BOOK: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

The winner of this year’s Royal Society Insight Investment science book prize, which is awarded annually to a work of science writing intended for a non-specialist audience, went to Andrea Wulf for her fantastic biography of Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt has long been a character of interest to me: not only is “Humboldtian science” a standard topic one learns about in history of science courses (especially Michael Dettelbach’s chapter in Cultures of Natural History), but, as readers here may know, Humboldt was an important influence on Darwin.


Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Vintage Books, 2015), 552 pp.

Publisher’s description Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was the most famous scientist of his age, a visionary German naturalist and polymath whose discoveries forever changed the way we understand the natural world. Among his most revolutionary ideas was a radical conception of nature as a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone. In North America, Humboldt’s name still graces towns, counties, parks, bays, lakes, mountains, and a river. And yet the man has been all but forgotten. In this illuminating biography, Andrea Wulf brings Humboldt’s extraordinary life back into focus: his prediction of human-induced climate change; his daring expeditions to the highest peaks of South America and to the anthrax-infected steppes of Siberia; his relationships with iconic figures, including Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson; and the lasting influence of his writings on Darwin, Wordsworth, Goethe, Muir, Thoreau, and many others. Brilliantly researched and stunningly written, The Invention of Nature reveals the myriad ways in which Humboldt’s ideas form the foundation of modern environmentalism—and reminds us why they are as prescient and vital as ever.

In October I had the pleasure of attending a talk that Wulf gave about Humboldt for the Oregon Hardy Plant Society:


For similar talks, check out the recording below…

Purchase The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World through the independent Powell’s City of Books [hardcover/paperback] or Amazon [hardcover/paperback] (affiliate links).


ARTICLE: The letters between James Lamont and Charles Darwin on Arctic fauna

A 2015 article from Polar Record might be of interest to some readers, espeically since it’s freely available as a PDF:

The letters between James Lamont and Charles Darwin on Arctic fauna

C. Leah Devlin

Abstract In the summers of 1858 and 1859, the Scot Sir James Lamont of Knockdow embarked on two cruises to Svalbard (referred to by Lamont as Spitzbergen [sic]) to hunt, make geographical surveys, and collect geological and biological specimens. Lamont’s return from these voyages coincided with the publication of the joint Charles Darwin-Alfred Russel Wallace paper, ‘On the tendency of species to form varieties; on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection’ by the Linnean Society in August 1858 and, a year later, the publication of Darwin’s On the origin of species. Profoundly influenced by Darwin’s ideas, Lamont initiated a correspondence with the naturalist, relating examples of what he considered to be natural selection, observed during his hunting expeditions. In his Svalbard travelogue, Seasons with the sea-horses, Lamont expounded specifically upon walrus and polar bear evolution, ideas inspired by sporadic yet encouraging letters from the renowned naturalist.

GUEST POST: Darwin’s Polar Bear

The following guest post is from writer and wilderness guide Michael Engelhard, whose new book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon is soon-to-be published by the University of Washington Press. Interested in doing a guest post about Darwin? Drop me an email at michaeldavidbarton AT gmail DOT com.




Darwin’s Polar Bear

by Michael Engelhard

Any high school student knows (or should know) how the beaks of Galápagos “finches” (it was in fact the islands’ mockingbirds that were influential) – of species confined to different islands – helped Darwin to develop his ideas about evolution. But few people realize that the polar bear too, informed his grand theory.

Letting his fancy run wild, in On the Origin of Species, the man used to thinking in eons hypothesized “a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.” Darwin based this speculation on a black bear the fur trader-explorer Samuel Hearne had observed swimming for hours, its mouth wide open, catching insects in the water. If the supply of insects were constant, Darwin thought, and no better-adapted competitors present, such a species could well take shape over time.

Systematic approaches to animals and their respective niches had long fertilized the intellectual landscape. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, in his Histoire Naturelle (published serially between 1749 and 1788) clearly distinguished a “land-bear” from a “sea-bear.” But his land-bear category was still muddled: it included a “white bear of the forest” as well as a white sea-bear. The count would have likely become aware of polar bears in the boreal forests of Hudson Bay by 1782, when France occupied Prince of Wales Fort at the mouth of the Churchill River. In a 1785 German edition of the Histoire Naturelle, Buffon’s white land-bear looks different from his sea-bear, clearly showing the shorter neck and snout characteristic of brown bears and black bears. Perhaps the count knew about British Columbia’s white black bears or “spirit bears,” which could have confused him. (Other contributions by Buffon were significant. He discovered the first principle of biogeography, noticing that despite similar environments, different regions have distinct plants and animals.)

