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The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf – Review

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf
Mount Chimborazo, which Humboldt and Bonpland ascended in 1802. This was also the subject of Humboldt’s Naturgemälde. Photo by Jorge Orozco on Unsplash

Up until around three weeks ago, I associated the name ‘Humboldt’ with three things. The first was a penguin found in South America. The second was a squid. The third was a cold water current running along the western coast of South America. This was the extent of my knowledge about all things ‘Humboldt’. But that changed when I read Andrea Wulf’s incredible award-winning book, The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science. Before we dive in, it’s worth noting that this review contains spoilers.

Alexander von Humboldt was a scientist who has largely been forgotten, despite the fact that he had a profound impact on our understanding of nature. Wulf writes that, “After he saw the devastating environmental effects of colonial plantations at Lake Valencia in Venezuela in 1800, Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about harmful human-induced climate change.” Humboldt saw up close how humanity’s impact was devastating the natural world. He correctly foretold the disastrous consequences this would have almost two centuries before humanity woke up to the climate crisis; “He warned that humans were meddling with the climate and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on ‘future generations.’”

But even more extraordinary is the fact that Humboldt appears to have come up with a theory very similar to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. The Gaia hypothesis states that Earth is an interconnected and self-regulating system. In The Invention of Nature, Wulf says, “James Lovelock’s famous Gaia theory of the earth as a living organism bears remarkable similarities. When Humboldt described the earth as ‘a natural whole animated and moved by inward forces’, he pre-dated Lovelock’s ideas by more than 150 years.”

Humboldt’s achievements don’t end there. A small selection of other notable accomplishments include:

  • During his multi-year journey through South America, he brought plant specimens back to Europe, which amounted to around 6,000 different species. Out of those species, 2,000 proved to be new to European scientists. This was a staggering figure, especially given “that there were only about 6,000 known species by the end of the eighteenth century.”
  • Humboldt invented isotherms (the lines on weather maps which show temperature/pressure).
  • By comparing the similarity of coastal plants, Humboldt believed there was an “ancient” connection between Africa and South America. This predated continental drift and tectonic plate theories by more than 100 years.
  • Humboldt became the first person to describe how the forest affected the climate (and the broader ecosystem). He explained how trees store water, protect the soil, release moisture into the atmosphere, and how they provide a cooling effect.
  • He discovered the magnetic equator.
  • His analysis showed that temperatures weren’t uniform across the same latitudes, which had been the previous understanding. Rather, things like proximity to oceans, altitude, and landmass also affected temperature.
  • He “viewed nature as a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents: a radical concept at the time, and one that still colours our understanding of ecosystems.”
  • Humboldt saw how the Mauritia palm brought life with it into the desert, and came up with the concept of a keystone species (around two centuries before the name ‘keystone species’ was coined).
  • He completely reshaped how we look at the natural world, by showing how everything was connected – even between the tiniest organisms. “‘In this great chain of causes and effects,’ Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.”
  • He knew more about South America than anyone in Europe or North America. Thomas Jefferson mined Humboldt’s South American knowledge, when he was US president.
  • More things are now named after Humboldt, than any other person in history.
  • He met a plethora of notable historical figures, including Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Charles Babbage, Charles Lyell, Simón Bolívar, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander Pushkin, and many others.
  • Following on from his self-funded trip to South America, Humboldt privately published the most expensive work by a scientist in Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, which had input from botanists, artists, engravers and mapmakers.

Humboldt was the most famous scientist in Europe after his return from South America, and then went on to “become the most famous scientist of his age, not just in Europe but across the world.” He was idolised by many scientists, including one who went on to propose one of the most revolutionary theories in history – Charles Darwin.

His impact on the literary world is no less impressive, with writers like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Jules Verne, Aldous Huxley, Gabriel García Márquez, and John Muir, reading his books and often paying tribute to him in their work.

In the 19th century, Humboldt’s fame was global. Wulf writes that, “His portrait was placed in the Great Exhibition in London and also hung in palaces as remote as that of the King of Siam in Bangkok. His birthday was celebrated as far away as Hong Kong.” When Humboldt died, some American newspapers “reported the death of the man whom many called the ‘most remarkable’ ever born.” They also said they were lucky to live through his era, which they labelled the “age of Humboldt”.

To celebrate the centennial of Humboldt’s birth in 1869 (ten years after his death), Wulf says that tens of thousands of people gathered around the world with notable celebrations in Berlin, New York, Adelaide and Mexico city. Two decades after Humboldt’s death, Charles Darwin still referred to him as the ‘greatest scientific traveller who ever lived’.

