March 28th, 2004
Recently I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Thomas Dunlap, who teaches History at Texas A&M University. Dr. Dunlap is the author of several books and articles, including Nature and the English Diaspora. His forthcoming work, Faith in Nature, describes the environmental movement as the ultimate commitment. Our interview focused on the life of Alexander von Humboldt, the great naturalist who explored much of Central and South America from 1800-1804. However, our discussion also touched upon a variety of subjects including natural history, and the future of the environmental movement.When Charles Darwin embarked on his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands aboard The Beagle, he took along only three works to read- the Bible, Milton, and the writings of Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt has been somewhat lost to history, but his influence on modern natural history, ecology, geography, and taxonomy cannot be overstated. Darwin revered him; even Thomas Jefferson, who entertained Humboldt during a 6 week stop-over following the completion of his expedition, called him an “intellectual giant”, and was an enthusiastic correspondent throughout the rest of their lives.In October of 2003 I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Thomas Dunlap, Professor of History at Texas A&M University. Our conversation focused on von Homboldt and his legacy for future generations of scientists, but also touched on environmental policy and other topics. Dr. Dunlap is the author of three books, DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy; Saving America’s Wildlife; and Nature and the English Diaspora. The author of numerous articles and book chapters, Dr. Dunlap has also served as Chairman of the Forest History Society. His forthcoming book is Faith in Nature, due out in March of 2004, from The University of Washington Press.
Neil Brien: Tell me a little about yourself, what you teach, and maybe how you got interested in natural history.
Dr. Thomas Dunlap: Oh, good heavens! Well, I grew up in the country. I was just one of those kids who grew up in the country; I was bussed to school. I was out in.. well, in high school we literally lived out in the woods about four miles in northern New Hampshire in what was then regarded as “summer people” country. I was going to be a chemist like my father. Eventually I got sort of straightened around…
NB: Straightened around? (laughter)
TD: Well, I started thinking about what I wanted to do for a living, as it were… and after I got drafted I spent two years in the army, got out, came back to school and asked the professor I knew before I got drafted, “do you remember me?” He said yes, and so I told him that I was in history now, and asked him what he thought I should do my Master’s thesis on. And he said that given my background in chemistry, a history of DDT would be a natural. Now, this was 1970. So I started on that, and that’s where I started getting interested in things like our whole attitude towards nature because it seemed that DDT was an ideal vehicle for talking about how Americans deal with nature, how science changes our ideas about nature, etc. And I had a wonderful time doing that. I moved on from there to writing a book about wildlife policy, and then Nature and the English Diaspora, and now I’ve got another one that’s coming out with the University of Washington Press called Faith in Nature, and it will be out in March or April, and it’s about environmentalism as the ultimate commitment. That is, the way people see their commitment to the environment as part of their description of how they see themselves as human beings, and their relation to the world, and how people therefore ought to live. It’s… it’s exactly William James’ definition of religion, a sense that there is something beyond us; that our happiness lies in adjusting ourselves to that power, or rather to that world, as it were. And that’s basically what happened- one thing led to another, and luckily I’ve been able to combine my interest as a child with my interest in nature, and… well, I watch birds.. and with, you know, my professional work. And I’ve been able to take advantage of my scientific background.
NB: What were some of the influences that got you interested in natural history? What were some of the characters that drew you to the subject?
TD: Well, it started out with two things: a) just living in the country, and b) all the nature books that were lying around in the public library, books like Thornton W. Burgess’ Tales of the Big Woods. And that’s really what I started with when I was in about second grade. I would get these natural history books out of the library about topics like.. the classification of fishes. And when I was in grade school I read all of the old romantic nature writers of the 1890′s like Charles Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seaton.. the same ones that people like Loren Eiseley and Aldo Leopold had been reading a generation before. Because I was out in the country we had attic sweepings in the public libraries. I wasn’t really forward, or current on this stuff- I think I was 16 before I read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. But I just read everything in natural history I could find, which isn’t saying much. I read everything I could get my hands on that had print on it including the cereal box. So, I had much more of an interest before I even knew that natural history was a science, or was a kind of standard discipline.
