Book review

Reviewed by:  Sylwester Ratowt

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

On September 14, 1869, approximately 25,000 onlookers gathered in New York’s Central Park to celebrate the centennial of Alexander von Humboldt’s birth. The scene was repeated all over the Americas and Europe. Humboldt was the most preeminent scientist of his time and has been described by his contemporaries as second in fame only to Napoleon. Today, 400 plants and animals are named after him, and so are more places around the globe than are named after any other person. Charles Darwin read Humboldt while on the Beagle, and John Muir aimed to retrace Humboldt’s steps when he embarked on his thousand-mile walk. Yet, today, outside of professional historians of science, few people have heard of him.

Contributing to this obscurity is the fact that there has not been a significant English language biography in many years. Fortunately, Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, 2015) changes that.

Though Humboldt lived to be 90, Wulf’s book revolves around the momentous 1799-1804 voyage to the Americas. Accounts of it are intense: Humboldt climbing Mt Chimborazo with no specialized equipment, ice clinging to his hair, shoes shattered and feet bleeding; driving a herd of horses into a pool of electric eels and observing the mayhem; or rafting up the Orinoco river into an unknown jungle. Yet this trip was no mere swashbuckling. It was during this time that Humboldt developed the ideas that made him a celebrity, and which to this day shape our understanding of nature.

Humboldt presented a new way of understanding the natural world. While his contemporaries studied specimens in isolation (often in their comfortable city rooms), Humboldt saw all of nature as interconnected. He studied distribution of plants in relation to geography, noting that when traveling up a mountain, one observes vegetation typically found in higher latitudes. Humboldt pioneered the use of exact measurements as the basis for scientific inquiry. Even on his most dangerous outings, he (and hired locals) carried a plethora of scientific instruments and continually measured pressure, magnetism, and even the color of the sky.

Readers of this newsletter will appreciate Humboldt’s understanding of the importance of forests to soil and water conservation. One can even trace a connection between Humboldt and Georgia ForestWatch. Humboldt was an inspiration to George Perkins Marsh, whose Man and Nature in turn started Gifford Pinchot on his path to establishing scientific forestry in America and creation of the US Forest Service.

Invention of Nature is well research and documented, as well as very readable and engaging, just as are Wulf’s other books (Founding Gardeners, Chasing Venus). The title is  hyperbole, and at times Wulf tends to describe Humboldt as more modern than he was. For example, she claims that Humboldt was the first to discuss human-induced climate change (which he was not, and regardless, human-induced climate change meant something very different to an 18th century naturalist than it does to us). Nonetheless, this book is highly recommended, and will hopefully make this significant thinker more well-known today.

Book Review : The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
By : Sylwester Ratowt