- The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
New York: Vintage Books, 2016. 552 pp. Maps, notes, and index. $17.00 paper (ISBN 978-0-345-80629-1), $12.99 electronic (ISBN 978-0-385-35067-9).
Alexander von humboldt (1769–1859) is a hero the world needs amidst worsening global environmental deterioration and societal challenges (pp. 396–398), an argument that unfolds elegantly in this well-written and intelligently researched book. The author, Andrea Wulf, a design historian and accomplished writer, fuses her [End Page 278] own research and existing ideas to create a grand narrative of Humboldt’s vision and its legacy that is timely and compelling. To do so, Wulf expertly recounts a lively geographic history, from Humboldt’s childhood and family life to early career and formative influences (chapters 1–3), renowned travel and observations in the Americas (chapters 4–8), activities while residing and traveling in and among the leading European capitals and Britain, including his later professional life and expedition to Russia and Siberia at age 60 (chapters 9–19), and extraordinary legacy (chapters 20–24). This book will surely stimulate interest.
Wulf’s The Invention of Nature draws on her extensive reading of Humboldt’s immense book publications and unpublished letters. It deftly fuses many of the main insights of both academics and popular writers who have contributed to a recent, substantial growth in the secondary literature on Humboldt (in this review, I refer to only a few of these works that offer potentially fertile dialogue for the future, some of which are already embedded in The Invention of Nature). The Invention of Nature’s central theme is Humboldt’s vision of the environment as holistic and unifying, principally through the global-scale influences of climate on the distributions of organisms and, also, the recognition of deleterious human impacts on the environment (Glacken 1967; Jackson 2009). Central also are Humboldt’s remarkable travels and networks in Europe and Britain, the Americas, and Asia, including his abundant environmental measurements and textual observations that incorporated an affective and aesthetic dimension (Walls 2009). Humboldt published prolifically and publicized his ideas unceasingly, becoming one of the most famous and influential figures of his time and during several subsequent decades (Walls 2009). He was a pioneer of Europe’s global environmentalism that has been tied to the 1768–1838 period (Grove 1996).
A couple of the book’s key terms need further clarification. “Nature” in the book’s title does not refer to the lineage of powerful meanings from Plato, Pliny, and Linnaeus to Collingwood, Williams, and Merchant, among many. Instead, it is centered on the modern meanings of ecology and human-impacts-on-the-environment. Humboldt’s influence on these fields runs through the works of key figures such as Ernst Haeckel and George Perkins Marsh. The book absorbs major points from some well-known histories of these fields while inexplicably omitting the landmark treatise on Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants as the origin of modern global ecological science (Jackson 2009). Similarly, the subtitle “New World” is potentially confusing. It might be taken to indicate the pivotal influence on Humboldt of his extensive travel in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the book’s perspective and topical coverage suggest the “new world” is that of Humboldt’s broad vision defined in part by his intense curiosity and uniquely inquisitive spirit (Gade 2011: 29–31).
Indeed, the history and geography of Latin America and the Caribbean are generally well-represented in Wulf’s book, though not always insightfully. Humboldt was not against mining, counter to the book’s claim (p. 120), [End Page 279] but rather wished to work toward its modernization, which meant aiding the late colonial Bourbon reforms as the Spanish monarchs had intended by authorizing his travel. Humboldt viewed the revolutions for Latin American independence as based on modernizing national elites and reforms (political independence, abolition), rather than post-colonial transformations of institutions and social power relations. Interesting and important, though not addressed in Wulf’s account, were the...