The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New WorldThe Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This non-fiction book is part biography of a major scientific figure and part an exploration of how scientific ideas percolate through the scientific community. Alexander Humboldt was a giant in his time throughout Europe especially, but also in the U.S. Right here in California we have Humboldt County and Humboldt Bay, both named for him. Yet not many Americans are familiar with him. He had a major influence on other scientists and naturalists like Charles Darwin and John Muir. This is all detailed in the book. Although it centers on Humboldt, it goes into some detail about other thinkers and explorers. It may be said that Humboldt invented the science of ecology.

The book’s strength is the sheer volume of information about Humboldt and the others who took his ideas and expanded on them. It is also its main weakness. There is a great deal of repetition in this nearly 500-page tome. The author spends a too much time detailing what other scientists and luminaries of the day have said or written about Humboldt, especially about his wonderful prose writing about nature. Yet there is not a single example of that wonderful prose quoted. It’s not protected by copyright, so there’s no excuse for omitting it. I would rather read one paragraph about the plants of South America than five paragraphs quoting people saying he wrote beautifully about the plants of South America.

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