Buffon’s classifying of animals by region or habitat – as in the case of the two “different” white bears – prompted later naturalists to try to explain their origins and distribution as resulting from the characteristics of a place. Long before the idea of “habitat” began to infiltrate scientific discourse, the polar bear’s range and that of its prey had been linked to environmental conditions. Synthesizing the work of the Comte de Buffon and other naturalists, the Anglo-Irish Romantic writer Oliver Goldsmith thought the “Greenland bear” exceptional, because it is “the only animal that, by being placed in the coldest climate, grows larger than those that live in the temperate zones. All other species of animated nature diminish as they approach the poles, and seem contracted in their size by the rigours of the ambient atmosphere… In short, all the variations of its figure and its colour seem to proceed from the coldness of the climate where it resides and the nature of the food it is supplied with.” Food availability does play a role in body mass, as does a region’s mean annual temperature, and while polar bears are not the only compact animal thriving in the Arctic such biogeographic observations anticipated the theory of evolution and principles of ecology.

On Svalbard expeditions in the summers of 1858 and 1859, the Scottish nobleman-explorer James Lamont watched polar bears frolic and dive. Intuiting that the animal had become what it is by living on seals, he deduced that the seal and the walrus must have originated first. Lamont assumed that polar bears had evolved from brown bears, “who, finding their means of subsistence running short, and pressed by hunger, ventured on the ice and caught some seals… so there is no impossibility in supposing that the brown bears, who by my theory were the progenitors of the present white bears, were accidently driven over to Greenland and Spitzbergen by storms or currents.” The palest brown bears with the greatest amount of external fat, Lamont thought, would have had the best chance to survive and therefore, reproduce. Upon his return, he wrote to Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species had been published in 1859. Encouraged by Darwin’s response, Lamont elaborated upon walrus and polar bear evolution in his 1861 travelogue, Seasons with the Sea-horses. Darwin approved of Lamont’s hypothesis and because Lamont’s thinking on the subject predated the publication of On the Origin of Species, he later credited Lamont (as he did Alfred Russell Wallace) with independently conceiving the theory of natural selection.

The oldest polar bear fossils found are from Svalbard and northern Norway and have been dated at 115,000–130,000 years old, before the beginning of the last Ice Age. But some biologists think that polar bears diverged from brown bears as early as 600,000 years ago. According to current research, polar bears evolved from brown bears that ventured onto the frozen ocean to stalk marine mammals, possibly after climate separated them from the main population descended from a common ancestor. This was not a single, clean-cut departure, and repeated pairings between both species have turned the family tree into a thicket. Shrinking sea ice could force polar bears to mingle with their southern cousins again, particularly as the latter now travel farther north. In coastal Arctic Alaska, grizzlies have been observed feasting on bowhead whale carcasses, sometimes in the company of polar bears and interbreeding has been documented.

After he had been ridiculed for his musings on a future, insect-eating cetacean bear, Darwin altered that passage in the second edition of Origin and removed it from subsequent ones. “The Bear case has been well laughed at, & disingenuously distorted by some into my saying that a bear could be converted into a whale,” he responded to the Irish algae specialist William Henry Harvey. Still, Darwin insisted that “there is no especial difficulty in a Bear’s mouth being enlarged to any degree useful to its changing habits,—no more difficulty than man has found in increasing the crop of the pigeon, by continued selection, until it is literally as big as whole rest of body.” Lamont’s observations and theorizing as well as the later findings about polar bear evolution vindicated the eminent naturalist and his thought experiment.

Image: L’ours de mer, the Comte de Buffon’s “sea-bear,” from his Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, 1776. The French polymath paved the way for theories about speciation. (Université de Bordeaux)

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon (University of Washington Press). Trained as an anthropologist, he now lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.



BOOK: Naturalists at Sea: Scientific Travellers from Dampier to Darwin

Glyn Williams, Naturalists at Sea: Scientific Travellers from Dampier to Darwin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 328 pp.

On the great Pacific discovery expeditions of the “long eighteenth century,” naturalists for the first time were commonly found aboard ships sailing forth from European ports. Lured by intoxicating opportunities to discover exotic and perhaps lucrative flora and fauna unknown at home, these men set out eagerly to collect and catalogue, study and document an uncharted natural world. This enthralling book is the first to describe the adventures and misadventures, discoveries and dangers of this devoted and sometimes eccentric band of explorer-scholars. Their individual experiences are uniquely their own, but together their stories offer a new perspective on the extraordinary era of Pacific exploration and the achievements of an audacious generation of naturalists. Historian Glyn Williams illuminates the naturalist’s lot aboard ship, where danger alternated with boredom and quarrels with the ship’s commander were the norm. Nor did the naturalist’s difficulties end upon returning home, where recognition for years of work often proved elusive. Peopled with wonderful characters and major figures of Enlightenment science—among them Louis Antoine de Bouganville, Joseph Banks, John Reinhold Forster, Captain Cook, and Charles Darwin—this book is a gripping account of a small group of scientific travelers whose voyages of discovery were to change perceptions of the natural world.

CONFERENCE: Empires of Science in the Long Nineteenth Century

From UCSD Science Studies Program (blog):

Empires of Science in the Long Nineteenth Century
9-10 April @ Huntington Library
Register by 2 April 2010

Empires of Science in the Long Nineteenth Century

This international conference explores the relationship during the long nineteenth century between rapidly developing science and technology and the expansion of territorial empires, exploring issues such as: How was science actually practiced on national and imperial frontiers? What role did science and technology play in the development of political and intellectual empires? What influence did governments and scientific institutions have in creating, regulating, and disseminating scientific research and practice within empire?

