Friday, August 24, 2018

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

Restores a forgotten genius to the pantheon of science
Two centuries ago, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most famous men in the world, but these days he is far from a household name. More places in the world are named after Humboldt than anyone else, yet the man and his accomplishments are anything but common knowledge today. Andrea Wulf sets out to remedy this with her 2015 book The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. In this must-read volume on all things Humboldt, Wulf relates in exquisite detail the man’s fascinating life, his impressive accomplishments, and his enormous intellectual impact on world history.

Humboldt (1769-1859) was a Prussian scientist who traveled the world investigating the workings of nature. He first achieved fame for his daring and scientifically productive expedition to South America. This was in the days prior to scientific specialization, when an ambitious scholar could stake his claim in any number of fields, and Humboldt was an interdisciplinary Renaissance man who excelled in many branches of biology, geology, meteorology, and anthropology. Humboldt was the first to see nature as a holistic system that functioned much like an organism and the first to propose the idea of human-induced climate change. A skilled writer who not only published important scientific works but also popular bestsellers, he essentially established the genre of nature writing as we know it today. In addition, Humboldt socialized, collaborated, or corresponded with many of the greatest minds in the Western world. Wulf not only chronicles Humboldt’s amazing life and career but also examines in detail his interaction with and influence on several historical personages—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Siḿon Bolívar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel, and John Muir.

Every attempt has been made to make this book as accessible as possible to the general reader. The chapters are short. The prose is brisk. The sentences are clear, and the vocabulary is not challenging. If the book has a flaw, that may be it. At times it simplifies too much and reads almost like a young adult book. Besides an occasional brief footnote, the endnote references are inconveniently hidden so as not to scare away casual readers. Despite the biological and ecological subject matter of the narrative, very few specific species are mentioned, and only a handful of Latin species names appear throughout the book. Wulf does an excellent job of conveying the prodigious breadth of Humboldt’s scholarship, but at times one wishes for more depth in the scientific content.

Some may argue that the chapters on Goethe, Jefferson, Bolivar, Muir, etc. detract from the main narrative of Humboldt’s life, but the various side biographies really enlarge the reader’s understanding of the scientific and political landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries, while also succeeding in demonstrating Humboldt’s monumental impact on world history. The book’s eight “[Famous Person] and Humboldt” chapters are all just as engrossing as those strictly devoted to the man himself. I have read much on Darwin, Thoreau, and Haeckel, yet I still discovered many new and fascinating details in Wulf’s coverage of their lives. I had never heard of George Perkins Marsh before, and I am grateful for the education that Wulf provides on his life and work.

Humboldt should be as big of a household name as Darwin, Newton, or Einstein, and if any book can spark his resurgence in the public consciousness, it’s this one. The Invention of Nature provides the perfect foundational education on Humboldt’s life and work. It’s a must-read for science and history enthusiasts and deserves to be a bestseller.
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