2 March 2016

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

Posted by Callan Bentley

w2This is the second Andrea Wulf book I’ve read in the past month. It’s a biography of a great naturalist and popularizer of science and travel writing, who at the same time is largely forgotten in the modern English speaking world. Alexander von Humboldt’s intellectual impact is vast, Wulf argues, leading to everything from Darwin’s wanderlust (and thus, to the observations that led to the idea of descent with modification through natural selection), to ecology, to environmentalism, to anti-colonialism, infographics, and even Art Nouveau. Part of this book is a fairly standard format biography, though I note that it’s very well written and quite engaging. You should probably know more about Humboldt than you do. We learn of Humboldt’s oppressive mother, his great voyage to South America, his friendships with Thomas Jefferson and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, his theretofore-unprecedented melding of empirical fact and emotional reverence for the natural world. Another part of the book is a thoughtful, detailed examination of several case studies of Humboldt’s legacy – mini-biographies, in essence, of Darwin, John Muir, Ernst Haeckel, George Perkins Marsh, Simón Bolívar, and Henry David Thoreau. Humboldt’s ideas inspired each of these men in different ways, to strive toward greatness and help shape the world we live in today. It’s an excellent, thought-provoking survey of the age of exploration and its aftermath. From Chimborazo to Half Dome, Humboldt’s legacy is positive and (for me) greatly appreciated.