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

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alexander von Humboldt was a remarkable man. Simultaneously a savant and an explorer, he knew everyone, studied everything, and did his best to travel everywhere. Andrea Wulf brings together the many seemingly divergent worlds that he bridged: the worlds of Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar, Napoleon, Goethe, Charles Darwin, and even Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He left his fingerprints on the worlds of science, literature, art, and even politics. Yet today he is (or was, before Wulf) a fairly obscure figure in the English-speaking world.

Thus this book is not simply a biography, but an attempt at rehabilitation. Wulf wishes to restore Humboldt to his place of honor; and she does this by arguing that his influence has been fundamental and pervasive. But before she can deal with Humboldt’s reputation, she must first narrate the scientist’s own coming of age. Humboldt was one of these figures with seemingly boundless energy, who threw himself into his work with complete abandon. We watch the young Humboldt as he struggles with, and finally throws off, the expectations of his upbringing, and then dashes away to South America. Once he embarks on his voyage, it does not take a strong writer—which Wulf is—to make his story exciting. Humboldt’s own travelogues were bestsellers.

Humboldt emerges from his travels with a concept of nature which, Wulf argues, was revolutionary and which became extremely influential. Wulf identifies three new elements of Humboldt’s approach to nature: First, that nature cannot be understood without both the scientific and the poetic eye; analysis and sentiment are necessary to do justice to the natural world. Second, that the living world must be understood as a gestalt, with organisms depending on one another in an intimate set of relationships that boggles the intellect. And third, that scientists must think on a global scale if they wish to understand the complex interactions between plants, animals, and climates.

This is the meat of the book. Yet it is here that I began to shift from enchantment to disappointment. For Wulf does not do nearly enough work to convince the skeptical reader that Humboldt’s view of nature was so entirely new. I would have appreciated far more background on previous conceptualizations of the natural world. Without this, it is hard to tell where Humboldt was innovative. Further, Wulf is always rather vague with Humboldt’s actual scientific contributions. She elects to keep the narrative pace driving forward, which doubtless helped her sales; yet I would have appreciated an explanation of Humboldt’s thought in more detail, with a good deal more quoting of the man.

Conversely, Wulf could have greatly reduced the space devoted to the men Humboldt influenced. She has individual chapters for John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, George Perkins Marsh, and Ernst Haeckel—space that she uses as opportunities to prove her thesis that Humboldt’s writings were fundamental to their success. But I found the biographical detail for these men excessive, and her point overstated. She makes it seem as if these men owed their accomplishments—if not wholly, at least in large part—to Humboldt’s influence. But you cannot measure influence, and you cannot prove a counterfactual (what would they have done without Humboldt?). In any case, the point is entirely abstract without a more careful discussion of Humboldt’s ideas; lacking that, it is not possible to say where his influence begins or ends.

By now I am convinced that Humboldt was an important and compelling figure in the history of science. But I am far from convinced that his late obscurity was a mere result of anti-German prejudice caused by the two World Wars, as Wulf claims in the Epilogue. Too many other German scientists and philosophers remained famous. Rather, I think Humboldt may have fallen into obscurity because it is difficult to do justice to the nature of his contribution. Unlike Darwin, he did not originate any major scientific theory that could unify a great many phenomena under a simple explanation. Humboldt’s major contributions seems to be perspectival: seeing nature as complex yet whole, as godless yet beautiful, as vast and inhuman yet spiritually refreshing. And it is difficult to work that into a textbook.

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