The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

Sayani Sarkar
The Omnivore Scientist
3 min readDec 7, 2022


The Invention of Nature
Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
By Andrea Wulf
Paperback- $19.00
Publisher- Vintage
Date- Oct 04, 2016
Pages- 576
ISBN- 9780345806291

In all my years of studying biology, I heard about Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) in passing. Mostly it was Humboldt’s famous illustration of the Chimborazo showing plant species at various elevations. Nestled in a chapter on ecology and keystone species, Humboldt was just another name. Wulf’s book shows I might not be alone. The great polymath does not hold the aura that comes with Darwin, Lovelock, Carson, Thoreau, and Margulis. These days there is a rejuvenated interest in the interconnectedness of organisms on the planet. But the German explorer and naturalist was the pioneer in understanding the web of climate, nature, geography, and human intervention. His maps and illustrations from his extensive travels in South America and Russia began a new kind of visual thinking for biodiversity.

Often marred with illness and having a stifling but privileged childhood, Alexander longed to leave Germany and explore the world. This familial privilege allowed him to study the sciences, languages, and mathematics at the university of Göttingen. In the late 18th century in Germany, everyone was reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Celebrated poets like Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were part of the intellectual hub known as the Jena circle. So, in 1794, Alexander went to Jena to visit his brother Wilhelm and his wife Caroline. There he met Goethe and thus began a close friendship based on their mutual interest in geology, botany, and zoology. Goethe’s poetry and Humboldt’s scientific curiosity amalgamated in an electric symbiosis. Humboldt would carry this consilience of ideas with him on his next adventures to South America with the botanist Aimé Bonpland in 1799.

Never a dull moment along the Amazon river in Wulf’s writing. The book soars at this juncture. Their adventures in Venezuela reads like a fast-paced adventure novel. For example, Humboldt and Bonpland performed experiments on eels in a particular village. They tested the eels’ electricity on themselves until they were sick but collected data nonetheless. Humboldt’s obsession with observing, collecting, measuring, and making notes leaps out from these pages. Alexander and his team braved the harsh weather in the Andes on their ascent of the Chimborazo. The crowning glory of this exploration was the cross-section illustration of the Chimborazo depicting various plants growing at various altitudes with corresponding notes on humidity, precipitation, temperature, and atmospheric pressure.

German version of Humboldt’s Tableau indicate precipitation and other measurements taken at different elevations on Chimborazo. Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Humboldt never looked back and kept refining and expanding the relationship between climate and nature. During his travels, he saw the dire consequences of European imperialist conquests on the natural habitat of South America. He witnessed the plight of indigenous communities and workers in Mexican mines and sugar plantations. Wulf points out that Humboldt was the first to correlate colonialism with environmental destruction. Having met both Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson, he himself was a life-long abolitionist and critical of colonial powers.

Humboldt’s prolific output, books, and network of associates made him quite the celebrity in the late 18th-century scientific community. His ideas influenced Thoreau and Emerson. The mathematicians Carl Friedrich Gauss and Mary Somerville and the botanists Robert Brown and Joseph Dalton Hooker were among the many who called on him and discussed their findings and ideas. Charles Darwin took Humboldt’s seven-volume Personal Narrative on the Beagle in 1831 along with Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Here, Wulf cites quotes from Darwin clearly inspired by Humboldt’s ideas. When Darwin published his Voyage of the Beagle in 1839, he sent a copy to Humboldt, wherein he appreciated Darwin’s efforts. Wulf has resurrected a giant on whose shoulders the scientific inquiry of the 19th century in natural sciences arose.

The Invention of Nature is a kaleidoscopic homage to a brilliant pioneer. For ecologically bent readers, a single read might not be enough. It is a breathless read that spans life from the Andes to the Altai mountains. Here is a book that complements the contemporary ecological crisis with an original thinker long forgotten by the English-speaking world.