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

What an absolutely incredible book about an incredible man and incredible people who were inspired by him – the beat goes on although scientists themselves interrupted it for awhile. 

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

2020 / 396 pages Kindle 
Read by David Drummond 14h 3m Rating 9.75 / biography/science 
(Both read and listened) 

I’d barely heard of Alexander von Humboldt before this book – There’s a state university in Northern California which is named for him and it’s in a perfect spot, full of big trees and mountains and the ocean.  

This is not a book I would choose on my own but that’s why I stick around some of these reading groups; they introduce me to authors and even genres I wouldn’t otherwise bother with and I’d miss some really great reads.  Like this one – which probably deserves a second reading.

If there is one word I would use to describe Alexander von Humboldt the word is indefatigable.  He was one of the greatest hands-on scientists the world has ever seen.  He explored with open eyes and then told his world what he saw in many books and in his way, he saw the future.  

Humboldt’s era was between 1769 – 1859  and he started in Germany then traveled to Spain, took a ship to South America where he explored Venezuela and other northern parts of the continent plus Cuba and Mexico (New Spain).  After that he  briefly visited the US and then back to Europe, France this time.  Later in life he went to Russia and with Cossack guides, got to the far interior all the way to Mongolia and Beluka and over to the Caspian Sea.  He tried to focus on the patterns and connections of nature but occasionally got waylaid.  

He took measurements and collected samples.  He studied botany, zoology, geology, and chemistry, astronomy, agriculture, forestry, 

And he met people who inspired him and whom he in turn awed but some people like Goethe, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau were especially close and Wulff pays those special attention.  

Fascinating in Chapter 17 how the ideas of evolution evolved over the decades.  

This book is a wonderment – it makes me want to read Humboldt’s Personal Narrative or Cosmos but that would be a reach for me to do that. 

Humboldt was almost as much a writer as he was a scientist and in trying to connect the parts of the earth waxed poetic.  I suppose by our standards it would be an early practitioner of “creative nonfiction.”  Searching for the unity of the universe – Thoreau went the same way as Humboldt but Emerson needed a revelation from God.  Emerson the Transcendentalists and Kant – a class of ideas of knowledge – not from experience.  This was against empiricists.  Thoreau was more of an empiricist emulating the scientists in recording details of life like Humboldt.  Thoreau wrote essays and “Field Notes.”  He read Cosmos 

And then in Part 5 there’s George Perkins Marsh the American who is considered the father of environmentalism. By recognizing the irreversible impact of man’s actions on the earth, his writings acted as a precursor to the sustainability concept. And there’s Ernst Haeckel the German zoologist who brought Humboldt’s ideas to Italy, became a convert to Darwin’s ideas of evolution, coined the word “ecology,” and did many more things including scientific concepts in art.

Humboldt State University in California was named for Humboldt but it was started in 1913 although he died in 1859.  Humboldt county is a beautiful spot to be named for Humboldt and a college is just exactly what he’d want.

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