Book Review: The Invention Of Nature

Alexander von Humboldt - 1841 - Diagram of a cross-section of the earth's crust

First, a disclaimer, because I actually read this particular book, The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, a couple of years ago, but it had such a strong impression on me, I wanted to write a mini-review to encourage others to check it out. Eventually, I may set up a page with all of my book recommendations, but for now, I’ll just write mini-reviews on each.

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806 - via WikipediaMeet Alexander von Humboldt, your new semi-problematic “fav” (as the kids might say on Tumblr) – because, let’s be real, the guy lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, and despite doing a decent job of not being a jerk, he did still carry some of the thinking and opinions of the time. You’ve probably heard the name – and odds are good that if you have, it was because you came across one of the MANY MANY MANY locations, landmarks, flora, and fauna named after the German polymath, geographer, naturalist, and explorer. If it’s got “Humboldt” in the name, it’s probably named after him.

I won’t give you his whole life story – suffice to say, he was born in Prussia in the mid-1700s to a prominent family. He didn’t hold a title but he definitely had connections through his parents. He also had an older brother, Wilhelm, who played a relatively significant role in his life at various points. His father died while he was young, leaving him and his brother under the care of their demanding and emotionally distant mother (which probably did very little to help his psychological development).

After graduating from university, Humboldt served as a civil servant (he was a mine inspector and did a lot to help miners – even opening a free school and funding an emergency relief fund) and spent a significant amount of time in Vienna where he developed a friendship with Weimar poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (who came to see Humboldt as a source of inspiration) and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller. However he wasn’t terribly fond of Germany, and as soon as he could (after his mother’s passing), he began his travels through Europe (he particularly appreciated Paris and considered it to be somewhat of a beacon of culture and enlightened thinking) and around the world.

He’s best known for his travels throughout South America and Russia where he did extensive (like…a whole metric crap-ton) research into the flora, fauna, and geographic elements of the land.

Humboldt and his fellow scientist Aimé Bonpland near the foot of the Chimborazo volcano, painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1810) via Wikipedia

One thing that particularly stood out to me were his early notes about his concerns relating to the effects of human activities on the environment something well summarized in this 2015 article from The Atlantic,

“After he saw the disastrous environmental effects of colonial plantations—cash crops, monoculture, irrigation, and deforestation—in Venezuela in 1800, Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about harmful human-induced climate change. […] He warned that humans were meddling with the environment and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on “future generations.” It was all an ecological chain reaction.”

Even as early as the 1800s, someone like Humboldt could see the devastating effects that these activities could have on the environment.

Now, I won’t go into ALL his travels because half the fun of the book itself is reading about all of his adventures. But I will give a small summation: the dude was one of those people who pushed himself to an incredible degree both physically and academically. He traveled along the Amazon River, climbed the Andes mountains (so he could see inside of the volcano, Chimborazo), and even by the age of 60, he was STILL going – he undertook an expedition across Russia, and in the span of 8 months, he had traveled 15,500km (or around 9,500 miles). At one point, he wrote to the Russian Foreign Minister, “I still walk very lightly on foot, nine to ten hours without resting, despite my age and my white hair.” Mind you, this was in 1829, without cars, and a good amount of the time, on poorly maintained roads. (And to think that in this day and age, I sometimes complain about how many hours it takes to drive or fly to various destinations).

As mentioned above, Humboldt was an influence on the famous German poet, Goethe but his influence didn’t stop there. This man was friends and acquaintances with many great thinkers, naturalists, scientists, writers, and explorers of the time, including:

  • Simón Bolívar
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Charles Darwin
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • John Muir
  • George Perkins Marsh
  • Ida Laura Pfeiffer
  • Etc.

He had an incredible influence on them all. The book highlights their respect, admiration, and appreciation for Humboldt as well as the works that he wound up influencing during his life and even after his death in 1859.

In fact, 10 years after his passing, there were huge street parades throughout the world to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Unlike other historical people who are often considered to have been “before their time” because they lived in a time period where people failed to recognize their works, Humboldt had the benefit of being appreciated in his lifetime and for years thereafter as one of the greatest scientists of his age.

In fact, there are more species named after Humboldt than any other human being. There are at least 3 counties named after him in Iowa, Nevada, and California; along with 10 cities and towns in Mexico, the United States, and Canada. And his name even reached the cosmos as there is a lunar mare (a large plain) on the moon named after him as well as 2 asteroids.

I had initially picked up the book because, at the time, I was fascinated with vintage botanical illustrations (I still am) and Humboldt was fairly prolific when it came to producing images of the various flora that he came across. But in reading the book, I came to really appreciate the amount of work he produced in his lifetime and the resulting impact he had on the world.

I definitely recommend finding The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf and giving it a read. The Invention of Nature book cover

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