Humboldt paved the way for scientists and environmentalists around the world, and his name deserves to be remembered for that reason if no other. As Wulf says, “Environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers today remain firmly rooted in Humboldt’s vision – although many have never heard of him. Nonetheless, Humboldt is their founding father.”

Humboldt and environmentalism

Alexander von Humboldt is often viewed as the father of ecology, given his massive contribution to the field. One of his most important discoveries was that the natural world was a unified and interconnected whole, which was “animated by interactive forces.”

Humboldt’s second major contribution was his observation that human activities could have an impact on the climate – an understanding that was nearly two centuries ahead of its time. “Humankind, he warned, had the power to destroy the environment and the consequences could be catastrophic.”

After his Russian expedition, Humboldt wrote about the ways that humans were having an effect on the climate and listed deforestation, irrigation, and “the ‘great masses of steam and gas’ produced in the industrial centres.” A clear sign that Humboldt was on to the fact that anthropogenic emissions could drive climate change. Wulf writes that, “The effects of the human species’ intervention were already ‘incalculable’, Humboldt insisted, and could become catastrophic if they continued to disturb the world so ‘brutally’.”

Some of Humboldt’s other contributions to geography included:

  • He produced the Naturgemälde, a cross section painting of Mount Chimborazo. The Naturgemälde shows the locations of where he and his companion Bonpland found plant species. Columns on either side of the painting include additional observations and measurements, such as elevation, temperature, soil type, barometric pressure, blueness of the sky, and the temperature at which water boils at different elevations. Wulf says that it “showed for the first time that nature was a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents.”
  • In 1807, Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants, proposed that the African and South American continents were once connected. This was more than one hundred years before the continental drift theory. Linked to this, Humboldt also “connected the sudden appearance of a new island in the Azores on 30 January 1811 to a wave of earthquakes that shook the planet for a period of more than a year afterwards, from the West Indies, the plains of Ohio and Mississippi and then to the devastating earthquake that had destroyed Caracas in March 1812.”
  • In Brazil, Humboldt realised that diamonds were often found alongside gold and platinum deposits. Learning about Russia’s geology ahead of his expedition there, he believed diamonds could be found there too. Up to that point, no diamonds had been found in Russia and when he told people about his expectation, he was laughed off. A man called Polier was part of the Russia expedition and Humboldt explained where to look for diamonds. “Polier immediately instructed his men where to look for the gems. A few hours after his arrival they found the first diamond in the Urals… Within a month, thirty-seven diamonds had been found in Russia. Humboldt’s predictions were proved correct.”
  • He proposed that a canal should be built “across the narrow isthmus of Panama”, believing it was a feasible engineering project and one that would improve trade. Around a century later, construction started on the Panama canal.
  • He believed that human expansion into space, “would spread their lethal mix of vice, greed, violence and ignorance across other planets.” In 1801, he worried that we would leave planets ‘barren’ and ‘ravaged’, in a similar manner to what we’ve done with earth. With all the space trash already accumulating above our heads, it’s difficult to argue that this isn’t already happening and one fears for the future of the galaxy if humans do expand to other planets. Maybe we should learn to be good custodians of this planet, before being allowed to expand elsewhere.
  • “Greed shaped societies and nature. Man left trails of destruction, Humboldt had said, ‘wherever he stepped’.” This was prophetic and depressing in equal measure, especially as the level of destruction is only worsening, enabling the richest companies on the planet to become even more wealthy.
  • Humboldt observed and stated that animals flourished in the absence of humans.
  • He created the blueprint for nature writing with his book, Views of Nature, which combined vivid prose descriptions with scientific information.
  • His work inspired Ernst Haeckel, who went on to coin the term ‘ecology’.

Humboldt and science

Humboldt believed that knowledge should be freely shared and made available to everyone. He believed that science should be above politics and national interests. In that regard, even wars shouldn’t stop scientists collaborating and sharing information.

Humboldt practiced what he preached and made his collection of South American specimens available to scientists for free, along with his notes.

Humboldt and scientists

Humboldt was hero-worshipped by many scientists. One of the most notable was Charles Darwin. Wulf quotes Darwin saying that he almost knew Humboldt’s book Personal Narrative, ‘by heart’. Darwin would go on to say that this book, ‘determined me to travel in distant countries, and led me to volunteer as naturalist in her Majesty’s ship Beagle.’ The rest, as they say, is history.

