“He was ahead of his time”
Francisco J. Barrantes on Alexander von Humboldt's impact on Latin America.
Mr Barrantes, how does Humboldt's vision shape science in Latin America?
Humboldt's relevance for science lies above all in his methodology of looking at things from a global, holistic perspective: everything in nature is interconnected. He was ahead of his time, especially with regard to the climate issue. He realized that humans and climate influence each other. His vision of biogeography was also ground-breaking: unlike Carl von Linné, he was less concerned with describing individual plant species than with the interrelations between the different species, their geographical distribution and relationships with other life forms. In other words, for the environment as a whole.
What could politicians or scientists learn today from Alexander von Humboldt?
Von Humboldt was basically the first 'ecologist' and was already bringing these ideas to politicians' attention, especially in North America. He was interested in treating nature as something holistic, as a living organism. Even then, von Humboldt was aware of the harmful consequences of deforestation and certain methods of artificial irrigation; he thus anticipated the urgent issues of today.
What impression would Latin America make on Alexander von Humboldt today?
I suspect his greatest concern would be the dramatic scale of species extinction. He would also be terribly sad about the devastating forest fires in the Amazon region, the north of Argentina and Africa. He would certainly be extremely dissatisfied with the actions of politicians and the inertia of governments, who seem to be ignoring many irreversible losses instead of being wiser and fighting to conserve our precious natural resources.
Does the general population in Latin America know who Alexander von Humboldt was?
I don't think the 'average' Latin American today knows who Humboldt was; that's probably no different in North America or Europe. People may associate the name with natural phenomena like the Humboldt Current or a university, but little is known about just how special his work was. He is better known in the countries he visited on his expeditions: Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and Venezuela.
Prof. Dr. Francisco J. Barrantes is Head of the Laboratory for Molecular Neurobiology at the Faculty of Medical Sciences of the Universidad Católica Argentina (UCA), Buenos Aires, and President of the Alumni Association of the Humboldt Foundation in Argentina
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