NB: Reading about Humboldt, he was certainly influenced by the whole German enlightenment, especially Kant’s writings about the unification of all science.. how everything is related to everything else, which was a radical idea at the time..
NB: Was he perhaps the first true ecologist, or at least one of the first true ecologists? He made observations while he was in the Andes, came up with the whole theory of “stratification” for example…
TD: Oh yes- and it was an enormously influential theory.. I mean, there’s the enlightenment idea about the unification of knowledge. But there was also, and this is the thing that really drove a whole generation of people, the idea of natural history, that is that now it is possible for us to catalog every living thing in the world and understand all of them. It was often linked to natural theology, the idea of somehow understanding God by understanding the world. It was also the idea that if we could.. just put all of this together, we could actually see what was going on. And with Humboldt, it was the further idea that once we knew the particulars, then we would know the generalities. If you knew the butterfly and the mountain, then you would know how the two related to each other… you would understand the true sense of the world. Humboldt had that sort of glittering vision, which was quite influential. But his big influence on people was the fact that he went out and spent five years in South America.. I mean everybody from Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, John Muir, all wanted to go out and collect in the Tropics. And they explicitly wanted to go out and collect in the Tropics because they read Humboldt. Humboldt sets himself not only as an intellectual figure, but as a very romantic, emotional, and active figure. Humboldt becomes for the 19th century the ideal of the scientific explorer, and indeed it’s a combination of intellect and romance that I think really accounts for much of Humboldt’s long-term influence on several generations of people.
NB: Why is he not better known today? I mean, everyone knows who Darwin is.. everyone knows about the voyage of the Beagle…
NB: With Darwin you mention his name, and you either get a smile, or you get a scowl. But anytime you mention the name Humboldt, you get “Oh yeah- Humboldt County”..
NB: Or the Humboldt Current…
TD: Or it’s the Humboldt Sink.. his disciples put his name all over the world. But you’re right; it’s surprising because Humboldt at the time was extremely well-known, and his theories were quite influential. He did develop the idea of stratification, which shows up in the life zone theories and in the biological surveys which then go on to influence the ecological classification of North America in the 20th century. In the 1850′s, Humboldt’s theories were the basis for Frederick Church’s landscape paintings. Things like the Heart of the Andes (1859) were explicitly designed to show Humboldtian bio-geography.. you know, the whole picture is the tropics at the bottom, right up to the Arctic at the top (of the picture). And Church had prepared, in fact, to ship the painting over to Germany so Humboldt.. so “The Master” could approve it. Unfortunately Humboldt died by then, but there you have the whole thing from landscape geography to actual, what we think of as “hard science.” Humboldt had an incredible influence. And you’re right, he did essentially “drop out”.. part of the problem was that Humboldt never wrote a single, clear work that “stamped” his theories as the statement of his influence in the public mind. He wrote Kosmos which was designed to unify everything, but it was huge, it was diffuse, it had all sorts of things in it, and he had no single monument. Darwin wrote The Origin, and quite aside from anything that Darwin wrote, that in itself would have made a serious reputation, because everyone remembers The Origin. But there’s no single idea closely associated with Humboldt today that seizes the public imagination. He did drop out of the public interest and the public view fairly soon after his death.
He’s not an attractive figure in the modern intellectual world. He’s faded down to people talking about him as a mere influence, and he didn’t have a life that left behind traces… the adventure that he undertook really doesn’t resonate today, and seems to appear to people today as too conventional; he went out and discovered things, and measured them. Well, we know about both of those. I mean, Darwin is the key romantic figure; here’s a man wrestling with this enormous intellectual problem. He doesn’t go anywhere adventurous so to speak, but he has embarked upon this really perilous intellectual voyage, which Humboldt never does. That’s why I think Humboldt doesn’t attract, because we’re not interested in the sort of intellectual problems he faced, and the sort of character that would do that sort of thing.
