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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-07-17 11:52
THE INVENTION of NATURE BY ANDREA WULF
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

TITLE:  The Invention of Nature:  Alexander von Humboldt's New World

 

AUTHOR:   Andrea Wulf

 

Publisher:  Knopf

 

Format:  e-book

 

ISBN-13:  978-0-385-35067-9

 

 

BOOK REVIEW

 

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf is not  a complete or in-depth biography, but rather a journey to discover the forgotten life (and far reaching influence) of Alexander von Humboldt, the visionary Prussian naturalist and explorer whose ideas changed the way we perceive the natural world, and in the process created modern environmentalism. 

 

In this book, Wulf traces the threads that connect us to this extraordinary man, showing how Humboldt influenced many of the greatest artists, thinkers and scientists of his day.  However, today he is almost forgotten outside academia (due to politics and changing fashions), despite his ideas still shaping out thinking.  Ecologists, environmentalists and nature writers rely on Humboldt's vision, although most do so unknowingly.  It is the author's stated objective to "rediscover Humboldt, and to restore him to his rightful place in the pantheon of nature and science" and to "understand why we think as we do today about the natural world".    In my opinion, Andrea Wulf successfully shows the many fundamental ways in which Humboldt created our understanding of the natural world, and she champions a renewed interest in this vital and lost player in environmental history and science.

 

Alexander von Humboldt was one of the founders of modern biology and ecology, and had a direct effect on scientists and political leaders.  Wulf examines how Humboldt’s writings inspired other naturalists, politicians and poets such as Charles Darwin, Wordsworth, Simón Bolívar, Thomas Jefferson, Goethe, John Muir and Thoreau.  The author successfully integrates Humboldt's life and activities into the political and social scene so we can get a picture of how important Humboldt was, and still is.  Many people considered him the most famous scientist of his age.

 

Humboldt was a hands-on scientist.  His expeditions of discovery led him through Europe, Latin America and eventually Siberia.  He strongly desired to see the Himalaya, but the East India Company didn't want to co-operate for fear that he would write unflattering comments about their form of governance.

 

Humboldt also continued to assist young scientists, artists and explorers throughout his life, often helping them financially despite his own debt. 

 

Alexander von Humboldt led a colourful and adventurous life, but this book also shows us why Humboldt is so important:

- he is the founding father of environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers.

- he made science accessible and popular - everybody learned from him.

- he believed that education was the foundation of a free and happy society.

- his interdisciplinary approach to science and nature is more relevant than ever as scientists are trying to understand man's effect on the world.

- his beliefs in the free exchange of information, in uniting scientists and in fostering communication across disciplines, are the pillars of science today.

- his concept of nature as one of global patterns underpins our thinking today.

- his insights that social, economic and political issues are closely connected to environmental problems remain topical today.

- he wrote about the abolition of slavery and the disastrous consequences of reckless colonialism.

 - he believed that knowledge had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everbody.

- he invented isotherms (the lines of temperature and pressure on weather maps).

- he discovered the magnetic equator.

- he developed the idea of vegetation and climate zones.

- his quantitative work on  botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography.

-  he was one of the first people to propose that South America and Africa were once joined.

- he was the first person to describe the phenomenon and cause of human-induced climate change, based on observations made during his travels.

- he contributed to geology through his study of mountains and volcanoes.

- he was a significant contributor to cartography by creating maps of little-explored regions.

- his advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.

- he revolutionized the way we see the natural world.

- he developed the web of life (the concept of nature as a chain of causes and effects).

- he was the first scientist to talk about human-induced environmental degradation.

- he was the first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate:  the tree's ability to store water and to enrich the atmosphere with moisture, their protection of the soil, and their cooling effect.

- he warned that the agricultural techniques of his day could have devastating consequences.

- he discovered the idea of a keystone species (a species that is essential for an ecosystem to function) almost 200 years before the concept was named.

- he confirmed that the Casiquiare was a natural waterway between the Orinoco and the Rio Negro, which is a tributary of the Amazon, and made a detailed map.

- he considered the replacement of food crops with cash crops to be a recipe for dependency and injustice.  He felt that monoculture and cash crops did not create a happy society, and that subsistence farming, based on edible crops and variety, was a better alternative.

