Magazine article American Scientist

THE INVENTION OF NATURE: Alexander Von Humboldt's New World

Magazine article American Scientist

THE INVENTION OF NATURE: Alexander Von Humboldt's New World

Article excerpt

O Pioneer 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 modem, 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 Edger Allen Poe, from live-in-the-now Walt Whitman to look-to-the-future to 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. …

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