In her grand work, The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf sets out to restore Alexander von Humboldt (b. 1769) to his rightful place in the pantheon of scientific greats. By introducing the worldview that “nature is a living whole”, a “web of life”, and that man – through deforestation, farming and industrial practices – was actively degrading the environment, Humboldt can be ranked as a founder of the modern ecology movement. Not only this, but his many books – among them, Views of Nature and Cosmos – combined science, poetry and illustration making them accessible to the general reader for the very first time.
His views were formed on his great expedition to Latin America in 1799 with his companion and fellow scientist, Aimé Bonpland, and their guide, Jose. Part Boy’s Own adventure – to investigate the properties of electric eels they led a group of wild horses into an infested pool, thereby luring the eels to the surface – and part scientific exploration – they brought back over 2000 new species at a time when only around 6000 species were known and catalogued in the world – this trip was to serve as the basis for Humboldt’s books. One of these – the seven volume Personal Narratives – Charles Darwin took with him on the Beagle, coming to know parts of it almost by heart.
The book is full of fascinating incidental history. Humboldt was a well-connected, charismatic man with many learned friends, including Goethe, the revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar, and Thomas Jefferson. Described as a “fountain of knowledge which flows in copious streams”, his blending of art into his writing drew admiration from artists such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, alongside scientific contemporaries, and many other luminaries. The list of important people he inspired – Darwin large among them – is very long indeed.
By the end of this book, I found Humboldt immensely endearing as well as interesting. Despite his series of free public lectures in Berlin being massively over-subscribed, his brother often complained that his ears would hurt after simply spending time with him. Indeed, Charles Darwin – full of nerves in anticipation of their first meeting – was disappointed by their ‘discussion’, because Humboldt spoke for nearly three hours without interruption. Ever full of contradictions, he had a malicious streak, but, even when virtually penniless, he always sought to help finance and encourage young scientists. Humboldt was a great hater of slavery and the damage inflicted by colonialism upon South America’s indigenous people. On discovering that the Orinocco and Amazon rivers were, as he had suspected, from one source, he shrugged off the resultant praise, noting that local fishermen had been well aware of it for centuries.
Wulf’s book is slightly uneven. The section on London drags a little, and the author is sometimes repetitious in inserting Humboldt’s influence into everything; phrases like ‘inspired by Humboldt’ seem slightly forced on occasion, particularly when talking about the extent of his influence on Simon Bolivar. More things in the world are named after Humboldt than anyone else, and I would have liked to have seen a list of these. But these are minor complaints. This is a wonderful book and had me spouting Humboldt facts to everyone I talked to (he was responsible for bringing the Brazil nut to Europe, for example). As the two World Wars came to taint all things German, Humboldt fell from favour, and it is only right, as Wulf asserts, that his place is restored, acknowledged and, as it is here, celebrated. There is still much to be learned from the life and work of a man such as Humboldt, one who, perhaps, has not yet finished inspiring others to greatness.