“How Derivative Was Humboldt?"

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Cañizares- Esguerra, Jorge

Cañizares- Esguerra, Jorge. “How Derivative Was Humboldt? Microcosmic Nature Narratives in Early Modern Spanish America and the (Other) Origins of Humboldt’s Ecological Sensibilities,.” In Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World. Ed. Londa Schiebinger and Claudia Swan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005, pp. 148-65.

This chapter deals with the origins of Humboldt’s theories of biodistribution and the influence that Spanish American naturalists had on him. It begins by dealing with Pablo Vila’s idea of the Euro-Creole origins of biodistribution and in particular, the role of Colombian naturalists Francisco José de Caldas’ botanical research in the Andes in shaping Humboldt’s view of South American ecology.

Cañizares explains how naturalists from José de Acosta to Linnaeus had resorted to an Edenic narrative of Andean nature in part due to the ecological variation offered by the ranges’ extreme altitudes. Looking especially at the Paraíso en el Nuevo Mundo (1645-50) of León Pinelo, Cañizares underlines two key parts of the paradisiacal narrative. First, as “many imagined imagined paradise as a tall equatorial peak with a multitude of climates (152), Pinelo resorted to the bible as proof that the eastern slope of the Andes was in fact the location of Eden. He used Gen. 2:6-15 and 3:24 to prove it, suggesting the four rivers were not the Gihon, Tigris, Euphrates and Pishon, but the Magdalena the Orinoco, the Amazon and the Plate (he also argued the angel w/ flaming sword was a metaphor for Andean volcanoes). Second, as Pinelo’s version of the sacred was based not in the regular but in the wonderful, his Paraíso en el Nuevo Mundo was filled with a catalog of Peru’s exotic flora—like passion fruit Passiflora edulis—and fauna. (As a side, in Pinelo we get a tripartite geography that is slightly different: lowlands—coast and selva—llanos, and highlands.)

For the second major section, Cañizares moves from the Edenic quality Spanish American naturalists’ work to the “political economy of paradise,” by arguing that biodistribution pre-dated Humboldt in the form of a rationalization of nature that took place as part of the Bourbon Reforms. In this section he emphasizes the desire of Spanish American elites to furnish the world (read Europe) with their abundant resources, in stark contrast to the autarkic ambitions of European naturalists. Though he doesn’t say it, in this predilection toward emporium, we can see the kind of Eurocentric attitudes that stand out in figures like Bolívar and Sarmiento.

Here Cañizares looks at the botanical work of José Celestino Mutis and his protégé Caldas as evidence of the Andean microcosm being conceived of as emporium and—in the case of Caldas (Nueva Granada) and Hipólito Unanue (Peru)—a “natural laboratory to study correlations between behavior, race, and climate.” (161) (On a side note, many (Mallon, Chakrabarty, Bhabha, Said) argue that without the colonial other the emergence of a European essence would never have happened, I like Unanue’s slightly more literal variation on this theme. He said that it was the sheer mass of the Andes, tipping the earth’s axis, which forced Europe to rise up out of the oceans)