THE INVENTION OF NATURE: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. Andrea Wulf. xix + 472 pp. Knopf, 2015. $30.00.
How on earth did we ever lose sight of Alexander von Humboldt? The 19th century was “the Age of Humboldt,” declared Ralph Waldo Emerson. “He like another Sun,” gushed Charles Darwin, “illumines everything I behold.” Louis Agassiz exclaimed that every schoolboy knew Humboldt’s work.
A trailblazing thinker and researcher who published prolifically from the 1790s until his death in 1859, he was famed as the scientific discoverer of the New World, the adventurer who wrangled electric eels in highly dangerous field experiments, the explorer who dared to summit Chimborazo, the Andean volcano, enduring elevations thought impossible to survive.
He was the prodigy who revolutionized entire fields: geology and geography, botany and zoology, political economy, ethnology, even geophysics. Hindsight acknowledges Humboldt as the founder of the science one of his disciples named ecology ; James Lovelock gave the poetic name Gaia to Humboldt’s vision of the Earth as a single cybernetic system, not knowing that Humboldt nearly gave the same name to his bestselling Cosmos , a scientific journey from the outermost stars to the depths of planet Earth that thrilled audiences around the world. The conceit was given new life in the 1980s by Carl Sagan: His television series Cosmos —in which Sagan appeared to travel by spaceship to the farthest reaches of outer space and then return slowly to Earth—bore striking parallels to Humboldt’s masterwork.
Yet to mention Humboldt’s name today is to be met with blank stares. It’s hard to respond quickly to that blankness: Humboldt’s ideas were so revolutionary, his thinking so transformative, that he eludes a single trademark. Years ago I was introduced to a lecture audience with the warning that learning a little about Humboldt is like sipping a little from a fire hose. Yes, but when the house is on fire, a fire hose is exactly what one needs—so it’s good news that Humboldt, a walking, talking, one-man planetary paradigm shift, is once again on the bestseller list, this time with Andrea Wulf’s flawed but important book, The Invention of Nature.
One could argue that Humboldt founded modern, international science itself—and still fall short: more places and more species are named after him than for any other human being; his writings inspired whole schools of landscape artists across the Americas; his advice guided entire armies of scientific explorers across the globe; and a dizzying array of writers—from Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to gothic master Edgar Allen Poe, from live-in-the-now Walt Whitman to look-to-the-future Jules Verne—were inspired by Humboldt’s vision of the cosmos.
Wulf’s strategy in The Invention of Nature is to assert, as her title suggests, that Humboldt “gave us our concept of nature itself.” Humboldt himself would protest, for he had traced (in Cosmos ) the history of “nature” as a concept all the way from ancient Greece and Rome, through India and Arabia, to Rousseau, Goethe, and Faraday, in an effort to show that all peoples for whom he could find a written record had concepts of nature, concepts whose variations in place and time Humboldt found, as an intellectual historian, fascinating. But perhaps he would agree, to this extent: Nature was both a physical reality and a concept. As a close student of Immanuel Kant, Humboldt agreed that the human mind was unable to see nature through any other lens than itself, that is, that our concept of nature inevitably inflects the way we see the natural world. But Humboldt was no idealist; he was eloquent on the many ways nonhuman nature permeates every motion of human being and every formation of human society.
This dance of dualism between nature and mind drove Humboldt’s deepest insight: Physical, material nature—from the molten-cored Earth, to its rich mantle of life, to the billions of stars and interstellar objects in “the great garden of the universe”—exists entirely independent of humanity; yet this same physical universe gave rise to human consciousness, which it continues to shape and nourish even as the human mind vaults into its own sphere of imagination and invention.
To solve this riddle of dualism Humboldt offered his concept of cosmos , reviving for this modern notion the ancient Greek word that depicts the universe as both ordered and beautiful . That is, while physical nature does just fine without us, the cosmos that Humboldt defines—the material universe seen in its order and beauty—needs us: Cosmos exists only through human arts, inventions, and sciences. As such, it is fundamentally developmental and dynamic, changing over time alongside our mutable notions of nature.
Out of this profound insight into the interconnection of mind and nature at every scale level was born Humboldt’s endlessly productive vision of science and society, arts and humanities, flourishing together—a flourishing that grew out of his own proposal for a new, modern, developmental concept of nature. Out of his vision was also born his program for science, a rigorous program of exact observation and accurate measurement—the only ways, thought Humboldt, by which the human mind can identify with precision the regularities and patterns exhibited by the physical universe.