NB: I read a letter that Louis Agassiz, a famous Humboldt disciple, had written in which he sadly commented that even in the 1840′s, he understood that 100 years hence, he thought that few would remember Humboldt. And he attributed it to the fact that at the time of the Enlightenment, the “Renaissance Man” concept was still in full force. You had not yet seen the sectionalization of knowledge, and that really didn’t start to change until towards the end of Humboldt’s lifetime. It seemed to me that Agassiz felt that Humboldt had not advanced a single theory, but had rather advanced a dozen or more theories.
TD: Well, there’s something to that, but Darwin himself was a classic naturalist, and Darwinian evolution comes straight out of natural history which was supplanted by the 1880′s.. I don’t think it was so much the education or the specialization, as it was the lack of an idea that would serve the next generation as a scientific focus, and indeed the great project that Humboldt would be identified with, that is the classification of everything on earth and exploring the world, as far as visible organisms were concerned, was pretty well over by the 1890′s. And in a sense, Humboldt is a figure from the Enlightenment. Darwin was a figure from the Enlightenment, but he was also a figure from the next generation which involves not just discovering and classifying organisms, but relating them to one another. And in a real sense, Darwin picked a problem that occupied people. Whereas Humboldt had something that, along with the next few years, people saw as a great project, died with the 19th century. He wasn’t so much a person of his own time, but he did suffer from the fact that science became specialized, that science and the humanities was splitting, whereas his major goal was to unify them. And you’re just at the point where it began to diverge into what we came to see as two cultures. But he was trying to run the opposite way. His reputation may get rediscovered, and I think to some extent it has been. There have been some appreciations of Humboldt, by Stephen Jay Gould for example, comes to mind. But to some extent it will need to be the result of some new intellectual current.
NB: At the beginning of his travel narrative he writes, “In a few hours we sail round Cape Finisterre. I shall collect plants and fossils and make astronomic observations. But that’s not the main purpose of my expedition – I shall try to find out how the forces of nature interact upon one another and how the geographic environment influences plant and animal life. In other words, I must find out about the unity of nature.” Is that the whole theme of 19th century natural philosophy?
TD: Not really. At the time most of what was done was on the particulars.. Let’s put it this way- Linnaeus develops the basis for classification… In one sense, Humboldt is one of those followers. He literally sends people out and says, “Go and collect in the far corners of the world.” And some of them died from disease out there. They became the original martyrs of science. And Humboldt himself was doing exactly that. He was in essence from that older generation. But the unity of science, he wants to do it by measurement. And in that sense he moves forward into science. One of the hidden legacies of Humboldt is that you see the beginning of serious quantitative studies of natural history. He was one of the first people to pay serious attention to bringing along instruments that will accurately measure things, and recording observations, and continuing to record observations, and keeping his instruments in good repair. He wasn’t satisfied with a collection here or a collection there. He measured everything. And if you look at the list of instruments that he took along with him, it’s just incredible.
NB: I thought we might spend a few minutes talking about the expedition itself, and how they physically did this. He catalogs at least 40 different instruments they took along, and one of them, if I remember correctly, was a two-inch sextant?
NB: Another was designed to measure the gravity of seawater.. I mean as far as the journey itself, if he hadn’t been introduced to the Spanish court, it probably wouldn’t have happened..
TD: Oh no…
NB: But as far as the journey itself, how did one go about planning such a journey?
