The Invention of Nature. The adventures of Alexander von Humboldt – the lost Hero of Science 

A book by Andrea Wulf, a review by Martine Verweij

A book that attempts to answer a few questions that puzzled Andrea Wulf:

  • Why are more things named after Alexander von Humboldt than anyone else who’s ever lived?
  • How did this man invent the way we see nature?
  • And what can we still learn from his adventures today?

My own adventure with this book started in the summer of 2016. I’m asked to moderate all sessions on the sustainability conference Springtij, in the theme of nature & ecology and in one of the sessions  I would introduce Andrea Wulf, author of a book. A book which was at that point still unknown to me.

Feeling strange not to have read the book, I decided to postpone all books I was reading and dive into the world of an unknown scientist: Alexander von Humboldt. I had honestly never heard of him.

Half a year later I’m still puzzled. How come this extraordinary man got forgotten? And come to think of it: who else might have been forgotten along the way of human history?

Two ways of knowing: the arts and sciences

If I make it personal, Humboldt is what I’m striving to be: someone who deeply knows and honors two fully complementary ways of understanding nature. Humboldt believed we need both our right and left brain, the arts and the sciences, our heart and mind, to understand nature. I’ve come to the same conviction.

Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice, Humboldt said, that is ‘familiar to the soul’.

Humboldt is a great traveller and frantic researcher, carrying all his measuring tools up many, many volcanoes. He measures the altitude, the humidity and the blueness of the sky. He also jots down every kind of flora or fauna he encounters at different altitudes. He’s a man of detail. But much more than that: he’s a man who longs to see the whole picture. And his artistic mind helps him do just that.

His dear artist friend Goethe ‘equipped him with ‘new organs’ through which to see and understand the natural world.’ Goethe’s descriptions of nature in his plays, novels and poems were so truthful, Humboldt believed, as the discoveries of the best scientists. He would never forget that Goethe encouraged him to combine nature and arts, facts and imagination.

Seeing the bigger picture

Humboldt – who was born on September 14 1769 – was one of the epic scientists who not only saw the bigger picture, but also went through great effort to help others, including the layman, to see that picture. His famous drawing, the ‘naturgemälde’, strikingly illustrated nature as a web in which everything was connected.

Unlike the scientists who had previously classified the natural world into tight taxonomic units along a strict hierarchy, filling endless tables with categories, Humboldt now produced a drawing. ‘Nature is a living whole’, he later said, not ‘a dead aggregate’. One single life had been poured over stones, plants, animals and humankind. It was this ‘universal profusion with which life is everywhere distributed that most impressed Humboldt. Even the atmosphere carried the kernels of future life – pollen, insect eggs and seeds. Life was everywhere and those ‘organice powers are incessantly at work’, he wrote. Humboldt was not so much interested in finding new isolated facts but in connecting them. Individual phenomena were only important ‘in their relation the whole’, he explained (pg 88).

Inventor of the isotopes and the concept of ‘web of life’, he was a direct inspiration to great thinkers around the planet, such as Charles Darwin and Henri Thoreau. Humboldt showed for the first time that nature was a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents. Humboldt saw ‘unity in variety’. Instead of placing plants in their taxonomic categories, he saw vegetation through the lens of climate and location: a radically new idea that still shapes our understanding of ecosystems today.

The one’s who know me, might have heard me, like other system thinkers, complain that current scientists are so immersed in detail that they don’t see the bigger picture anymore. Not many scientists can successfully work cross scientific discipline by themselves. Let alone, connect the arts and sciences to grasp the full complexity of certain phenomena. Humboldt did all that, indeed making him a scientific and artistic hero.

Human induced climate change

What struck me particularly in the book was that Humboldt also saw how humankind was inducing changes in climate. On one of his travels in South-America he encountered a lake that was suffering from water shortages and inundations at the same time. Locals believed an underground outlet drained the lake, but Humboldt had other ideas.

When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, with an imprudent precipitation, the springs are entirely dried up, or become less abundant. The beds of the rivers, remaining dry during a part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains falls on the heights. The sward and moss disappearing with the brush-wood from the sides of the mountains, the waters falling in rain are no longer impeded in their course: and instead of slowly augmenting the level of the rivers by progressive filtrations, they furrow during heavy showers the sides of the hills, bear down the loosened soil, and form those sudden inundations, that devastate the country (Pg 57).

Over his life time Humboldt would try to influence the rulers of his time to act differently when it comes to nature and natural resources. When he travelled to Russia he had written to Cancrin (a Russian aristocrat and politician) about the lack of timber and advised him against using steam engines to drain flooded mines because doing so would consume too many trees.

Nature, society and politics – a triangle of connections

One other dimension of Humboldt’s work that I find fascinating is how Humboldt realized that nature, politics and society ‘formed a triangle of connections’.

Societies were shaped by their environment – natural resources could bring riches to a nation, or, as [red. his friend Simon] Bolivar had experienced, an untamed wilderness such as the Andes could inspire strength and conviction.

Humboldt knew many statesmen and advised them on their affairs. He spend many years at the Prussian court, was a dear adviser to Simon Bolivar and to many American statesmen.

Strange – where are the Humboldt’s of our time?

I can’t think of anyone who’s alive right now, who knows as much and has as much influence, as Humboldt. Times have changed. Al Gore tells the story about climate change in a propelling way, but where are those scientists that are not afraid to be emotional and let their emotions activate their artistic brain. Humboldt believed memories and emotional responses, would always form part of man’s experience and understanding of nature. Imagination was like ‘a balm of miraculous healing properties’ (pg 54).

I hope that times are changing again. We need people like Humboldt! He certainly inspires me to keep developingt my different ways of knowing.

The Napoleon of Science, Nature’s prophet – why is this man forgotten!? Andrea Wulf takes us along an inspiring journey