The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Review

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Review

This is a wonderful biography of a man about whom I knew very little. Today, in the United States, his name is practically unknown, despite being a world-wide celebrity in his day. Humboldt was a great explorer and scientist. He saw nature as a unified whole, an "organism in which parts only worked in relation to each other." His approach was holistic, and was entirely against the reductionist approach to science. Perhaps because of the influence of Goethe, Humboldt strongly advocated merging of art and science. In 1806, his writings were about evolutionary ideas, long before Darwin. In fact, Darwin took Humboldt's seven-volume book Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent along with him during his voyage aboard the Beagle. In his book Views of Nature, Humboldt wrote about how weather and geography influence the moods of people--and this was a revelation. He inspired generations of scientists, writers and poets, including Thoreau, Emerson, Darwin, and Jules Verne. Humboldt was also a strident abolitionist: He equated colonialism with slavery and "European barbarism." He befriended and greatly influenced Simón Bolívar's efforts to free South America from the tyranny of its colonial status. He was the world's foremost expert on Latin America.

When Humboldt was young, he yearned to participate in adventures and exploration. At the age of 27, he went off on an exploration of South America, an adventure that lasted five years. He survived terrible conditions, jungle heat, mountain cold, high-altitude sickness, and the torment of mosquitos. He did not take a large retinue, but only traveled with one scientist friend and a couple of guides. Along the way he took copious notes, a multitude of measurements with his scientific instruments, and lots of specimens of flora and fauna. He sent them back to Europe at regular intervals, in case he never made it back home alive.

Humboldt invented the concept of isotherms, that enabled a global understanding of climate. Back in Europe, he gave many free lectures in Berlin, encouraging people of all classes to attend. Half of the attendees were women. His lectures were unique, connecting "seemingly disparate disciplines and facts." He talked about the complex web of nature with "extraordinary clarity." He organized a remarkable conference of 500 scientists from all across Europe. 

When Humboldt was 59 years old, he went on an expedition to Siberia. After analyzing the geology of certain areas in the Ural mountains, he predicted that he would find diamonds, and everyone thought he was crazy. But, he did find them!

He was at heart an environmentalist. He wrote a lot about the destruction of forests and long-term changes to the environment. He described three ways in which humans change the climate; deforestation, ruthless irrigation, and through steam and gas in industrial centers. He proposed a global network of stations to measure the Earth's magnetic field, and when it came about, he collected two million measurements over a three-year period.

Humboldt was a great explorer. He strongly encouraged explorers and artists to travel. He decried people who tried to do arm-chair science. He aided less fortunate scientists and explorers, giving them funds even though his own financial position was precarious. One American travel writer wrote that he "came to Berlin not to see museums and galleries, but 'for the sake of seeing and speaking with the world's greatest living man.'"

In this book, Andrea Wulf does much more that merely narrate the life of Humboldt. She also goes to great lengths to give the biographies of some other amazing people who were strongly influenced by Humboldt. In this way, we get a picture of how important Humboldt was, and still is. Humboldt was one of the first environmentalists and wrote so much about ecology. The book is well-written, well-organized, and fun to read. The descriptions of Humboldt's travels are gripping, as she writes about the dangerous climbs, diseases, and predators all around. I highly recommend it to everyone interested in nature, science, and exploration.

-  Goodreads, David



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