When first received Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature as a gift from a friend, I had only vague ideas about who Alexander von Humboldt was. As I delved into Wulf’s astonishingly well-researched narrative, I was impressed at every turn by both the author and the subject of the book.
First, let’s talk about the subject: Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt was a gentlemen-scientist who dabbled in nearly every scientific field he could get his hands on, from ecology to anatomy to physics. His ideas were instrumental in the fountain of the conservation movement, and he predicted climate change many years before it became the hot topic it is today. His scientific discoveries alone set him apart, but what really captured my attention about Humboldt was his interest in politics. Personally, I usually have a difficult time appreciating historical figures like Humboldt, because no matter how revolutionary their work was in their field, they’re often what my history teachers called “a product of their times”—which usually means that they were a bigot.
Humboldt, however, stands apart from the crowd of historical bigots. He was outspokenly against slavery, and was vehement in his belief that indigenous peoples should be treated with respect, an unusual quality for a rich white explorer. Not only was he interested in human rights, Humboldt managed to get himself entangled in all sorts of interesting political events. Most strikingly, Humboldt was close friends with Simón Bolívar, who later went on to play a leading role in the revolution that separated South America from Spanish rule. For someone who receives little credit (at least in the United States), Alexander von Humboldt is a fascinating historical figure.
Andrea Wulf clearly saw potential in Humboldt as an under-recognized historical figure with an impact that lasts well into the present day. She works literary magic on his story—the book is perfectly paced; the reader is never bored with minute details or slogging accounts of uneventful months. Parts of the book, especially when Humboldt and his team are deep in the Amazonian rain forest, are thrilling to read, soaked with danger and adrenaline. Even more exciting is the fact that there is not a sentence in the book that isn’t well-sourced. (A significant chunk of the pages at the back of the book are dedicated to the author’s citations.) Another thing that sets The Invention of Nature apart is that Wulf doesn’t limit herself to only talking about Humboldt himself. She takes the reader on several detours, including chapters about how Humboldt impacted other influential minds, like Darwin and Thoreau.
The Invention of Nature isn’t just a book about science; it’s also a book about politics, history, and geography. I think that’s fitting, as Humboldt himself changed and combined disciplines like some people change outfits. Pick up a copy of Andrea Wulf’s masterpiece for a journey that’s both exciting and educational.