The Invention of Nature

Humboldt is the most “famous” guy you have never heard of. His influence is big. Alexander von Humboldt influenced Thoreau, Darwin & environmentalists generally in the most recent centuries. More thing are named for Humboldt than probably for anybody else. There is the Humboldt current off the west coast of South America. Mountains, a species of willow, counties in the USA, even one of the seas on the moon. My neighborhood park in Milwaukee was named for Humboldt, although I didn’t know anything beyond the name when I was a kid

So … who was Alexander von Humboldt? He was a great naturalist in the era just before specialization dominated the sciences. His monumental work was called “Cosmos” where he describe everything, the last person ever to credibly do undertake such an endeavor.

Humboldt explored lots of the world, but mostly he is known for his exploration of South America, where he mapped the land and documented thousands of new species.

The book I just finished was called “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.” It might seem strange that nature needed inventing. Isn’t it just there? Not really. Sure, something is there, but it is just chaotic, so much beyond human understanding that it is as meaningless to humans as the compete works of Shakespeare might be to your cat.

Humboldt’s contribution was to see nature as a whole, greater than the sum of the parts, as a complex of relationships. Our whole science of ecology comes from this understanding.

I bought this book because of this promise. I am interested in concept like this – the invention of nature, the creation of wilderness, do historians report or create history? This book was a bit of disappointment in this respect. It was a good biography of this extraordinary individual, but not so much a discussion of the invention of nature or to what extent we can call nature an invention.

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Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most…
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