There was once a time, before pop music and movie stars, when a scientist was the most famous person in the world. No, not Albert Einstein. Alexander von Humboldt.
The Invention of Nature is aptly titled. Humboldt, of course, did not invent plants, or animals, or rivers, or mountains, but he did invent the modern concept of “nature”: the idea of that the natural world is an interconnected whole. Humboldt’s idea was so compelling — and in hindsight, so obvious — that we seem to have forgotten that it needed to be invented at all. But it did need to be invented, at least in a Western world that had long viewed the earth as a bounty to be exploited, rather than a treasure to be protected.
Humboldt’s great idea has lived on, but Humboldt himself has largely been forgotten. Andrea Wulf sets out to change that. What makes The Invention of Nature so good, however, is not its tales of Humboldt’s scientific discoveries (though it has those in spades), but how it traces the thread of Humboldt’s influence through some of the most important thinkers and leaders of the last two centuries. Wulf writes entire chapters on Goethe, Thoreau, Darwin, Teddy Roosevelt, and Simón Bolívar. What emerges from Wulf’s prose is not a portrait of a man, but the story of a movement: the story of modern environmentalism. That story begins with Alexander von Humboldt, and it continues to this day.
Good For: History buffs.
Not Good For: Beach reading, unless you’re a history buff.