TD: From a physical point of view, it relied very heavily on horses and servants. You simply have got to get someone to pack all this stuff and carry it, and then get it into the canoes. But it also involved an enormous amount of physical attention by the people involved. That is, Humboldt couldn’t simply allow people to pack these things; he’s got to keep watch on these things. He’s got to make sure they’re packed correctly and watch them closely. He’s got to keep them in good operative order and calibrated correctly. In effect, he spends a great deal of time watching over the instruments, far more than ever really shows up in the narrative. In the narrative, it sometimes appears that they’re moving along at a leisurely pace, and in some ways it certainly is true; they spend a few months here or there, they go to a mission and spend some time, but part of it is that they’ve got to transport all this stuff…which takes time, and then he’s got to be around to make all of these observations. What’s also missing from the personal narrative is the repetitious nature of the work that must be done to collect all these observations. You know, he talks about climbing and so forth, but he’s also making observations as he goes up.. notes, observations, etc. He created a catalog really, of bits and pieces of data that, when put together, will describe what nature is like. It’s that great little intellectual dream. One of the things about the unification of knowledge, and E.O. Wilson has in fact explicitly revised and committed himself to it in Consilience, is related to this very point. It’s in fact a modern recurring dream; people want it. But in the 19th century it dropped out. Everybody wanted to collect all the particulars. We were going to understand nature by dividing up everything into little bits and pieces. And Wilson really ratifies that by in effect saying, well, now we’re ready to continue the project. Now we know enough about socio-biology that we can do this sort of thing. Which was by implication was that the Enlightenment figures of the 19th century could not. They carried it as far as they could. Then we had to wait for 200 years of science, a particular kind of science so to speak, before we could begin the great Reunification project.
NB: What does the reunification project mean for the environmentalism movement?
TD: I don’t think there’s any way to see it as a single line of influence. Environmentalism as a movement is built upon the idea that we are all part of the world, and that we’re all connected to it, and that everything we do has consequences. We can’t throw things away, because there’s nowhere to throw everything away to- everything we do, we are all part of the world. We can’t take bits and pieces. And that really depends upon ecology, the idea of interconnectedness, and food chains, and trophic levels, and all these other things which in effect give a scientific backing, and a scientific picture of the romantic intuition that human beings are part of nature. And until something else emerges.. I mean Wilson has an idea of unifying knowledge, but socio-biology hasn’t proven to be, shall we say, the “spark” everybody wants. It’s come under serious attack, it has its own intellectual limitations.. it may be the thing that transforms the movement, but I really wouldn’t bet on it.
NB: E.O. Wilson, he’s sort of known primarily as “the ant guy”…
NB: He has a firm belief in the unification of all living things, and in The Diversity of Life, he’s sitting there in the African bush listening to the buzz saws, and these two worlds are going to collide, and it’s going to be awful… I remember a story I heard once about John Sununu speaking with Wilson about species extinction, and Sununu trying to get Wilson to say that it’s “OK to lose a few (species)”. Apparently Wilson was firm in his counter-argument, and supposedly Sununu said, “Well, I guess the devil is in the details.” To which Wilson replied, “No- it’s God that is in the details.”
Has this attitude changed at all? It seems that environmental policy has taken a beating lately. In terms of the movement, if you had to drive a stake in the ground, where are the winds right now as far as political change?
TD: Well, as far as political winds, it’s all running against the environmental movement. The Bush administration is by far the most radical anti-environmentalist administration we’ve seen… it’s far worse than James Watt under Ronald Reagan. And it clearly has an enormous amount of support from Bush’s backers. On the other hand there’s still, and this continues to be true, a shift within the public. That is, people do accept a lot of things. They accept that 40 years ago would have been completely strange in terms of context. Reality has in fact driven many of these things. If you read Ecotopia, for example, which was written in 1974, it has these utopian ideas about recycling. Well, those utopian ideas can now be found within American cities. There’s a whole set of things that seemed quite radical and odd in the 1970′s that have become so deeply incorporated into policy now. No one thinks, for example, that we can simply keep pouring cars into the Los Angeles basin and let them drive around. Everyone understands that we’re going to have to do something about gas formulation, and even the California politicians, well Californians have been pushing for 30 years for changes in the automotive industry. Very few people like, or will be willing to accept, radical change and yet more and more are coming to understand bits and pieces which are in fact going to add up to radical change. A lot of people in the mid-80′s were very depressed about the environmental movement, believing that the movement had failed. Well, the movement hadn’t failed. The movement set out to change the basis of Western economic life over the previous 300 years. You’re not going to do that in 15 years. You’re not going to do that in 30. The best you can say is that the environmental movement has done a serious amount of change, and that reality is going to force more of that.
