The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humboldt’s New World


Wulf describes Humboldt's amazing ability to see the big picture of nature and how this allowed him to piece together that all of nature is interconnected. Through his extensive travels, Humboldt was the first to truly to describe the "web of nature

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Key Takeaways
  1. Born to a wealthy Prussian family in 1769, Humboldt spent it all on travel in order to explore and learn as much as possible about the world
  2. First person to view nature as a global, unified source where everything is interconnected, the web of life. No single fact can be viewed in isolation. He founded the concept of the web of life and how we view nature today
  3. He was one of the most famous and beloved men of his time and even after his death through the 19th century
  4. Was the first person to see the connection between man's action and the changing environment
  5. Was a child of the enlightenment, focusing his efforts on what could be seen and measured. Increasing specialization in new scientific fields former but Humboldt was able to keep his general, big picture view of nature
  6. Humboldt believed that nature had to be experienced to be understood and not just rationally thought about
  7. Goethe and Humboldt worked a lot together and inspired each other
  8. His first international voyage was to Venezuela where he learned a lot about nature and natives and was where he first developed his theory on human induced climate change. Here, humans were nothing and he was witness to natures interconnectedness and power
  9. Had a lot of respect for the locals because of their incredible attention to nature
  10. "What speaks to the soul escapes measurement." - on the wonders of nature
  11. Was the first to come up with the concept of a keystone species 
  12. Was fascinated by America and became close with Thomas Jefferson who was an avid farmer and scientist himself
  13. Had a big influence on Simon Bolivar in his quest for independence
  14. Had a string of passionate friendships with several different men
  15. His book influenced Darwin to want to visit foreign lands and is why Darwin volunteered to join the crew on the HMS Beagle
  16. Humboldt's Magnus Opus was "Cosmos" where he drew together scientists from dozens of fields to give a broad but integrated view of the universe. He never mentioned God, instead he spoke of a web of interconnected, organic life. This work influenced everyone from Darwin to Thoreau to Muir
  17. Humboldt's interconnected world view has become so ingrained in today's world that most people today haven't heard of Humboldt and just take his views for common sense
What I got out of it
  1. I had hardly heard of Humboldt before reading this book but his ability to see the big picture and how everything is connected revolutionized how people think about nature and science. He has influenced countless scientists including Darwin and Thoreau. His ideas are so ingrained today that people simply consider it common sense and might be part of the reason he has fallen out of popularity.

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