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).


Origins Card Game

Origins: An Evolutionary Journey is a new card game from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History that provides an overview of core concepts in biological anthropology broader topics in evolution at the introductory level for college courses.


Created by a curator at the CMNH and an anthropology professor at St. Lawrence University (Canton, NY), with illustrations by Holly Hunhold, Origins covers a wide variety of topics that are color-coded: Fundamentals (Pink); Genetics (Blue); Evolution and Variation (Green); Primates (Orange); Origins and Transitions (Red); and Being Human (Purple). The cards are then divided among nine different types of questions, from labeling images and identifying incorrect statements to identifying a subject (like a famous person or species) and telling fact from fiction. The deck also includes Forces of Evolution cards which offer specific actions for play (Bottleneck, Founder Effect, Extinction, and Natural Selection).


The game is designed for in-class use between groups of students, but the card deck can also be used individually for study. My son enjoyed going through the deck with me, answering some questions, guessing at others, or simply stating, “I’m only ten dad, how would I know that?” Instructions for play are provided online here (in PDF form here).

Here’s a video from the CMNH about Origins:

You can order a deck of Origin: An Evolutionary Journey from the publisher or from Amazon.


ARTICLE: The impact of A. R. Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper reassessed

A new article in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences will interest readers here. Its author, the creator of Darwin Online and Wallace Online, has devoted much time and research in reevaluating the story of Wallace and Darwin.

The impact of A. R. Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper reassessed

John van Wyhe

Abstract This article examines six main elements in the modern story of the impact of Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1855 Sarawak Law paper, particularly in the many accounts of Charles Darwin’s life and work. These elements are: 1 It was Wallace’s first avowal of evolution; 2 Wallace laid out the theory of evolution minus only a “mechanism”; 3 Darwin failed to see how close Wallace was approaching; 4 Lyell did see how close Wallace was approaching; 5 Lyell urged Darwin to publish because of Wallace; 6 Darwin wrote to Wallace to warn him off his path. Each of these are very frequently repeated as straightforward facts in the popular and scholarly literature. It is here argued that each of these is erroneous and that the role of the Sarawak Law paper in the historiography of Darwin and Wallace needs to be revised.

You can read this article online or download the PDF for free.

ARTICLE: The Creativity of Natural Selection? Part I: Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mutationists

A new article in the Journal of the History of Biology:

The Creativity of Natural Selection? Part I: Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mutationists

John Beatty

Abstract This is the first of a two-part essay on the history of debates concerning the creativity of natural selection, from Darwin through the evolutionary synthesis and up to the present. Here I focus on the mid-late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, with special emphasis on early Darwinism and its critics, the self-styled “mutationists.” The second part focuses on the evolutionary synthesis and some of its critics, especially the “neutralists” and “neo-mutationists.” Like Stephen Gould, I consider the creativity of natural selection to be a key component of what has traditionally counted as “Darwinism.” I argue that the creativity of natural selection is best understood in terms of (1) selection initiating evolutionary change, and (2) selection being responsible for the presence of the variation it acts upon, for example by directing the course of variation. I consider the respects in which both of these claims sound non-Darwinian, even though they have long been understood by supporters and critics alike to be virtually constitutive of Darwinism.

Journal special issue on “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation”

A whole issue of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences is devoted to the topic “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation.” The contents are as follows:

Introduction: Evolution and historical explanation
Peter Harrison, Ian Hesketh

What was historical about natural history? Contingency and explanation in the science of living things
Peter Harrison

The “History” of Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Huxley, Spencer and the “End” of natural history
Bernard Lightman


Theological presuppositions of the evolutionary epic: From Robert Chambers to E. O. Wilson
Allan Megill


What are narratives good for?
John Beatty


Counterfactuals and history: Contingency and convergence in histories of science and life
Ian Hesketh

The spontaneous market order and evolution
Naomi Beck

Contingency and the order of nature
Nancy Cartwright


Freedom and purpose in biology
Daniel W. McShea


“Replaying Life’s Tape”: Simulations, metaphors, and historicity in Stephen Jay Gould’s view of life
David Sepkoski

A case study in evolutionary contingency
Zachary D. Blount


Can evolution be directional without being teleological?
George R. McGhee Jr.

Evolutionary biology and the question of teleology
Michael Ruse

Contingency, convergence and hyper-astronomical numbers in biological evolution
Ard A. Louis


It all adds up …. Or does it? Numbers, mathematics and purpose
Simon Conway Morris