kept me sane, I mean, I've always written about nature.
I've written about gardens and everything. I've never had a garden. I've never had a kind of like vegetable garden. So I got stuck in Germany and I created out of nothing, basically only using recycled material, which I could find that in the neighborhood, like on the neighboring estate here, I built like a really big, big vegetable garden. And that kept me sane. So saying that I don't know where I would have been otherwise because there was something and we were so lucky about the weather here and like this year where it's terrible this spring, but you know, you put these shriveled seeds into the soil and it's such a cliche and there's a reason why it's a cliche because it works because there's something that does, it happens to you and you put a seed and then you grow your spinach, you eat it.
And it's just so satisfying. For me, that's a human right. Every single human has, should have the right and access to nature in one way or another. It's incredibly important for our sanity. Because if you think about it, our imagination was full 10,000 generations ago in nature. It's in our DNA. We need to be connected to nature.
Michael Garfield (47m 19s): And not just a pandemic potted plant obsession.
Andrea Wulf (47m 22s): Hang a little bit more. So I'd like to think that we are in this now and it's terrible, but I think we are also all incredibly tired about it. And there needs to be a sense of not everything that happens now can be determined by having lived through a pandemic in a day. There is something else, also something actually much more important climate change. And we really need to tackle that. We can't just forget that. That's the bit I'm really depressed about, but that is only going to work. I think if we make, keep people care about nature, so otherwise it's going to work.
Michael Garfield (47m 55s): Well, this has been a total blast. I'm deeply grateful that we managed to finally get it together. I'm sorry. It took so long, like a year and a half.
Andrea Wulf (48m 4s): Because it was before we could because of the pandemic.
Michael Garfield (48m 8s): I remember asking you in person on campus, if we could do this.
Andrea Wulf (48m 12s): Well, I hope I can come back. I should be back next week.
Michael Garfield (48m 17s): Then we can have a conversation about fierce individualism. Thank you so much for being on. Thank you so much. Thank you for listening. Complexity is produced by the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit hub for complex systems science located in the high desert of New Mexico. For more information, including transcripts research links and educational resources, or to support our science and communication efforts.