ANDREA WULF OFFERS a primer in the basics of Humboldt studies by synthesizing and paraphrasing a range of scholars who, given the book’s rather sketchy attributions, must console themselves with achieving bestseller-dom in her voice rather than their own. Wulf is, accordingly, at her best and most original when describing her own walks in Humboldt’s footsteps or mining his vast correspondence for fresh information.
Given her preoccupation with Humboldt’s refusal to cordon off “subjective” emotion from “objective,” hard facts, we learn a lot about his emotional states: his restless, lonely childhood in Berlin (with a nod to brother Wilhelm, the famed philosopher of linguistics and history); his mutually invigorating friendship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; his youthful determination to travel the globe; his gleeful expedition across South America with the botanist Aimé Bonpland; his frenzied work and scientific disappointments in war-torn Europe; his political disillusionment; his sadly compromised expedition to Russia and China.
Wulf helpfully sets Humboldt’s life amid the broad panorama of history from the French Revolution to the Revolution of 1848 and the U.S. Civil War, highlighting his fiercely republican protests against slavery and colonialism and his relationships with such revolutionary heroes as Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolivar. Wulf attends to several of Humboldt’s disciples, particularly Darwin and geologist Charles Lyell, and closes by profiling several men (but no women) inspired by his holistic view of nature—transcendentalist author and abolitionist Henry David Thoreau; scholar and conservationist George Perkins Marsh; biologist, naturalist, and artist Ernst Haeckel; and naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir—inscribing a progressive narrative that extended from environmental understanding to widening environmental activism.
What, then, accounts for the strange disappearance of Humboldt from modern memory—at least in Anglo-America? Wulf alludes to the argument that anti-Germanism during the World Wars erased Humboldt from the record (although, oddly, not Kant, Goethe, or brother Wilhelm); she also blames scientists who “crawled into their narrow areas of expertise,” losing his interdisciplinary methods and “concept of nature as a global force.”
There are, in fact, many levels of explanation, including the eclipse of Humboldt by the epic debates over Darwinism as well as the need in the United States to disconnect science from the messy politics of the Civil War. Humboldt, who opposed slavery, had actually been claimed as a partisan by both sides. Most telling of all, the forces that drove scientists to specialize into narrow areas of expertise were partly a consequence of Humboldt’s very program, demanding as it did rigorous protocols of observation and measurement. Humboldt’s purview was, in effect, fragmented into multiple, and extremely productive, research programs, without a new Humboldt to keep all the branches of science—and the humanists and artists too—together in true, Humboldtian collaboration.
Given her desire to heal the breach between the sciences and the humanities, it’s too bad Wulf falls into blaming scientists, especially when so many (at least in my experience) are themselves passionate defenders of a Humboldtian sense of wonder. At least she broadcasts that sense of wonder to a broad spectrum of nonscientists, who, one hopes, will now read Humboldt for themselves: Cosmos , alas, still exists in English only in clunky Victorian translations, but Humboldt’s sinuous, innovative Views of Nature and his ecological blockbuster Essay on the Geography of Plants have both been freshly translated, as have, in the social sciences, his newly relevant Political Essay on the Island of Cuba and his extraordinary pictorial Views of the Cordilleras —all through the University of Chicago Press, with more in the works.
“So why,” Wulf asks in her epilogue, “should we care?” Why squeeze one more statue into our overstuffed intellectual pantheon? Because, she offers, “His concept of nature as one of global patterns underpins our thinking”; Humboldt is nowhere to be found only because he is everywhere. Here, too, her assumptions seem glib. Wouldn’t a society truly “underpinned” by Humboldt’s concept of nature as “global patterns,” the web of interconnections between humans and nature, have heeded Humboldt’s own warnings?—admonitions that, as Wulf reiterates, detailed how humans were damaging the physical environment on a scale that approached the planetary even then. For while Humboldt could analyze the devastation caused by deforestation and initiate the earth system science that led ultimately to our understanding of human-caused climate change, what he could not do, despite all his prodigious work, was lead humans to value intellectual discovery over consumerism, beauty over power, social and environmental justice over greed and conquest.
“Maybe now is the moment for us and for the environmental movement to reclaim Alexander von Humboldt as our hero,” concludes Wulf. Maybe? Why pull punches? Humboldt, as her own book details, is not just another tedious historical footnote—his work represents a paradigm shift, one that could have saved us from ourselves, had we been listening. The hope, and it is a hope Wulf’s book keeps alive, is that it might, even yet, not be too late to start.