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Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Invention of Nature

There's a statue in Central Park, just across the street from the Museum of Natural History in New York, of a man named Alexander von Humboldt. I passed that statue often and wondered who he was. At one time, everyone knew he was. "Described by his contemporaries as the most famous man in the world after Napoleon, Humboldt was one of the most captivating and inspiring men of his time," writes Andrea Wulf in her biography, The Invention of Nature. She also adds, he was called the Shakespeare of sciences, and "More places are named after Humboldt than anyone else." Nevada was almost called Humboldt (there is a county in that state that bears his name, as well has Humboldt State University in California).

So who was he? Wulf puts it this way: "Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. ‘In this great chain of causes and effects,’ Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today."

Born in Germany, Humboldt was in incredible polymath. He had an urge to travel from the get-go, after serving as a mine inspector. His first great trip was to South America, where he identified new species of plants and explored volcanoes. Much later in life he made an epochal trip to Russia, where he again made connections between all natural objects, whether they be rocks or animals. He was friend to Thomas Jefferson, Goethe, and Simon Bolivar.

Wulf's book is not only a biography of Humboldt but also something of a detail of his lineage. She goes off on null chapters that at times take us too far away from the subject. We learn about Bolivar, and also men whom he inspired, like Charles Darwin, Henry Thoreau, and John Muir. If I wanted to read their biographies I would, so to go into such detail about them seems superfluous. She also writes a chapter on Ernest Maeckel, whom I had never heard of, and who coined the term that Humboldt had theorized: ecology.

Why isn't Humboldt known today? The statue in Central Park dates back to the 1880s and was commissioned by a German-American society. This is part of it, Wulf thinks. The anti-German sentiment of the first World War, which caused the House of Windsor to take a new name diluted his fame. Also, the era of specialization overtook the polymath. Today it would be unthinkable for one man to be a botanist and a vulcanologist.

What Wulf's book does do is make plain how important Humboldt was to the scientists who followed. He wrote many books, including a multi-volume series called Cosmos (he came up with the word from the Greek) that tried to tie together everything into one system: "He wanted to write a book that would bring together everything in 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." It was a huge seller.

Humboldt was a remarkable man, and this book attests to it. He seems to have never had a relationship with a woman worth mentioning--Wulf doesn't delve into this private life, only that he had a loving relationship with his brother and sister-in-law. He seems to have been completely devoted to his work. He died at the age of 89, but his discoveries live on.

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