You’ll also notice that with SUV’s, people will buy them, but there’s a fair amount of guilt associated with buying them. People will place a bumper sticker on them saying “I’m changing the world climate,” which does provoke a great deal of anger in some people, but still indicates an understanding that they’re perhaps doing something they shouldn’t. We have not, in a real sense, taken a serious look at how we are going to live in a sustainable way, and I suspect that that’s going to take another few hundred years, if we’ve got the time or if nothing terrible happens, to work that out. It is going to take an awful lot of time because what we are facing here is one of the great transitions in world history.
NB: You’re talking about things in a 50-100 year context…
TD: Or more..
NB: Or more.. But will the population be so out of control by then that sustainability is not even an issue anymore?
TD: Well, that has been one of the great fears since the late 1960′s.. that it’s too late. And we’ve in fact seen continuing struggles between groups, and sometimes even within the same person, between optimism and pessimism between the belief that we in fact can make this work, and the belief that it’s just too late. But it is that threat that seems to hang over everyone’s head, and it is not an inevitable threat, but it’s certainly a credible threat to anybody that’s looked at the evidence in any sort of serious way. I mean what has driven the environmentalism movement is not simply an intellectual love of nature, or a hope of preserving nature in some way, but also the fact that somehow, if we don’t do this, we ourselves might wind up badly. Rachel Carson was able to convince people to pay serious attention to pesticide residues because they already knew about things like radioactive fallout; they’re used to the idea of circulation in the ecosystem and about bio-concentration. And in that sense it was the early environmental education that allowed people to see it. But what really brought it home was the idea that we all have this stuff within our body, and it has unknown effects on you and on your children. Nothing concentrates your mind like the threat of deadly disease for you or your children.
NB: When Humboldt was in South America, he wrote about the possibility of a canal, and he actually picked out five possible locations for such a canal. He wrote about how such a project would devastate parts of the environment. Back then it was a regionally-based concept, as far as environmental influence..
NB: At what point do humans begin to realize that man, and the things that we put into motion, can have a serious effect on the environment which could then backlash against us?
TD: Well classically, the first book seriously to make the case for the human species as a worldwide geological force was George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature which was published in 1864. It was out of print until the 1950′s, and then began to come back. Marsh grasped the astonishing truth that humans could, even under low technology, over long periods of time, dramatically affect even the soil or water or forests over an enormous area. He was talking about the Mediterranean Basin. The invention of machinery allowed us to have this effect much faster, but it’s with Marsh that you begin to see the first real appreciation. Then there’s a line of thought and action, a whole set of books that run through this. More and more, each one talks about ecology. Books like Paul Sears’ Deserts on the March (1935), Volks’ The Road to Survival (1948). But Humboldt is the beginning of how you can begin to theorize about widespread human interactions because of enormous construction projects. I suspect that, had Humboldt seen some of these projects, he would have immediately grasped the implications. I mean if he had seen for example the building of the Panama Canal, or the clearing of the great North American forests, he would have immediately grasped what was going on. But it took a long time to translate the understanding of a few prescient people into a general understanding.
NB: One of the most interesting things, at least from an American history point of view, is the thought of Humboldt visiting the White House, of Humboldt and Jefferson walking and taking about all manner of scientific topics, of their trip to Monticello, etc. I mean Jefferson took natural philosophy very seriously, and apparently they had a life-long friendship…
TD: Jefferson fit exactly with Humboldt’s ideas. He wanted to understand things, he wanted to understand everything, he was interested in measuring them. The Lewis & Clark expedition was quite explicitly designed to approach the world through natural history. Jefferson had done excavation of early Indian artifacts; there’s a whole set of things. Humboldt, from Jefferson’s point of view, was exactly the kind of European savant that he wanted to imitate, that he wanted Americans to imitate, to understand the world through natural history. And in a real sense, that’s how 19th century Americans understood it. And Jefferson and Humboldt shared a love of “tinkering” with things, with instruments, of trying to discover new things and new applications that would prove useful.
