Paper on Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature Alexander von Humboldt’s New World


In his active life and wide-ranging literary work, the German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt profoundly affected the way we understand the physical world and the place of human beings in it. Indeed, Andrea Wulf’s biography of this extraordinary figure credits him with helping “invent” our conception of nature. Your task in this assignment is to read Wulf’s text, carefully analyzing its argument and use of evidence, and write a three- to five-page essay on one of the following topics.

Topic 1: Wulf’s book suggests that “Humboldt gave us our concept of nature itself.” (9) This is truly a strong claim, and I think many would resist reducing our understanding of the physical world simply to the work of one man. (In fact, her book shows just how much Humboldt was indebted to others.) Nevertheless, it is true that his explorations, scientific investigations, field work, and writings contributed mightily to creating the vision of nature we hold today. What was Humboldt’s fundamental idea of nature? How did his explorations help him formulate it? In what manner did he believe we should scientifically investigate it? Draft an essay addressing these questions, paying special attention to the way Humboldt’s travels and field work in South America and Russia helped him develop his conception of nature and science. Elaborate on key examples to make your points. For instance, you might consider his famous “Portrait of Nature” (German: Naturgemälde) and what it meant for him. You could also discuss his famous book Cosmos (1845 – 47), detailing the ways it brought together and expressed the insights he had gained in his research and travels.

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