Book review: The Invention of Nature

Alexander von Humboldt was one of the scientists who defined our world. Dick Warner on a book that may help restore his well- deserved reputation as the father of environmentalism.

 

Andrea Wulf. 

John Murray €37.50, ebook €22.99 

On the face of it the notion that there is a lost hero of science who ‘invented’ nature is an absurd piece of publisher’s blurb.

On closer examination Alexander von Humboldt may deserve the accolade. 

Perhaps the only other scientist who could be credited with ‘inventing’ the modern way of looking at nature would be Charles Darwin, but Darwin, who was a generation younger than Humboldt, was heavily influenced by him when he was developing what would become evolutionary theory and he corresponded with him and met him in person.

Actually the meeting didn’t go very well. Humboldt could be difficult because he never stopped talking and he did so at extraordinary speed in German, French, English and Spanish — sometimes using all four languages in one sentence.

Darwin travelled up to London, very excited at the thought of meeting the great man and full of questions he wanted to put to him.

However, Humboldt entered the room in full flight, spoke rapidly for three hours without notes, and then left, still speaking. Darwin didn’t get a word in edgeways.

Humboldt wrote several thousand letters a year but he didn’t use a secretary and his handwriting was tiny and almost indecipherable so writing to him could be as frustrating as trying to talk to him.

It’s said that when a letter arrived from him a group of people had to be convened who had various linguistic skills and magnifying glasses and it could take them up to a week to read it.

He was born in 1769 into an aristocratic Prussian family and seems to have had a rather unhappy childhood.

His father died suddenly when he was nine and his mother was a cold and autocratic woman who was determined that Alexander would have a respectable but boring career in the Prussian civil service.

Alexander reacted by studying. He had an extraordinary memory and a very powerful brain and he studied everything for 18 hours a day, every day.

A key to understanding the man and his achievements is to realise that he was a polymath. His generation was the last one in which it was possible to study everything; as the 19th century progressed, the sciences became compartmentalised into separate disciplines. 

Not that Humboldt confined himself to the sciences — he had a life-long interest in the visual arts and in literature and he had close personal relationships with Goethe and Schiller.

He also had strong political views which were somewhat unusual for a man of his background and lifestyle.

In a revolutionary era in Europe and the Americas he embraced Enlightenment thinking, influenced Simon Bolivar in the struggle to free Spain’s American colonies, was vociferous in the fight against slavery and the treatment of native Americans in north America and supported revolutionary movements across Europe.

At the same time he managed somehow to retain his place as a chamberlain at the court of the Prussian king and to be welcome in conservative and Royalist circles across the continent.

At a young age Humboldt developed a burning ambition to supplement his studies by going on a scientific exhibition to some exotic and largely unexplored place.

He suffered terribly from ‘fernweh’, which is a German word that has no English equivalent — it’s the opposite of homesickness, a yearning to be in distant places that is similar, though not identical, to wanderlust.

However, there were some big difficulties. His mother wouldn’t let him go, he had no money and the Napoleonic wars made travel by land or sea extremely dangerous. Then his mother died and left him a lot of money, which solved the first two difficulties.

He put a lot of effort into solving the final one, travelling first to Paris and then to Madrid looking for someone who would guarantee him safe passage to, well almost anywhere exotic.

Eventually and rather surprisingly, the Spanish king agreed to let him travel to Central and South America, something practically no other foreigner had done.

He finally arrived in what is Venezuela today and his extensive travels from Peru to Mexico and Cuba, with a detour to meet Thomas Jefferson in Washington, proved that he was physically as tough as he was mentally brilliant. 

He climbed to 19,413 feet on Chimborazo in the Andes, then thought to be the highest mountain in the world.

He didn’t quite get to the summit because his porters had abandoned him, but this was probably the highest any human being had ever been at the time.

He also explored and mapped tropical rivers using dugout canoes and wherever he went he took readings with his collection of scientific instruments and made notes about everything.

The expedition, and the massive illustrated volumes that resulted from it, established his reputation as a scientist. Much of the rest of his life was spent writing these volumes, though he made unceasing efforts to organise another expedition. 

He desperately wanted to go to India and the Himalayas to test some of his ideas, particularly on climate and vegetation.

However, the British East India Company controlled access and was very suspicious of Humboldt’s revolutionary ideas and his enthusiasm for freeing colonies from their imperial masters.

In the end the only other major expedition he made was when he persuaded the tsar to let him explore Russia’s Asian possessions and managed to travel overland as far as the Chinese border.

Humboldt’s contribution to modern knowledge isn’t easy to sum up but it lies in his vision of nature as a unified whole that is vulnerable to human impact.

He is the father of ecology, though the word was first coined by one of his pupils, Ernst Haeckel, and also the father of modern environmentalism with a strong influence on Americans like Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh and John Muir. In his day he was simply the most famous man in the world.

There are lakes, rivers, mountains, bays, glaciers, towns and cities named after him from New Zealand to Greenland and Antarctica to Paris, even a major ocean current, a species of penguin and the ‘Mare Humboldtianum’ on the moon.

The most extraordinary thing is the extent to which he is forgotten in the English-speaking word today. Andrea Wulf puts forward a tentative explanation for this in the book.

She suggests he has been expunged from the record because of anti-German sentiment in Britain and the US following the two world wars of the 20th century. 

This may or may not be true but the phrase ‘lost hero of science’ in the subtitle of her book is no exaggeration.

This is a big book about a big subject, written with scholarship and enthusiasm.

There are times when it may be too big. The narrative of the long and extraordinary life of a brilliant and extraordinary man gets overshadowed by the details of political events during a turbulent period in the history of Europe and the Americas.

Her biography also contains many mini-biographies of the men Humboldt influenced, with essays on Darwin, Thoreau, Marsh, Haeckel and Muir.


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