The classic activities of natural history were collecting, classifying, and mapping. And that really is the argument that, in at least the explorer’s minds, would show Americans what their country actually looked like, and what’s in it, and what’s on it. From the 1830′s, you begin to see state geological surveys in place which say “this is what’s underneath us.” Mostly, of course, they were concerned about precious minerals, but they expand by the 1880′s and 1890′s to include in effect biological surveys of the state, which then become part of the ecological research establishment, which was beginning to grow at that point. And in a real sense, this is part of Humboldt’s vision, and Humboldt’s hope. And I think he would have been enormously pleased. I’m sure he must have been enormously pleased with Jefferson, the idea that Jefferson might infuse this sentiment into a whole people and that they would then somehow carry forward his project which in some ways they did. All you have to do is look at the map because there is Humboldt’s name scattered all over it by his disciples.
NB: Fremont was one- he put Humboldt’s name all over Nevada and the American Southwest..
NB: Getting back to your whole thought that he combined intellectual curiosity and romanticism. It’s clear that Humboldt read and savored the previous European romantic explorations of the world up to that point, including Cook’s expeditions. At the time, there was still an enormous portion of the globe that was still unexplored by the European powers, and it seems to me that the desire to know more about the rest of the world was just part of being a curious human being at that stage of history. You really can’t understand that phase of history without understanding the context in which they saw the world..
TD: That’s right. Well, if you look at in terms of American history, it begins with Bartram (William Bartram), and particularly Bartram’s expedition into the South. Here’s someone wandering all over the place, coming back and putting the plants in his garden. Then there’s the Lewis and Clark expedition, there are the further expeditions of the army, and the various surveys of the West after the Civil War. The last great adventure of that time was Powell’s passage down the Colorado in 1869 which is, in a sense, classical Humboldtian. We’re going into the unknown with instruments, and we’ll map and measure. And Powell’s expedition seems to be one of those that still seizes the public’s imagination. It still shows up on the History Channel as a documentary now and then. Because that’s the great ideal, that you can “strike out,” and it’s that particular period for which Humboldt was one of the great exemplars, one of the great leaders and pioneers. The idea of the educated man going out beyond what is perceived as the limit of western civilization, and bringing back information, knowledge, extending this intellectual property, going out and finding things.
NB: I know this is merely an intellectual exercise, but if Humboldt were alive, what one or two environmental problems would he look at and say “this is insane,” or “this is something that we’ve got to stop.”
TD: I think the first thing he would look at would be global warming. I think he would be absolutely fascinated with it, and in many ways completely horrified. But that’s the kind of thing that he saw, that the climate of the whole world is changing with unpredictable consequences for individual areas because of something that’s being done. And I think he would be just absolutely transfixed by this sort of thing.. and I think if you gave him money, he would get a research project out if it immediately. (Laughter) In many ways, a lot of the things that we’ve raised about world eco-systems are the types of things that would fascinate Humboldt. I think if you could bring him back and introduce him to what’s going on, he would be flabbergasted and deeply intrigued by a lot of the research that’s going on, particularly about biological change, as well as climactic change.
NB: And perhaps all of the advances made in instrumentation..
TD: Oh, the instrumentation he would love. Humboldt is the beginning of that line of people who really loved instruments, and who get instruments and really work with them. A few of them were fascinated by gadgets, but much more they are fascinated with the information they can get out of the gadgets. For example, David Mech, the wolf expert, ran across the idea of radio collars and transmitters. Nobody made them at the time. Mech and his crew made the original ones for the wolves by taking stock components and putting together what amounted to tiny radios, which were then put on to collars, which were then water-proofed and weather-proofed by being embedded in dental acrylic, the sort of thing you make the gums for false teeth out of. It was hand-done, hand-made, and pushed through the community of wolf experts; not by some great scientific plan, but by someone looking at it and saying, “well we have these collars which someone needs,” and then someone else saying “well, I’ve got a better set of collars,” and someone then went out and showed someone else how to use them.
NB: Dr. Dunlap, thank you very much for speaking with me.
TD: You’re quite welcome.
Entry Filed under: Interviews