book-reviews

The Invention of Nature

by Andrea Wulf

Rating: ★★★

Wulf loftily subtitles this biography The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science, and proceeds to reveal almost every word of the titlepage to be a lie. The only contender for veracity is 'lost', for Humboldt's is not a name in common currency, but even here it seems dubious that an authority referenced by, among others, Darwin, and whom many other easily locatable books have been written about, is in danger of becoming entirely forgotten.

First and foremost, the narrative of Humboldt reveals that he did not invent 'nature' as a concept, for it was something which already existed to fascinate him. The inspiration here is unclear -- if Wulf intended to reference his scientific work, it is clearly overblown. My most charitable interpretation is that it is possible that we can 'read backwards' here and see that there is a particular modern connotation to 'nature' which Humboldt is responsible for, that of nature as something sacred, a complex living organism that mankind must protect rather than struggle against. In this conception, Humboldt is marking a threshold in human history, a point where we cease to fight to master a thing and instead start to take pity on what we have so cruelly and completely overcome. If so, I would suggest inversion rather than invention.

Next, the suggestion that Humboldt is a 'hero of science'. I admit that Humboldt was probably impressive enough to merit the first component -- he was evidently a personal hero for many luminaries -- and he was for the greater part a man of science, but putting this together does not reach the same level of suggestion as 'hero of science'. What precisely were Humboldt's scientific contributions? So far as Wulf presents it, beyond his copious observations and communicative powers, he made one major contribution: he articulated the concept of 'ecology', with species arranged by climate and interactions. He also identified the potential for mankind to perform ecological damage, but this is a secondary component of this first concept. This is noteworthy, particularly when you add that Humboldt did not merely float the idea, but backed it up with rich argument and descriptions based on his observations, but we should not overlook that just because it was not part of the scientific toolbox of the time does not mean it was entirely unknown -- the 19th century did not consist of thinkers who had no idea that animals ate each other. Humboldt's contribution is good, worthy enough to make him an important figure in his time, but it did not shake the foundations of mankind's understanding.

Onward, and the greatest lie of this titlepage is that the book within is about 'The adventures of'. The plural is almost misleading by itself. Humboldt had one grand adventure in South America (detailed chapters on which I would have admitted the label 'adventures' of, but Wulf's treatment is too cursory), and another somewhat lesser one in Russia in his advanced years. Wulf writes of both of these, but does not take us along on them. She describes, in her prologue, a tense scene on a volcano in South America, but this is a sole event. Much of the book is about Humboldt growing frustrated in Europe while he writes his books, and Wulf for the most part describes this from a distance, occasionally slipping in a line or two from archived correspondence. I was expecting to see South America through Humboldt's eyes, but instead I hear that he went there.

Finally, I can question whether the book is really about Alexander von Humboldt. Seeming to run out of subject matter about this person we are told is so interesting, Wulf diverges heavily into other characters. Some of these, such as Goethe or Darwin, are handled relatively well and integrate into the narrative without looking too much like padding. Others, like Bolivar, Thoreau and indeed most of the end of the book, seem like 'extra material' that Wulf had left over from some alternate conception of the book, inserted to beef up the wordcount. They are not strongly linked to Humboldt, and even where their lives do overlap with his story, it seems the rest of the mini-biography Wulf provides is unnecessary for describing the connection. I wonder if it wouldn't have been better for Wulf to write a history of the great naturalists of this era, using Humboldt as the connecting hub that he was in his own life, rather than this untidy biography-plus.

The book taught me some things. I didn't know who Humboldt was before I'd heard of it, and neither did I know much about Goethe or anything about Bolivar. I was interested by Humboldt as a character, even though I'm sure I'd be annoyed by his incessant talk in person. But I'm left unmoved by Wulf's central thesis: Humboldt strikes me as a great man in his time, a significant figure in the scientific world, but he doesn't strike me as someone we need to venerate. Ecological preservation is a worthy goal, as is good communication about science, but Humboldt is no longer a necessary figure for either. Humboldt seems to have been a central figure for the Romantics, leading to a vague 'whole of nature' being 'internally understood' -- Wulf repeats such empty phrases several times in describing him. I appreciate the rugged beauty of an untended wilderness, both in life and art, but such thinking isn't very scientifically useful, and the 'blending of science and art' in this way seems to benefit only the arts. The conception of 'natural' as 'good' might have been a valuable corrective in Humboldt's time, but nowadays we need less rather than more of such thinking: attitudes towards GMOs are just one example where this bias is irrationally holding back great benefits to mankind. If Humboldt is partially lost to the public consciousness, I'm happy for him to remain that way.