The Invention of Nature (Alexander von Humboldt’s New World) by Andrea Wulf is a biography of naturalist Humboldt and his influence on our world. Though pretty much unknown now, Humboldt was one of the most influential minds in the fields of science, nature, environment and ecology in the early 19th century.
Born in an aristocratic German family in 1769, Alexander had a formal schooling to be a civil servant (forced by his mom), but ended up working for mines so that he could be close to science and nature. After his mother’s demise at the turn of the century, which left him a considerable estate, he embarked on his life’s dream: a long and fascinating journey through the plains, jungles, rivers and volcanoes of South and Central America. Humboldt was an inscrutable scientist, examining, measuring and logging every thing he observed in the nature of these lands. Through these observations, Humboldt would turn out to be the pioneer who formulated and explained the interconnectedness of everything in nature, the web of the ecosystem. He would be one of the first people to point out how man was stripping away nature through deforestation and argiculture causing changes in climate and nature.
Humboldt also traveled to the newly formed USA around 1804, influencing and advising the then president Roosevelt on the natural bounty in the huge Spanish-ruled lands that USA was getting in the Louisiana purchase. Having seen the rich culture, languages and sophistication of the indigenous people of South America, Humboldt would be one of the first people to denounce the colonial view that the natives were wild and inferior to the white man. He would also denounce slavery, which was common practice in USA and Spanish colonies, all his life.
After returning to Europe, Humboldt spent many years with German poet Goethe. During these decades, Humboldt brought together his views of nature in View of Nature one of the first books on nature. This early 19th century was the period of Napoleanic Wars in Europe. Around this time, his friend Bolivar would return to South America to build a rebellion against the Spanish colonizers and liberate most of South and Central America. Humboldt’s writings on the people and nature of South America would play a role in this.
Humboldt’s dream was to visit India next, but the East India Company vary of what happened with the Spanish in South America would never grant him a passport to India. In his later years, Humboldt got a chance to do another rambling trip through Russia, giving him a chance to see how everything in nature was intricately woven together as a web, no matter where he went in the world. Returning to Europe, he would embark on writing a encylopedic series about the world called Cosmos.
The elaborate and beautifully illustrated volumes written by Humboldt would turn out to be the pioneering scientific works of the period. They would end up directly influencing Thoreau, Darwin, Muir, Perkins Marsh and Ernst Haekel. The book goes into mini biographies of these men of science and art.
I do not usually read books like this, so I am thankful for my bookclub for picking this one. Andrea Wulf is a thorough author, every fact and statement she makes about anybody is backed up by references in her book. The book goes into the life, journeys, books and influences of Humboldt in excruciating detail.
What I found particularly illuminating was discovering how the world was coming together in the late 18th and early-to-mid 19th century. We get to see how USA is being formed, the liberation of South America, the Napoleonic Wars and the rise of Prussia. We get to see how the inventions and discoveries in science took place during these years, since Humboldt was in touch with pretty much all the remarkable scientists of this era. Of particular fascination for me was the mini-biography of Darwin, his circumnavigating Beagle journey, how Humboldt influenced his theory of evolution, which he would publish in his later work Origin of Species.
This was a big read, I did feel the book could have been edited down a bit. Apart from that nit, this turned out to be a thoroughly sumptuous and enlightening read that I looked forward to every night for a few weeks.