Unfortunately, for Darwin the phrase ‘never meet your idols’ proved to be apt, for when he met Humboldt, he barely managed to get a word in edgeways with Humboldt dominating the talk for three hours solid. Darwin was understandably quite upset by this.

Humboldt would go on to meet and befriend many of the most famous scientists of the age, including:

  • Humphry Davy (chemist)
  • John Herschel (polymath, inventor, botanist, and son of the astronomer William Herschel)
  • Charles Babbage (mathematician and father of the computer)
  • Charles Lyell (geologist)
  • Justus von Liebig (discovered nitrogen as an important plant nutrient)
  • Albert Gallatin (politician and ethnologist)
  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel (engineer)
  • Louis Agassiz (biologist and geologist)

Humboldt tried to provide whatever aid he could for scientists, explorers, and artists, sometimes helping them financially, despite his own precarious financial situation. Friedrich Gauß said that his help for others was one of his key qualities. But Wulf writes that, “It also meant that Humboldt ruled over the destinies of scientists across the world. Becoming one of Humboldt’s protégés could make one’s career.”

Humboldt and indigenous people

Humboldt was very interested in indigenous people and their close understanding of nature. He was also impressed that they could always find their way through dense jungle, believing them to be ‘excellent geographers’. Wulf writes that, “They were the best observers of nature he had ever encountered. They knew every plant and animal in the rainforest, and could distinguish trees by the taste of their bark alone.”

Humboldt was also very critical of colonialism and made it clear that colonialism had been ruinous for indigenous people. He dispelled myths about indigenous people, explaining that they were just as capable of art, craftmanship, and scientific discoveries as Europeans.

Humboldt and presidents, dictators, and revolutionaries

Humboldt would meet a number of politicians, many of whom regarded him as the authority on South America. He met US president Thomas Jefferson in 1804 at the height of his career, after writing the Declaration of Independence and just before winning his second term as US president. Jefferson and Humboldt shared similar beliefs (apart from slavery, which Humboldt strongly railed against). Jefferson would call Humboldt, ‘the most scientific man of his age’.

Upon returning to Europe after his expedition to the Americas, Humboldt came to settle in Paris which was the centre of scientific advancement at the time. Napoleon who was ruling during that period, would meet Humboldt. It’s believed that Napoleon may have been jealous of Humboldt, given that Humboldt’s series of books Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, were in direct competition with Napoleon’s Description de l’Égypte. The number of Humboldt’s volumes would go on to eclipse Napoleon’s books, due to the sheer amount of research that Humboldt carried out in South America. Despite this, Napoleon still read Humboldt’s work, and is reputed to have been reading one of his books prior to the Battle of Waterloo.

Simón Bolívar was a revolutionary who led South American countries to independence from Spanish rule. Prior to that, Bolívar was living in Europe and it was almost inevitable that he would cross paths with Humboldt, given that Humboldt was regarded as an authority on South America. Humboldt and Bolívar became friends before Bolivar left for South America. Wulf writes that Bolívar would go on to enshrine “Humboldt’s ideas into law when he had issued a visionary decree in 1825, requiring the government in Bolivia to plant 1 million trees.”

Humboldt and royalty

Humboldt was born in Prussia (in Germany) and was fortunate that his family had links to the King of Prussia. Some time after returning from South America, he became Chamberlain to King Frederick William III of Prussia, who paid him a stipend. This stipend became Humboldt’s sole source of income in later years.

Other members of royalty that Humboldt met include:

  • Queen Victoria
  • He attended the christening of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII)
  • The Crown Prince of Württemberg
  • The future kings of Denmark and Bavaria
  • Nicholas I – the Tsar of Russia

Humboldt and writers

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe would meet Humboldt through his brother Wilhelm von Humboldt. Goethe was enlivened by Humboldt’s knowledge and this spurred his own scientific interests. Goethe said of Humboldt that, “In eight days of reading books, one couldn’t learn as much as what he gives you in an hour.” Alexander Pushkin was equally taken by Humboldt saying that, “Captivating speeches gushed from his mouth”.

