Alexander Von Humboldt is not exactly a household name in 21st-Century America. I, for one, knew almost nothing about him, even after living in the county bearing his name for several years. But in his day, he was "as famous as Napoleon," the ultimate science rock star — Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Carl Sagan all rolled into one.
So I flipped open Andrea Wulf's biography The Invention of Nature eager to learn, but with some trepidation too. These days it seems like the more you learn about a historical figure, the less you like them (a friend recently gave me a long lecture about what a jerk Gandhi was). So it is a relief to report that Humboldt was a pretty groovy guy: an abolitionist, anti-colonialist and proto-environmentalist. He was probably even gay, though it's not clear if he was practicing or just inclined.
Born in 1769 to an aristocratic Prussian family, Humboldt was an ambitious explorer and prodigious scholar; his expedition to South America alone produced no less than 34 volumes. He was friendly with everyone from Johan Wolfgang von Goethe to Simon Bolivar to Thomas Jefferson (whom he criticized for owning slaves). And he was an influential thinker who changed the way people perceived the world around them.
"Humboldt revolutionized the way we saw the natural world," says Wulf. "He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. 'In this great chain of causes and effects,' Humboldt said, 'no single fact can be considered in isolation.' With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today."
According to Wulf, Humboldt was the first person to view nature in such a holistic way — with the possible exception of every indigenous person on several continents. But in terms of Western thought, he was ahead of his time. He was also an early proponent of conservation. As early as the 1820s, says Wulf, "he warned that humans were meddling with the climate and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on 'future generations.'" This makes for bittersweet reading two centuries later.
As the book goes on Humboldt emerges, despite his accomplishments and renown, as something of a tragic figure. Economic and political necessity forced him to accept a position as chamberlain in the Prussian court, taking him away from science and exploration. He never fulfilled his lifelong ambition of visiting the Himalayas, though he did make it to Russia in his 70s. And he seems most of his life to have been a lonely soul, a man with many acquaintances but few intimates.
His influence was vast, though, and Wulf does a good job of tracing the effects his work and ideas had on people like Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin and John Muir. Darwin, in particular, seems to have been something of a Humboldt fanboy, carrying the author's dog-eared volumes with him everywhere he went. The theory of evolution itself seems to have evolved out of Humboldt's writing about "the gradual transformations of species."
The Invention of Nature is a scholarly and well-researched book that is also, perhaps as a result, a little on the dry side. Wulf goes out of her way to shoehorn in lots of quotes, often fragmentary ones or even single words, making for some awkward prose. You may be better served by seeking out some of Humboldt's own work; the problem there is where to start among a vast mountain of material. All things considered, I'll give The Invention of Nature a qualified recommendation as a good way to learn about a fascinating person who still has a few things to teach us.