Monday, April 11, 2016

Thoughts on Wulf's Invention of Nature: Brings Humboldt, a major scientist of the 19th century, into our times

I read Andrea Wulf's masterful work, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, with great pleasure. The book's central thesis is that Humboldt was one of the great thinkers and scientists of the 19th century and has to some degree become unappreciated in contemporary science and culture. The book goes along way toward remedying this situation by simply describing Humboldt the person, his travels, his scientific discoveries and most importantly his impact on a number of other influential individuals.

In relation to his travels the book chronicles his early adventures in South America and how he tried for many years afterwards to develop a comprehension of the unity of nature and how many different environmental aspects and life forms fit together. This is really a founding concept of ecology and natural history. In relation to this, Humboldt developed a construction that we now take for granted, that of isotherms and contour lines where similar vegetation would grow at similar elevations on mountaintops.

The book also chronicles Humboldt's later years when he tried to replicate the dramatic voyages of his youth. His grand ambition was to visit the Himalayas but he was thwarted by the British East India Tea Company. Eventually, in a sense as a consolation, he was able to travel through Russia in old age.

In relation to his impact on science the book carefully goes over his great influence on famous 19th century scientists such as Ernst Haeckel, Charles Darwin and Lyle and the way that he impressed upon them the notion of the interconnection of nature, gradual changes and the paradox of the diversity of form. He also had great impact on George Perkins Marsh, John Muir and others who formed the American conservation movement and eventually created national parks in the United States. Both of these accomplishments should certainly be remembered.

Overall the book is a great read that really gives one a strong impression of Alexander von Humboldt in his time, and beyond.

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