But Humboldt’s influence didn’t end there. He would go on to inspire some of the most famous writers and poets in history. Writers who read his books and found inspiration for their own work include:

  • Aldous Huxley
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Erich Fried
  • Ezra Pound
  • Gabriel García Márquez
  • George Perkins Marsh
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • John Muir
  • Jules Verne
  • Lord Byron
  • Mary Shelley
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Robert Southey
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Walt Whitman
  • William Wordsworth

The conservationist and naturalist, John Muir, also read Humboldt’s books. Muir is well-known as the founder of the Sierra Club, and for his campaign work regarding national parks. Muir was so inspired by Humboldt that he sought to follow Humboldt’s voyage to South America and the Andes.

Wulf writes that, “Humboldt had understood the threat to nature, Marsh had assembled the evidence into one convincing argument, but it was Muir who planted environmental concerns into the wider political arena and the public mind.”

Humboldt and poetry and art

Another thing that makes Humboldt unique is that he believed science and poetry were interlinked. Two centuries later, I find this extremely interesting, given that I’ve dedicated my career to writing cli-fi stories to engage, educate and inspire action on the climate crisis. Indeed, I’ve had two poems about the climate crisis shortlisted and published in the Climate Creatives Challenge. With a bachelor’s degree in Climate Change, and a Master’s in Creative Writing, I’m very much part of the crossover between science and art. That one of the greatest scientists and naturalists who ever lived believed there was good reason for this crossover, gives me a bit more confidence with this mission.

Wulf informs us that in Humboldt’s epic work entitled Cosmos, he wrote “about the bond that united knowledge, science, poetry and artistic feeling.” Indeed, Humboldt believed that nature should be experienced through our feelings. This is better achieved through poetry and stories which enable us to live vicariously, compared to pure scientific writing.

Humboldt’s friend, Goethe, was also infusing science into his work and Humboldt believed that, “Goethe’s descriptions of nature in his plays, novels and poems were as truthful… as the discoveries of the best scientists.” It was Goethe that encouraged Humboldt’s combination of art, nature, imagination, and facts.

But the link between science and the arts didn’t end with Goethe. Humboldt once wrote to Charles Darwin to tell him of his admiration for his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and his link between nature and the imagination. Humboldt called this link “powerful and productive”. Erasmus Darwin, amongst other things, had written a well-known poem called Loves of the Plants.

I’ve written articles explaining the science behind why stories can engage people in ways that facts simply can’t. This is why I write stories about the climate crisis. To think that Humboldt understood this concept and tried to infuse his own scientific writing with lively prose, is quite astounding.

Humboldt and political change

With climate breakdown rapidly accelerating, the threat of an AI techopalypse on the horizon, and wars raging in Europe and the Middle East, it certainly feels like a bleak and a somewhat hopeless moment in history. Not to mention the fact that authoritarian leaders seem to be resurging around the world.

Humboldt also experienced his fair share of despair, having lived through the hope that accompanied revolutions and the frustration when they failed to produce the change they promised. Wulf writes that, “Humboldt was deeply disappointed with revolutions and revolutionaries.”

When the US began a war with Mexico, Humboldt was “shocked” and said that it reminded him of the behaviour of Spanish Conquistadors. He was also disappointed with his old friend Simón Bolívar, who liberated South American colonies from the Spanish, but then became a dictator. When he was 80, Humboldt wrote that he’d been left with a ‘worn-out hope’ that the desire for change hadn’t disappeared forever, even though it appeared ‘to be asleep’.

Humanity keeps hoping for change, but those hopes have been crushed again and again. Will we get a leader to arrest climate breakdown before we hit irreversible tipping points? Will we get a leader to regulate the tech companies which are thrusting their AI products upon us without society’s consent, before AI upends our civilisation? The answer it seems, is not in 2024. Neither the US nor the UK has any party or leader on the ballot committed to addressing either of these issues. This means another 4 – 5 years of climate inaction, and regulatory freedom for tech companies to force more of their AI on each of us. Perhaps it will be enough time to develop artificial general intelligence (AGI), which experts believe could instantly wipe out humanity (the predicted timeframe for developing AGI spans a ‘few’ years at the lower end of the spectrum, and ‘decades away’ at the higher end of the spectrum).

The message of history seems to be that times change, but people don’t. As Humboldt said 200 years ago, greed has trashed our natural world. Now greed is also driving the AI boom, with some of the wealthiest companies on the planet being tech companies. Perhaps this greed won’t last for much longer, with both climate and AI experts warning that the end of civilisation could be on the horizon from these simultaneous crises.

Humboldt the man

Humboldt was born in September 1769 in Prussia. His family possessed substantial wealth and had an estate in Tegel. When Humboldt’s mother passed away, he inherited enough money to fund his South American exploration.

