Book review: “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World”

Andrea Wulff does an excellent job and sketching the character of an amazing man. Similar to Humboldt’s approach to the environment, Wulff doesn’t paint the picture in a vacuum, documenting the historical picture surrounding his life. We learn of political and social upheavals throughout Europe, the Napoleonic Wars, scientific discoveries, the independence of the Spanish colonies, and much more. We see how thinkers like Kant were on Humboldt’s mind as he was developing his own ideas.


Humboldt refused to accept boundaries between scientific disciplines, dabbling in zoology, geology, botany, biology, and more. He travelled to South America, to Italy, to Russia and China, with instruments in hand, documenting everything from the air pressure at the top of Mount Chimborazo to the depth of blue in the sky along the Orinoco (using a device he referred to as a cyanometer). He was able to write about and connect a multitude of topics, the breadth of which was stunning. He pushed against the trend starting in his day of increasingly specialized sciences.

“Humboldt showed Darwin how to investigate the natural world not from the claustrophobic angle of a geologist or zoologist, but from within and without. Both Humboldt and Darwin had the rare ability to focus in on the smallest detail – from a fleck of lichen to a tiny beetle – and then to pull back and out to examine global and comparative patterns. This flexibility of perspective allowed them both to understand the world in a completely new way. It was telescopic and microscopic, sweepingly panoramic and down to cellular levels, and moving in time from the distant geological past to the future economy of native populations.”

“And so, in 1834, the very year that the term ‘scientist’1 was first coined, heralding the beginning of the professionalization of the sciences and the hardening lines between different scientific disciplines, Humboldt began a book that did exactly the opposite. As science moved away from nature into laboratories and universities, separating itself off into distinct disciplines, Humboldt created a work that brought together all that professional science was trying to keep apart.”

Humboldt didn’t separate science from the humanities. He was an artist and a scientist. In this tension present at the interface of the Enlightenment and the Romantics, many felt that they had to choose a way to view the world: through an empirical lens or through a poetical lens. Humboldt defied this dichotomy, describing the vistas and scenes he saw right next to his scientific measurements. Perhaps a good example to hearken back to in our own day.

‘Nature must be experienced through feeling,’ Humboldt wrote to Goethe, insisting that those who wanted to describe the world by simply classifying plants, animals and rocks ‘will never get close to it’.

Humboldt was a mentor, a source of inspiration, and a friend to many major figures of his day. Humboldt’s energy and enthusiasm brought Goethe out of a lethargic point in his career. After his trip to South America, he visited Thomas Jefferson, then president of the United States, at the new capital in Washington D. C. bringing back loads of information about the southerly continent. Humboldt inspired many in South America to be proud of their native land, including the rebel leader Simon Bolivar who helped free the Spanish colonies. He met with Napoleon in France, he was chamberlain to the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm. He interacted, helped, funded, and inspired many other budding scientists of his day, including the up-and-coming Charles Darwin. He proved an inspiration to many generations after, including John Muir, the founder of Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Club.

“Goethe had no scientific sparring partner with whom to develop his theories. All that changed when he met Humboldt.”

Humboldt pointed out the interconnectedness of life, that a single species in an ecosystem could affect the entire network of species. This was a stark break from the more mechanistic models of the time, that were only interested in categorizing species rather than examining how they interacted and depended on one another. Humboldt’s “web of life” has become so commonplace, that no one really remembers anymore that we owe this to Humboldt.

Humboldt was one of the first to point out the negative effects humans have on the environment. In South America, Humboldt connected the deforestation and the negative effects on the surrounding land. It became barren and dry. Humboldt was really the founder of conservation, preservation, and environmental efforts.

While Humboldt is a fascinating character, I also felt bad for him. Despite his adventures and his love of science and nature, he seems to not have found himself. He was lonely. He had intense friendships with close companions, but they were stormy and temporary.

“He never married – in fact, he once said that a married man was always ‘a lost man’ – nor did he ever seem to have had any intimate relationships with women. Instead Humboldt had regular infatuations with his male friends to whom he wrote letters in which he confessed his ‘undying’ and ‘fervent’ love. And though he lived at a time when it was not uncommon for men to declare passionate feelings in their platonic friendships, Humboldt’s declarations tended to be strong. ‘I was tied to you as by iron chains,’ he wrote to one friend, and cried for many hours when he left another.”

“As much as he was forever connecting and relating everything in the natural world, he was strangely one-dimensional when it came to his personal relationships.”

“Arago was one of the few people whom Humboldt trusted unconditionally – he could show him his fears and self-doubts. They were like ‘Siamese twins’, Humboldt later wrote, and their friendship was the ‘joy of my life’. They were so close that Wilhelm von Humboldt became concerned about their relationship. ‘You know his passion to be only with one person,’ Wilhelm told his wife Caroline, and now Alexander had Arago ‘from whom he did not want to be separated’.”

“Despite all the attention, Humboldt often felt removed from his contemporaries. Loneliness had been his loyal companion throughout his life.”

I was also struck my many similarities between my PI in graduate school and Humboldt– his energy, his breadth of skill, his ability to express himself. “For a man like Humboldt, who only needed a few hours’ sleep, it was torture having to lie in the dark without anything to read, dissect or investigate.” And “He conducted experiments, wrote about his expedition and discussed his theories with his new scientific friends. Humboldt worked so much that it seemed as if ‘night and day form one mass of time’ during which he worked, slept and ate, one American visitor in Paris noted, ‘without making any arbitrary division of it’.”

“With a mind that worked in all directions, Humboldt could often hardly keep up with his own thoughts. As he wrote, new ideas would pop up which were squeezed on to the page – here was a little sketch or some calculations jotted into the margins. When he ran out of space, Humboldt used his large desk on which he carved and scribbled ideas. Soon the entire table top was completely covered with numbers, lines and words, so much so that a carpenter had to be called to plane it clean again.”

Humboldt has faded from history in the English world. I was curious why. Wulff points out near the end that after two world wars against Germany, everything German was eradicated. I find this sad, and I hope her book does some good in bringing Humboldt back to the foreground

Humboldt was very forward thinking for his day.  For instance, slavery.  He was opposed to it.  We have a hard time wrapping our necks around how anyone in any time period could think slavery was a good idea.  Humboldt had a hard time seeing why too.  “That the British, French or Spanish could argue, as they did, over who treated their slaves with greater humanity, Humboldt said, was as absurd as discussing ‘if it was more pleasant to have one’s stomach slashed open or to be flayed’.”  When others were coming up with wild theories of racial superiority, he treated all people as equals and respected them.


Image source: Wikipedia


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