Friday, April 9, 2010
8:30 Registration & Coffee

9:30 Welcome Robert C. Ritchie (The Huntington)
Remarks Nigel Rigby (National Maritime Museum)

Session 1 Networks of Empire
Moderator: Nigel Rigby

Crosbie Smith (University of Kent)
Energies of Empire: The Making of Long Distance Ocean Steamships in the
mid-Nineteenth Century

John McAleer (National Maritime Museum)
Stargazers at the Worlds End: Observatories, Telescopes, and Views of
Empire in the Nineteenth-Century British World

12:00 Lunch

Session 2 Mapping Space
Moderator: Kathryn Olesko (Georgetown University)

John Rennie Short (University of Maryland, Baltimore County)
Cartographic Encounters on the Nineteenth-Century United States Western

Michael Reidy (Montana State University)
From Oceans to Mountains: The Spatial Construction of Empire

Session 3 Natural History
Moderator: Robert C. Ritchie

Janet Browne (Harvard University)
Nature on Display: Collecting and Showing Natural History Specimens in the
Age of Empire

Daniel Headrick (Roosevelt University)
Botany in the Dutch and British Colonial Empires

Saturday, April 10, 2010
9:00 Registration & Coffee

Session 4 Imperial Spaces
Moderator: Adam R. Shapiro (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

Daniela Bleichmar (University of Southern California)
Rediscovering the New World: Spanish Imperial Science, ca. 1780-1810

Lewis Pyenson (Western Michigan University)
Two Incarnations of Athena: Scientists in the Service of lebensraum in the
Nineteenth Century in the United States, Argentina, and Russia

12:00 Lunch

Session 5 Science and Colonial Identities
Moderator: Warren Dym (Bucknell University)

Saul Dubow (University of Sussex)
British Imperialism, Settler Colonialism, and Scientific Thought in the
Nineteenth-Century Cape

Lina del Castillo (Iowa State University)
The Gran Colombian Cartography Project, 1821-1830

Session 6 Institutions and Imperial Science
Moderator: Daniel Headrick

Rebekah Higgitt (National Maritime Museum)
Exporting Greenwich: The Royal Observatory as a Model for Imperial

Max Jones (University of Manchester)
Heroes of Empire? Geographical Societies, the Media, and the Promotion of

Darwin’s Brave New World

In July of 2009, I posted about a forthcoming Australian Darwin film based on historian Iain McCalman‘s recently published book Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution:

Award-winning cultural historian Iain McCalman tells the stories of Charles Darwin and his most vocal supporters and colleagues: Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley, and Alfred Wallace. Beginning with the somber morning of April 26, 1882—the day of Darwin’s funeral—Darwin’s Armada steps back in time and recounts the lives and scientific discoveries of each of these explorers. The four amateur naturalists voyaged separately from Britain to the southern hemisphere in search of adventure and scientific fame. From Darwin’s inaugural trip on the Beagle in 1835 through Wallace’s exploits in the Amazon and, later, Malaysia in the 1840s and 1850s, each man independently made discoveries that led him to embrace Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of evolution. This book reveals the untold story of Darwin’s greatest supporters who, during his life, campaigned passionately in the war of ideas over evolution and who lived on to extend and advance the scope of his work.

McCalman also coedited a volume of papers, In the Wake of the Beagle: Science in the Southern Oceans from the Age of Darwin, based on a conference by the same name held at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney in March 2009:

Strange as it may seem, the long wake of the tiny HMS Beagle stretches from the nineteenth century into the future of our globe. Charles Darwin spent only three months in Australia, but Australasia and the Pacific contributed to his evolutionary thinking in a variety of ways. One hundred and fifty years after the publication of On the Origin of Species the internationally acclaimed authors of In the Wake of the Beagle provide new insights into the world of collecting, surveying and cross-cultural exchange in the antipodes in the age of Darwin. They explore the groundbreaking work of Darwin and his contemporaries Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley and Alfred Wallace, examine the complex trading relationships of the region’s daring voyagers, and take a very modern look at today’s cutting-edge scientific research, at a time when global warming has raised the stakes to an unprecedented level.

The film, Darwin’s Brave New World, is described as:

A 3 x 1hour drama-documentary TV series about how the Southern Hemisphere gave birth to the most controversial idea in science: evolution by means of natural selection. Interweaving dramatic reconstruction with documentary actuality and moving between the 19th century and the 21st, this series is the story of how Charles Darwin’s ‘dangerous idea’ developed during his epic voyage through South America, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands and how that idea forever transformed society and science. A series to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’.

The film premieres at the University of British Columbia later this month, and airs on Australia’s ABC1 November 8th (ep. 1: Origins), 15th (ep. 2: Evolutions), and 22nd (ep. 3: Publish and Be Damned). An extended trailer:

Notice in the trailer a few historians or philosophers of science (Jim Moore, Michael Ruse, and Janet Browne), Richard Dawkins, and David Suzuki.