Rediscovering Scientific History

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

index.phpIf you’re anything like me, you read the title of this book and thought “Who the heck is Alexander von Humboldt?” and then flashed back to a trip you took to northern California ten years ago, don’t worry, you are in the company of countless others. Though Humboldt had, in the early nineteenth century, been one of the most famous people in the world his work and contributions have largely faded into obscurity. While his name dots the map attached to mountains, rivers, glaciers, bays, parks, and counties throughout North and South America, his contributions to society are largely forgotten. At least, they were, until Andrea Wulf went on a mission to excavate and share his work and influence.

The book begins by charting Alexander’s life from his birth into a wealthy Berlin family in 1769. Well-schooled by enlightenment thinkers, Alexander was precocious and curious about the natural world from a young age. Though his mother had mapped a life for him in public service, where he worked as a mine inspector in the Prussian kingdom, when his mother died in 1796 Humboldt quickly quit his position, her estate funding his trip to South America. The discoveries Humboldt made in South America, and his writings about those trips, ultimately made him famous throughout Europe and the United States.

Wulf writes extensively about what Humboldts work consisted of–arduous journeys to collect plant specimens, to record scientific measurements, and to describe the world the way he found it. Humboldt, for instance, included in his writing the observations that monocultures, irrigation, and deforestation led to widespread changes in the local environments, including desertification and species loss. He also wrote about the impacts of colonialism–which not only influenced revolutionary thinkers, but also left him on the outs with European leaders for most of his life.

As with all good biographies, Wulf does an excellent job connecting Humboldt to a wider culture, discussing the pressures events such as the Napoleonic wars presented, and describing how his work and personality influenced those around him. By far the most interesting elements of the book, however, are its resistance to the confines of a single life. Through, Wulf makes effort to tease out of the historical mire Humboldt’s influence on the thinkers, artists, and scientists who followed his work.

Writers especially loved Humboldt’s work: Walt Whitman, Coleridge, and Wordsworth read and incorporated themes from Humboldt’s work into their own. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a close friend of Humboldt’s, fed off of Humboldt’s energy and enthusiasm, and may have modeled his version of Heinrich Faust–the legendary protagonist of Goethe’s famous play–after Humboldt.

Charles Darwin, additionally, not only read Humboldt’s travels in South America; he carried Humboldt’s seven volume account of his travels in South America–titled Personal Narrative–with him on the HMS Beagle, reading and re-reading it throughout the course of the trip. Many of Darwin’s most influential observations were made on this trip, including observations that formed the foundation of On the Origin of Species.

Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan revolutionary who led South America away from Spanish colonial rule, counted himself among Humboldt’s acquaintances and credited Humboldt with opening his eyes to the way South America’s riches were being exploited.

Henry David Thoreau read and loved Humboldt’s Cosmos, a book with influenced Thoreau’s writing, illuminating the overlap between nature and poetry.

John Muir, the great North American naturalist, left behind heavily annotated copies of Humboldt’s books, and based much of his advocacy for preservation on Humboldt’s ideas of the connectivity of nature.

George Perkins Marsh, a U.S. Representative and Ambassador to Italy and Turkey, read Humboldt’s books, and during his wide travels was able to observe the toll agriculture took on land throughout Europe. Moved to action, Marsh warned in his book Man and Nature that unless people changed the way they view their relationship to nature, the earth would be reduced to “such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climactic excess as to threaten … perhaps even extinction of the [human] species.”

Though Alexander von Humboldt’s name may have been erased from modern memory, his ideas of an interrelated nature lived on and gave birth to generations of thinkers and writers that continue to influence the way we conceptualize our relationship to the natural world, and I for one am very glad for Andrea Wulf’s work to bring Humboldt’s name to light in the history of science.


marina for blog

Marina reads and writes about poetry and nonfiction. When not staffing the reference desk, she is making terrible jokes, cooking, gardening, or riding her bicycle. If you have a suggestion for something that should be included in a future blog post, you can email her at mdbuckler@cityofportsmouth.com.

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