The Invention of Nature: a Book Review

This book deserves a special place on the bookshelf of any nature lover.

Posted Mar 10, 2016

Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature surpassed my expectations. And I had high expectations. Wulf’s book, which focuses on the travels and writings of Alexander von Humboldt, was ranked by Science Friday radio show as one of the best books of 2015. But, I rank it higher. Perhaps, one of the best books of the decade. This book, The Invention of Nature, is an extraordinary work of scholarship and writing.

Humboldt’s name is everywhere: Humboldt County in California, Humboldt Current off the coast of Chile and Peru, and Humboldt Glacier in Greenland.  But, no one seems to know who he is. Ever wonder who Humboldt was? In his day, he was the most famous person after Napoleon. So, what did he do? What did he accomplish?

In her prologue, Wulf states that The Invention of Nature is her quest to rediscover Humboldt, restore him to his rightful place in scientific history, and understand our contemporary explanation of the natural world.  Explaining who Humboldt was is the major focus of the book but the book is much more. Wulf describes Humboldt, his travels, and his scientific contributions in the context of history. She places him alongside Simon Bolivar, Thomas Jefferson, and John Muir. She shows how his work shaped ecology, environmentalism, and how we conceptualize nature. Wulf dug into archives in California, Cambridge and Berlin, read thousands of letters and diaries and even walked in Humboldt’s footsteps at 12,000 feet in Ecuador.

Humboldt was born into wealthy Prussian aristocracy in 1769 and was privately tutored by the best Enlightenment teachers who stressed truth, liberty, and knowledge. But, rather than becoming bookish like his brother Wilheim, he loved the outdoors and spent hours exploring the forests of Tegel with its imported North American maple and oak trees. In his early twenties, he accompanied a friend and naturalist, Georg Forster, on a four month European tour. Forster had sailed with Captain James Cook on his second scientific expedition around the world and introduced Humboldt to many influential scientists, explorers, and artists. These men and the Royal Society of England, the major scientific organization of the time, opened doors for Humboldt. Forster further whetted Humboldt for travel by exposing him to ships packed with tea, sugar, and spices from such exotic places as China, the West Indies, and India. Young Humboldt ached to travel and explore nature.

On returning home, after touring Europe, he pursued a “stable” career in mining to appease his widowed mother. Being a mining inspector enabled him to travel all over Europe and apply his scientific skills. Humboldt traveled thousands of miles from coal mines in Brandenburg to salt mines in Poland observing, measuring, and evaluating soils, shafts, and mines. Still, it wasn’t until another 6 years passed and his mother died leaving him wealthy and unattached, that he was able to start planning his “great voyage.”

On preparing for his journey, Humboldt pored over scientific tomes, collected instruments, climbed the Alps, and pleaded with European royalty for passage. Wars raged throughout Europe engulfing France, Prussia, Spain, Portugal, Britain and the Atlantic Seas. No country could spare a ship. Finally, giving up on France and Britain, Humboldt persuaded King Carlos IV of Spain to provide him a passport to the Spanish colonies in South America. The conditions were that Humboldt finance his own expedition and collect flora and fauna for the king of Spain. Then, finally after years of planning and anticipation, Humboldt sailed from Spain with his companion Aime Bonpland, a French botanist. They took with them 42 of the most modern instruments such as telescopes, microscopes, clocks, and plenty of vials for storing seed and soil samples. Ultimately, Humboldt’s adventures in this accidental destination were to provide the foundation for his life’s work.

Once docking in New Andalusia, today’s Venezuela, Humboldt explored rainforests, swamps, and towering mountain peaks for 5 years. He trekked through valleys of palm and forests of bamboo. He warned of deforestation, two hundred years ago, as he saw soil eroded and water levels decreasing due to greedy colonial plantations. As e climbed higher into the mountains, he observed the vegetation changing from palms and bamboo to conifers, oaks and alders. At even higher altitudes, he observed alpine plants reminiscent of Switzerland. From these observations, Humboldt deduced a relationship between vegetation zones and altitude. He was the first to talk about plants in relationship to their climate and location or ecosystems.

In Ecuador, Humboldt scaled the treacherous peak of Mt. Chimborazo, believed to be the highest peak in the world at 21,000 feet. He did this with no oxygen, primitive climbing gear, and lugging scientific instruments. As he climbed along narrow ledges he measured altitude, gravity, and humidity. He precisely listed all species observed: butterflies, wild flowers, and mosses. At 19,413 feet, higher than anyone had ever been before, he looked down and saw the world in a novel way. Instead of a planet to plunder for private greed, he saw it as an interconnected whole, as an interconnected web of soils and species.

Humboldt’s scientific contribution was enormous. On returning to Europe, he spent a lifetime writing, teaching, and mentoring younger scientists. His unique combination of an extraordinary memory, high quality Western education, and unique explorations allowed him to form far reaching theories. He wrote a seven volume Personal Narrative that Darwin took with him on the Beagle and a 34 volume Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent which contained extensive details on plants, animals, and stars. Intellectually, Humboldt moved from the broad and theoretical to the narrow and the specific. His theory of Naturgemalde (e.g. that nature was a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents.), was supported by a three-foot by two-foot diagram carefully documenting precise data on altitude and species. In this large diagram, he drew Chimborazo in cross-sections of increasing altitudes with heavily detailed data on corresponding species. Prior to Humboldt no one had ever presented such data graphically. This radically new approach shapes our view of ecosystems today.

Like Humboldt, Wulf’s account of him, moves back and forth from the broadly theoretical to the narrow and scientific while remaining extremely readable. Parts of her prose are even poetic, describing John Muir as “zooming in from the minute to the magnificent” when observing wildflowers and glacial giants in Yosemite. Her book is beautifully written and well supported with maps, illustrations, and color plates. There are color plates of Humboldt’s Naturgemalde, reproductions of 19th century paintings of Humboldt, countless black and white illustrations of famous men, (e.g. Goethe, Darwin, Muir, Thoreau) and their work. Wulf’s scholarship is so extensive that her book includes over one hundred pages of footnotes and bibliographic sources. The Invention of Nature is an impressive work of scholarship and a labor of love by the author, editors, and publishers. It deserves a special place on the bookshelf of any nature lover.