 

I found the chapters that describe Humboldt's expeditions to be fascinating - filled with hazards, wild animals, pests, injuries, epidemics, new discoveries and ideas.  The chapters that discuss his busy social and work life were also interesting.  However, I wish the author had spend more page space on his expeditions and discoveries, and less on the biographies of the people he influenced, especially the last few chapters which were somewhat long-winded.  What I found rather refreshing was the lack of author speculation and interjection of her own theories - the narrative sticks to what is known.  The author also manages to convey Humboldt's enthusiasm and energy so that the reader feels breathless just reading about all his activities.

 

This biographical search for the invention of nature and the man who "invented" it, provides a great deal of food for thought, woven around the life of a great (and overly energetic) scientist.  This was an enjoyable and informative reading experience.

 

 

 

NOTE:  This book includes three clear, easy to read maps that were particularly useful in following Humboldt's Journeys, and a large number of black and white, as well as colour illustrations were also included in the book.  In addition, the author included an extensive section of notes, sources and bibliography, an index and a note on Humboldt's publications.

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text SPOILER ALERT! 2017-07-17 09:39
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf (PROGRESS UPDATE)
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

PART 5:  NEW WORLDS: EVOLVING IDEAS

 

In Chapter 20 we learn how Europe has erupted into civil unrest and how Humboldt's balancing act between his liberal political views and his court duties were getting more difficult.  We also learn that Humboldt continued to assist young scientist, artists and explorers, often helping them financially despite his own debt.  In one way or another, he ruled over the destinies of scientists across the world.

 

"Since he had no family of his own, these young men were like his children."

 

In this chapter, Bonpland makes a re-appearance.  It's nice to finally find out how his story continues.

 

Despite his age and busy social and work schedule, Humboldt remained interested in everything new, especially the possibilities of technology.  Many considered the man to be the most famous scientist of his age.

 

Then, soon after dispatching the 5th volume of his book Cosmos, Humboldt collapses, and a few days later he dies, at age 89. 

 

"For many, Humboldt was, as the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV had said, simply 'the greatest man since the Deluge'."

 

Humboldt's work shaped two generations of scientists, artists, writers and poets.  The remainder of the section of the book is taken up with showing how Humboldt's ideas about nature, and his observations of anthropogenic ecological degradation influenced a selection of nature writers, artists and scientists - George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel, John Muir.  These people influenced our current view (and legislation) of the preservation, protection and use of nature as a resource. 

 

I liked how the author dealt with Humboldt's death and the global response to this.  This was a sad occasion and she manages to make the reader feel as if they have lost someone important.  However, I felt that the author's choice of influential nature people was rather limited and these chapters to be rather flowery in terms of language.  I would rather have read more about Humboldt than these fellows.

 

 

 

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text SPOILER ALERT! 2017-07-17 09:01
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf (PROGRESS UPDATE)
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

PART 4:  INFLUENCE: SPREADING IDEAS

 

In Part 4, Humboldt is recalled to Berlin, a city he considers an intellectual backwater, and tied up with court duties.

 

"The man who had written thirty years previously that 'court life robs even the most intellectual o their genius and freedom', now found himself bound to royal routine."

 

Humboldt believed that education was the foundation of a free and happy society (which the establishment considered a dangerous thought), and tried to use his court position to support scientists, explorers and artists.  While in Berlin, he also gave many lectures free of charge, thus enabling anyone - rich, poor, men and women - to attend his lectures on the natural world.  He tried to revolutionize the sciences by organising a conference where attending scientists were expected to talk to each other and not at each other.

 

Humboldt eventually managed to organise an all-expenses paid trip to Russia.  Although this expedition was supposed to be for the "advancement of science", the tsar was more interested in the advancement of commerce so Humboldt was obliged to investigate mines along their route.  Humboldt, being something of an eccentric and over active rebel, decided to take an unauthorised detour to see the Altai Mountains where Russia, China and Mongolia met as the counterpart of his observations in the Andes, and then to the Caspian Sea.  Even an anthrax epidemic wouldn't stop him.  Despite being short on money, Humboldt returned a third of his expense money to be used to finance another explorer.  Supporting other scientists, explorers and artists is something that we see Humboldt do fairly often.

  

 

 

Part 3 also includes an interesting chapter on Charles Darwin and how Humboldt's books and understanding of nature influenced Darwin's studies and his eventual development of the theory of evolution. 

 

"Darwin was standing on Humboldt's shoulders."

