Book Review: The Invention Of Nature - The Adventures Of Alexander Von Humboldt

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 37 No. 6, June 2017
By Andrea Wulf
Published by John Murray
Paperback, 473 pages,
Price: Rs. 599/-

Reviewed by Purva Variyar

I must admit, I had not even heard of Alexander von Humboldt before I came across this riveting book. And to think he has the most number of places, roads, days and even flora and fauna named after him than anyone in the world! Monsieur Charles Darwin wouldn't have boarded the Beagle and presented the world his ‘theory of evolution' had it not been for Humboldt. The New Scientist called Humboldt a ‘scientific superstar'. And clearly, what this man has accomplished in his life makes him by far one of the greatest men to have ever lived.Yet, somehow this great explorer, naturalist, scientist and inventor's exploits have been diluted by time. Fortuitously, Andrea Wulf brings him back to life with her award-winning The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt - The Lost Hero of Science.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Humboldt embarked on various explorations of the New World of South America, climbing the highest peaks, crossing the deepest rivers and traversing the densest jungles in the most challenging tropical conditions. No European had ventured into such ‘far away lands before. A deep scientific curiosity and an even stronger urge to learn more about nature drove Humboldt. The author takes us through Humboldt's remarkable journeys in a way that offers the reader a personal connection with the explorer. She infuses the book with Humboldt's spirit of adventure and infectious curiosity.

Humboldt and his team were the first to have ever ascended the perilous mountain of Chimborazo in the Andes, then thought to be the highest mountain in the world. As the prologue goes"

“… [A]s he stood at the top of the world, looking down upon the mountain ranges folded beneath him, Humboldt began to see the world differently. He saw the earth as one great living organism where everything was connected, conceiving a bold new vision of nature that still influences the way we understand the natural world."

Whatever the rest of the world knew of the South American people and natural history at that time came from Humboldt's observations. This remarkable man changed, for the better, the way people perceived the continent and its indigenous people.

Alexander von Humboldt with scientist Aimé Bonpland at the foot of the Chimborazo volcano in the Andes, South America. Painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1810).

Humboldt's groundbreaking ideas and views on nature were way ahead of his time and delightful in their simplicity. He recognised nature and everything in it to be intricately connected. He was a strong proponent of the interconnectedness of nature, and based his postulations almost entirely on the empirical evidence from his scientific studies and observations. He was able to see everything in nature as a part of the whole. It was he who laid the idea of webs and networks of ecosystems. After he witnessed the ruthless decimation of the pristine forests of Venezuela and other parts of Latin America by colonial powers, he warned of the incalculable human-induced changes that were destined to have a lasting impact on our planet. In the author's view, readily endorsed by this reviewer, Humboldt should be recognised as the ‘Father of the Environmental Movement'.

Alexander von Humboldt's exploits and depth of knowledge on virtually every scientific subject made him greatly sought after by the intellectuals and royals of the time. Everyone wanted a piece of him wherever he travelled in his beloved Paris, his birthplace Prussia, England and North America.

The Invention of Nature is not your run-of-the-mill biography. It is an exciting and enlightening journey through the brilliant and scientific mind of a genius. Get your copy today!

Purva Variyar is a conservationist, writer, and editor. Her true passion lies in science communication. She currently works with the Wildlife Conservation Trust. Purva has previously worked as a Senior Editor and Science Communicator with Sanctuary Asia magazine. She has also worked on human-snake conflict mitigation and radio-telemetry of Russell’s vipers under The Gerry Martin Project.

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