Humboldt was hard-working, often writing late into the early hours of the morning which was the only undisturbed time he had to himself. During his life, Humboldt would write around 50,000 letters, and receive over 100,000. When looked at in their entirety, his letters, diaries, and books reveal someone who was well ahead of their time.

Humboldt detested slavery and was “a lifelong abolitionist.” He believed all men were equal and that all people were ‘designed for freedom’.

He could be quite sharp with his comments, and was described by some people as being ‘malicious’. People were often concerned about offending him, should they be subject to his criticism.

Humboldt was well acquainted with loneliness, and never got married. He passed away at the age of 89 in 1859. He died poor, having spent his money on the South American expedition, as well as living in Paris and Berlin, and on his books.

Why have we forgotten about Humboldt? It may have something to do with events that took place more than 50 years after Humboldt passed away. Wulf suggests that the first and second world wars fostered an anti-German sentiment. She explains that even the British royal family changed their surname during the first world war to ‘Windsor’ from the German ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’. Thus, Humboldt’s fate may have also been sealed at that point.

Things named after Humboldt

Wulf says there are 100 animals and nearly 300 plants named after Humboldt. There are more places named after him than any other person. Minerals such as Humboldtin and Humboldtit are named after him, as is a spot on the moon called ‘Mare Humboldtianum’. There are also two asteroids that carry his name.

At one point, a suggestion was put forward to rename the Rocky Mountains in the US, to the ‘Humboldt Andes’.

Awards for The Invention of Nature

Andrea Wulf’s phenomenal book was published in 2015, and has rightly picked up a mountain of awards. Some of these include:

  • Winner of Costa Biography Award 2015
  • Winner of Royal Society Science Book Prize 2016
  • The QI Book of the Year Award 2016
  • Ness Award 2016, Royal Geographical Society
  • Winner of the Inaugural James Wright Award for Nature Writing (Kenyon Review & Nature Conservancy) 2016
  • Winner of LA Times Book Prize 2016 (Science & Technology)
  • Cundill Prize in Historical Literature Recognition of Excellence Award 2016
  • Winner of Bayerischer Buchpreis 2016 (Germany)
  • Winner of Acqui Storia Award 2017 (Italy)
  • Winner of Dingle Prize British Society for the History of Science 2017
  • Winner Sarah Chapman Francis Medal for outstanding literary achievement 2017, Garden Club of America
  • Winner China Nature Book Award 2018, China
  • Winner Le Priz du doyen Jean de Feytaud 2018, Académie nationale des sciences, belles-lettres et arts de Bordeaux, France
  • Winner Lichtenberg-Medal, Academy of Sciences Göttingen 2019


Humboldt is a man that deserves to be remembered, and Wulf has done an absolutely amazing job in that regard. I highly recommend reading The Invention of Nature, and discovering Humboldt for yourself.

He was a scientific man committed to improving our knowledge of the natural world, who appears to have predated Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis by 150 years – an unbelievable achievement. Humboldt also believed in the power of poetry, art, and the imagination. He foresaw that there were other forms of communication to better educate and engage people about the natural world – something that I came to understand just over a decade ago. I hope Humboldt will reclaim his place in the history books, which he greatly deserves.

I also hope that humanity will listen to the science on climate breakdown, and to the experts on the AI crisis (which is being driven by the greed Humboldt warned about). Humboldt warned us 200 years ago that we were destroying the environment, and that this could have catastrophic consequences. We are now dealing directly with those consequences. And it’s not like we haven’t had enough time to act… Even if Humboldt’s warnings fell on deaf ears 200 years ago, Dr James Hansen warned the world in 1988 about the climate emergency – that was 36 years ago. Since then we’ve had 28 COP climate summits, which have brought us to the point where world leaders have only just acknowledged fossil fuels as the source of the problem. Humboldt would likely feel quite aggrieved if he knew about how late we’ve left action and how close we are to disaster.

If we let them, politicians may kick the can down the road indefinitely. We must constructively engage with them if we care about having a liveable future. And we have to hope that it’s not too late to make the changes that were desperately needed years ago. After all, it’s not like we haven’t had enough time to act.

My new cli-fi children’s picture book, Nanook and the Melting Arctic is available from Amazon’s global stores including Amazon UK and Amazon US. My eco-fiction children’s picture book, Hedgey-A and the Honey Bees about how pesticides affect bees, is available on Amazon’s global stores including Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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