His animal collections from the Amazon rainforest made lesser zoologists weep. He traveled into the jungle with the finest scientific equipment of his time, each instrument cradled in its own velvet-lined box. Thomas Jefferson once invited him to the White House, just to bask in his genius. Where ever he walked, he got a standing ovation. He was called “the greatest scientific explorer who ever lived”… by Charles Darwin.

He was… the most interesting naturalist in the world.

Ich weiß nicht immer Bier trinken, aber wenn ich das tue, ziehe ich Zwei XX.

That Alexander von Humboldt does not enjoy household name recognition is a testament to American scientific illiteracy. During the 19th century, he enjoyed rock star status around the world for his contributions to geology, meteorology, and zoology, and for his books recounting his adventures in the jungles of Latin America. Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his last poem to him. “Every scientist is a descendant of Humboldt,” said Emil du Bois-Reymond, the father of neurology. “He is the true discoverer of America,” said Simón Bolívar.

Though the word “ecology” didn’t exist yet, Humboldt was among the first scientists to view nature as a holistic, interconnected web, and as such he studied everything about a place’s environment wherever he traveled, from barometric pressure to soil samples. Scientific data, not religion or ideals, ruled his discipline to a degree never before achieved in field biology. During his long career, he advanced the science of volcanism, tested the bioluminescent properties of jellyfish and the electrogenerative powers of electric eels, dissected the larynx of the howler monkey, realized the use of bat guano as a fertilizer, figured out the correlation between plant species and altitude, discovered ocean currents and weather patterns, made the only reliable map of South America at the time, and met such species as the Humboldt penguin, the colossal Humboldt squid, and a subspecies of Amazon river dolphin living in the Orinoco river, Inia geoffrensis humboldtiana.

Yes, it is pink. The Amazon river dolphin — boto to the Brazilians, bufeo in Peru — has several unique adaptations for maneuvering through the roots of its freshwater habitat: extra-large flippers, a dorsal hump instead of a dorsal fin, a big melon for extra echolocation and keen eyesight (unlike the blind Indus river dolphin), and unfused cervical vertebrae, giving it a flexible neck. It can’t be a coincidence that the boto also has an enormous brain, 40% larger than ours, making them more intelligent than most primates. While cetaceans don’t generally use tools, the boto has a mating ritual in which it shows off to females by flaunting rocks in its mouth, which puts it in a rare class of animals that use tools for sexual selection.

Throwing rocks in the water counts as an “intelligent” way to pick up chicks.

Form follows function, and function follows environment. It’s possible that the mind of the boto is expansive because its rivers become expansive. The Amazon, Orinoco, and their tributaries flood in the Winter and Spring, rising up to 30 feet and dilating to cover three times as much land as in the dry season. The new environ is known as the varzéa, the underwater forest. In this season, river animals rule the jungle, and botos are found swimming between the trees in search of piranhas. Introduced to a new waterscape of incredible complexity, the boto’s big brain becomes a distinct advantage as it troubleshoots its way over and under fallen logs and navigates its wide and labyrinthine new world.

Another great scientist, Benoit Mandelbrot, the Father of Fractals, died yesterday. A revolutionary mathematician, Mandelbrot discovered that nature is often made of rough edges that constitute a nearly infinite length, existing in a “fractal dimension.” He found fractal edges in such places as rivers, and the lobes of the brain. How long is the Amazon River? It depends on the scale on which you measure it. What is the coastline of the brain? The more closer you look at its folds and fjords, the more surface area it has. Then, with an epiphany of rain, the whole thing changes, floods, expands.

Alexander von Humboldt’s magnum opus, a five-volume collection of his scientific findings and philosophy, was called the Kosmos. Though we now attribute the word to the heavens, a “cosmos” is literally an orderly and harmonious system. In the seeming “jungle” of the Amazon, Humboldt saw reason and order. Glimpsing an “ecosystem” in the green morass, without another word to describe it, he saw what the astronomers saw in their mathematical sky: a biological universe where every being was connected to every other, and all action was governed by laws written in the soil and sky. They couldn’t be read, but they could be divined by careful measurement and observation. Today, we know that the world is neither perfectly balanced nor utter chaos, a mixture of the classical and the quantum. There’s a degree of messiness and chance in the movement of electrons and wild geese. Coastlines cannot be accurately measured, even by microscopes. But Humboldt’s assertion that, despite its infinite complexity, Nature was contained by unifying forces, was a huge leap forward in scientific thinking. The separate and narrow branches of science, like tributaries of a river, flooded and conjoined. The world was suddenly expansive, the old borders erased. And like the dolphin that bears his name, Humboldt pushed further into the underwater forest, the world opening wide like an amazed eye.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

2 responses to “Kosmos

  • Five Feet High and Rising « The Quantum Biologist

    […] I’ve written before about the flooded forests of the Amazon basin, the Amazon river dolphin in particular, but it’s worth another visit. The Amazon is sometimes referred to as the River Sea, and the reason why becomes clear when the water level rises 30 feet and covers three times its already substantial area. During the Spring floods, a gondola navigating the trees in the rainforest might come upon a pair of giant otters chasing each other through the water, or glide into a mysterious pool of shimmering gold which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a school of piranhas. Here in the varzea, the underwater forest, the Amazonian manatee does the dead man’s float while grazing on submerged meadows, and the anaconda rolls like water boiling. And if you’re lucky, you may find the dragon of the Amazon: the arapaima. […]

  • Unfused apotheosis | Bahiayachts

    […] Kosmos « The Quantum BiologistOct 17, 2010… Indus river dolphin), and unfused cervical vertebrae, giving it a flexible neck. … Altitude & Apotheosis · The Rogue Taxidermist » … […]

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