 

A chapter is dedicated to Humboldt's endeavours in writing Cosmos:  A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe.   This book (in five volumes) would take the rest of Humboldt's life to write. 

 

"Humboldt wanted to write a book that would bring together everything I the heavens and on earth, ranging from distant nebulae to the geography of mosses, and from landscape painting to the migration of the human races and poetry."

 

 

Wulf manages to convey how excited and alive Humboldt felt while on his Siberian expedition, and how much he enjoyed these expeditions.   I enjoyed the exploration parts of the book more than the philosophical musings and the history lessons.  

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text SPOILER ALERT! 2017-07-12 19:04
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf (PROGRESS UPDATE)
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

PART 3:  RETURN:  SORTING IDEAS

 

Part 3 of this book deals with Humboldt's return to Europe, his reception by the inhabitants and his book publishing.  Humboldt was quite happy to share his specimens with others and help out young scientists.  This section also gives a nice summary of the political climate in Europe and South America at this time and how this affected (and was affected by) Humboldt.  He might not have been a gun-toting revolutionary, but Humboldt had a large influence of the South American evolutions.  We also get to find out what happened to Aime Bonpland. 

 

"Humboldt enjoyed meeting other scientists to exchange ideas and share information, but life in Europe increasingly frustrated him.  Throughout these years of  political upheaval he had remained restless and, with Europe so deeply torn, he felt that there was little holding him."

 

Humboldt spend a great deal of time and effort trying to convince the East India Company to let him visit India to investigate the Himalaya so that he could gather data for a comparison with the Andes.  While he had published many successful and popular book and was admired by British poets, thinkers and scientists, the East India Company had other ideas. 

 

Andrea Wulf manages to convey Humboldt's frustrations with his travel impediments and with time-wasting social functions quite well.  She manages to keep a fast paced narrative despite not having any grand jungle adventures to fall back on and somehow makes publishing books, doing experiments and visiting people sound exciting.  In this section, the author also manages to convey how many important and influential scientists Humboldt influenced and was influenced by - an interesting amalgamation and sorting of ideas.

 

 

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text 2017-07-12 17:52
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf (PROGRESS UPDATE)
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

PART 2:  ARRIVAL:  COLLECTING IDEAS

 

 

This section continues the harrowing (and sometimes amusing) adventures of Alexander von Humboldt and his companions from their arrival on the shores of South America to when they leave Philadelphia, U.S.A.  Humboldt's expedition was more about collecting ideas than just natural history objects.  Humboldt witnessed such things as deforestation, environmental destruction, slavery, mining damage, various agricultural and political ideologies, volcanoes, mountains, rivers and jungles, which would ultimately lead to an altered perspective of nature and man's effects on nature. 

 

The 5 chapters that form this section of the book show how Humboldt developed an understanding of nature and man's place in nature.  The author also shows how current environmental ideas and ecological concepts (environmental degradation, keystone species, climate zones, finding the magnetic equator, etc.) were influenced by Humboldt's work. 

 

Humboldt also sailed to North America to meet with the President of the U.S.A, Thomas Jefferson.  This chapter takes a look at how politics and nature should belong together.  Humboldt debated nature, ecological issues, imperial power and politics in relation to each other.  He criticised unjust lad distribution, monoculture violence against tribal groups and poor work condition of the indigenous population.  He also had issues with slavery which he considered a disgrace and the greatest evil - he believed that justice and freedom were more important than numbers and the wealth of a few.  I was interested to learn that the U.S.A had very little information on their neighbouring countries and Jefferson obtained this information from Humboldt.  There were also interesting discussions on cash crops vs. food crops and a nation's ability to sustain itself.

 

"Nature was Humboldt's teacher.  And the greatest lesson that nature offered was that of freedom.  'Nature is the domain of liberty' Humboldt said, because nature's balance was created by diversity which might in turn be taken as a blueprint for political and moral truth.  Everything ... had its role, and together they made the whole.  Humankind was just one small part.  Nature itself was a republic of freedom."

 

I found the description of Humboldt's journey through Latin America to be too brief.  However, I'm not sure the author could have added any more details without bogging the book down and making it too long.  So, I feel, in the end, the author managed to find an acceptable balance between too much detail and including the information that is relevant to Humboldt's investigations and his developing perspective about nature and it's interconnectedness. 

 

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