The Invention of Nature – Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

Territorial Nevadans in the 19th century considered naming their new state-to-be Humboldt. Instead, the famous scientist’s name was attached to a Nevada county and a 330 mile long river that ignominiously disappears into the Humboldt Sink in the Great Basin. Alexander von Humboldt never visited the Great Basin, but so large was his fame, reputation and influence throughout much of the 19th century that his name became a frequent place-name for out-of-the-way locales here in Nevada and around the world.

Although he was a scientist before the word entered the English language, he was much more according to Wulf. It is her central argument that Alexander von Humboldt invented the way that we see nature—holistically, organically, emotionally, and artistically. In the late 18th century, witnessing deforestation in the Amazon basin, he could already draw the big picture of humanity’s potentially disastrous impact on the natural world. If alive today, Humboldt would not be surprised to learn about human-caused (anthropogenic) global warming.

To dub this book a biography is a disservice to Wulf’s scope and intent. Nevertheless, it is a biography and an engaging one. Indeed, the man, his personality, and his intellect are so interesting, and the book so beautifully written, that the couples’ book club that my wife and I belong to unanimously applauded its selection. In the twenty-five years the book club has existed, the level of acclamation, by both genders, is nearly unprecedented. Also, the discussion stimulated by The Invention of Nature was sustained and deep. Very often, the chosen book is lost in the general social chitchat. Not so on this occasion.

Wulf begins her book with Humboldt and several companions perched on the side of a 20,500 foot extinct volcano in the Andes, Chimborazo, considered in 1802 as likely to be the highest mountain in the world. (The Himalayas were terra incognito to Western surveyors until half a century later.) In climbing Chimborazo, Humboldt had two goals: to reach the top and to take scientific measurements with a variety of instruments every few yards along the way. Cold, exhausted, and slightly fearful, the expedition turned back a thousand feet short of the top, but the data Humboldt collected would give educated Europeans a new way to understand the relationship between altitude, vegetation and animal life. Indeed, Wulf suggests that Humboldt “saw the earth as one great organism where everything was connected, conceiving a bold new vision of nature that still influences the way that we understand the natural world.”

Why isn’t Humboldt better known in the United States was a question that my book club pondered without adequate answer. There may be no answer, certainly no simple answer. Wulf doesn’t really address the question directly. In the last four chapters of The Invention of Nature, however, Wulf analyzes Humboldt’s continuing influence on science after his death in 1859. She ends with a chapter discussing the influence of Humboldt on John Muir, a seminal figure in America’s national park, wilderness, and ecology world. In a way, then, John Muir was the conduit for Humboldt’s continuing relevance in American thought, but Humboldt himself only survives in American culture at best as a vague, cloudy figure. In fact, Roderick Nash’s, Wilderness and the American Mind (5th Ed., reviewed by me at BWS) does not mention Humboldt, but treats Muir as a monumental figure.

Wulf may not be able to rescue Humboldt’s reputation and legacy for contemporary Americans since his views would be considered heretical among those for whom “global warming” is anathema. Nevertheless, Humboldt had a giant intellect and was a prodigious writer and explicator of 19th century science. Still today his concept of Nature is close to the Nature that many of us appreciate, cherish, and wish to preserve. – Neal Ferguson

Also available by Andrea Wulf: Chasing Venus; The Founding Gardeners; The Brother Gardeners; The Other Eden (with Emma Gieben-Gamal).

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