Books in Brief

This is an excellent and very readable book about the life and work of a man with whose name every educated person is familiar, but about whom (and which) few people in America today know very much, though his 100th birthday in 1869, only a decade after his death, was spectacularly celebrated across the United States.  Humboldt was a Prussian aristocrat born of a wealthy family, an international traveler and explorer—including in South America, North America, and Russia—the author of many books, and the first natural scientist to understand the world as a single connected thing (or “organism,” as Wulf puts it), who nevertheless made no scientific “discoveries” himself.  Humboldt’s achievement was essentially imaginative rather than strictly scientific, arrived at through an interdisciplinary and syncretic approach: “a bold new version of nature,” Wulf writes, “that still influences the way that we understand the natural world.”  Indeed, it is the way: the way of modern environmentalism, not in its ideological form only but also in its strictly scientific one, involving ecosystems and the “web of life.”

Humboldt saw [plants] not through the narrow categories of classification but as types according to their location and climate. . . . [He] viewed nature as a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents: a radical concept at the time,...

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