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


The Invention of Nature is a great hommage to Alexander von Humboldt, presenting a biography of the remarkable, but forgotten, scientist, a portrait of a world-changing man, his works, his personality, his life, dreams, and the influence which he had upon the world and others. Humboldt's life, marked by adventures, eccentricity, discovery, makes for fine reading, but what brings Wulf's work to a higher level is the way that she links Humboldt to a change in society's view of the world: it was Humboldt who pioneered a perspective of the natural world as a delicately interconnected network, his studies of the ecosystems of the Americas during his voyage showing the way that superbly complicated relations between plants and animals formed the basis of life.

Alexander von Humboldt's American voyage was an incredible odyssey that stretched over thousands of kilometers

Alexander von Humboldt's American voyage was an incredible odyssey that stretched over thousands of kilometers

Wulf's great talent in the voyages of Humboldt center around the brilliant descriptions and sense of nature: it transcribes for the modern reader his harrowing trip across Latin America, almost like a novel. The stinging mosquitoes of the Amazon, the high and snowy mountains that they ascended in the Andes, travelling along rivers in canoes, reaching isolated mountain towns, all the while carrying along collected specimens - it is a tale worthy of Marco Polo! There is a sense of the wonder of the exploration of the world, discovery, of reaching new and unexplored lands, which Wulf conveys with a real panache and style, providing the cliche of making it feel like you are there, and really with Alexander von Humboldt and his wonder and astonishment with the world he uncovered.

The same goes for the intellectual side of the work. Humboldt was an incredibly prolific writer who produced thousands upon thousands of letters and writings, and the exploration of his life in Paris and Germany after his return to the old continent, with his seemingly infinite energy and drive breathes the air of industry and determination which animated Humboldt. And the impacts too of course, are brilliantly displayed, most notably with Darwin who was inspired by Humboldt and the tremendous developments of natural science to produce his own revolutionary On the Origins of Species. Or the first flowering of an understanding of man's impact on the Earth, as a single event, like deforestation, sent shockwaves throughout the natural world, displayed by the writing of Marsh in Man and Nature. Or the way in which modern style and design hailed from the studies of microscopic creatures, the research of Ernst Haeckel and the discovery of radiolarians that helped to lead to the development of Art Nouveau. Humboldt influenced, inspired, and shaped generations of scientists and thinkers who themselves left a titanic footprint on the modern world.

This whirlwind tour can only go so far in the details of Humboldt of course. Perhaps it is too esoteric and removed from the direct subject, but Humboldt also has the key feature in modern Germany of representing much of what was good and noble about traditional German society and culture, in stark contrast to the contemporary German phobia of their society's militarism and authoritarianism. Humboldt would be at an interesting nexus to discuss this, and how his image has changed over time. But perhaps this would be too far removed from the intent of the book.

An exciting tour, a great work of intellectual heritage, and scientifically nourishing exploration, The Invention of Nature helps give Humboldt a rightfully deserved return to the spotlight after a century where he has been largely forgotten. It provides that most fascinating part of a book on the history of science: of connecting the dots and forming a web of knowledge and how the progress of our knowledge is a feature of connections and links, rather than a simple linear march forward.

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