Review: ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf

cover78814-mediumPublished by: John  Murrey Press

Publication date: 22nd October 2015

Edition: Hardback

Price: £25.00 (although it is available for as little as £6.99 from some online retailers)

ISBN: 9781848548985

Another one from Netgalley in return for a review


Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the great lost scientist – more things are named after him than anyone else. There are towns, rivers, mountain ranges, the ocean current that runs along the South American coast, there’s a penguin, a giant squid – even the Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.

His colourful adventures read like something out of a Boy’s Own story: Humboldt explored deep into the rainforest, climbed the world’s highest volcanoes and inspired princes and presidents, scientists and poets alike. Napoleon was jealous of him; Simon Bolívar’s revolution was fuelled by his ideas; Darwin set sail on the Beagle because of Humboldt; and Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo owned all his many books. He simply was, as one contemporary put it, ‘the greatest man since the Deluge’.

Taking us on a fantastic voyage in his footsteps – racing across anthrax-infected Russia or mapping tropical rivers alive with crocodiles – Andrea Wulf shows why his life and ideas remain so important today. Humboldt predicted human-induced climate change as early as 1800, and The Invention of Nature traces his ideas as they go on to revolutionize and shape science, conservation, nature writing, politics, art and the theory of evolution. He wanted to know and understand everything and his way of thinking was so far ahead of his time that it’s only coming into its own now. Alexander von Humboldt really did invent the way we see nature.


My Review

I was engrossed by this book. The writing style is easy to read and brings the details of Alexander von Humboldt’s life to readers in engrossing detail. The chronological structure works really well. I especially enjoyed the final chapter detailing Humboldt’s influence on other scientists and writers.

Way ahead of his time, Humboldt saw nature, and science, in an entirely different way to the scientific community at the time, as a unified whole rather than compartmentalised as individual subject areas. His interdisciplinary approach to science and Nature is as necessary now as it was revolutionary in the nineteenth century. His understanding of plants and climactic zones helped him develop a theory of evolution pre-Darwin. He made his ideas available to everyone, because he believed in the ‘republic of letters’, no matter what was going on in the world.

He lived through several revolutions and was eventually deeply disappointed in them all. He couldn’t understand why the U.S. wouldn’t abolish slavery, a practice he’d been appalled by after witnessing the conditions of slaves in South America. He was disappointed by the French Revolution after Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor. The revolutions of 1848 left him disappointed and under the rule of a despot. His drawings helped explained his ideas to a wider audience, and his writing combined poetry and science.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of science.





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