cover image The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

Andrea Wulf. Knopf, $30 (496p) ISBN 978-0-385-35066-2

Wulf (Chasing Venus) makes an impassioned case for the reinstatement of the boundlessly energetic, perpetually curious, prolific polymath von Humboldt (1769–1859) as a key figure in the history of science. She marshals as evidence evocative descriptions of his expeditions—measuring instruments in hand—through the most brutal terrains of South America and Russia; delightful stories of his inspired interactions with other contemporary luminaries, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, and Simon Bolívar; and demonstrations of his personal and intellectual influence on later seekers of truth in nature such as Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and Ernst Haeckel. But the greatest single idea Wulf credits von Humboldt with establishing is the interconnectedness of nature—the animated, interactive forces of life he described as a “living whole” that bound organisms in a “net-like intricate fabric”—rather than the mechanistic, taxonomic schema of his predecessors, from von Humboldt’s early explanation of plant life in the Andes through his Naturgemälde to his encyclopedic work, Cosmos. Wulf also works hard to show that von Humboldt was a good person by modern standards, featuring his progressive, humanitarian ideas against oppression and slavery. Wulf’s stories of wilderness adventure and academic exchange flow easily, and her affection for von Humboldt is contagious. Maps & illus. (Sept.)