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Book Review: The Man Who Opened Darwin’s Eyes

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Book Review: The Man Who Opened Darwin’s Eyes
September 05, 2015 04:19PM
Humboldt’s Gifts
Countless places bear Alexander von Humboldt’s name. So do 300 plants, and 100 animals. Who was he?

By Jenny Uglow
Sept. 4, 2015 5:03 p.m. ET

Packing his bags before his voyage on the Beagle in 1831, and knowing space was tight in his small cabin, Charles Darwin asked the captain if he could take Alexander von Humboldt’s “Personal Narrative,” the seven-volume account of Humboldt’s travels in Latin America 30 years before. Of course he could take his Humboldt, was the reply—for a naturalist and explorer it was almost like taking the Bible. This was the book, Darwin said, that inspired him to volunteer for the voyage, and Humboldt’s descriptions governed everything he saw. “I am at present fit only to read Humboldt,” he wrote from Brazil. “He like another Sun illumines everything I behold.”

... As they climbed, Humboldt began to construct his Naturgemalde—a sketch that would represent nature as a unified, living whole, an interconnected web. A cross-section of the mountain, this showed plants according to their altitudes, related in accompanying tables to gravity, humidity, pressure, temperature and animal species, enabling comparison with other climate zones. Instead of adopting the taxonomic categories of the Enlightenment, as Ms. Wulf says, “he saw vegetation through the lens of climate and location: a radically new idea that still shapes our understanding of ecosystems today.”

The Invention of Nature
By Andrea Wulf
Knopf, 473 pages, $30

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