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Environmental determinism

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Environmental determinism, also known as climatic determinism or geographical determinism, is the view that the physical environment, rather than social conditions, determines culture. Those who believe this view say that humans are strictly defined by stimulus-response (environment-behavior) and cannot deviate.

The fundamental argument of the environmental determinists was that aspects of physical geography, particularly climate, influenced the psychological mind-set of individuals, which in turn defined the behaviour and culture of the society that those individuals formed. For example, tropical climates were said to cause laziness, relaxed attitudes and promiscuity, while the frequent variability in the weather of the middle latitudes led to more determined and driven work ethics. Because these environmental influences operate slowly on human biology, it was important to trace the migrations of groups to see what environmental conditions they had evolved under. Key proponents of this notion have included Ellen Churchill Semple, Ellsworth Huntington, Thomas Griffith Taylor and possibly Jared Diamond. Although Diamond's work does make connections between environmental and climatic conditions and societal development, it is published with the stated intention of disproving racist and eurocentric theories of development. [1]


Template:Cite check Environmental determinism's origins go back to antiquity, where it is first encountered in a fifth-century medical treatise ascribed to Hippocrates: Airs, Waters, Places.The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity Princeton: Princeton University Press.In Roman times it is, for example, found in the work of the Greek geographer Strabo who wrote that climate influences the psychological disposition of different races. Some in ancient China advanced a form of environmental determinism as found , perhaps written in the 2nd century BCE. In the chapter "Water and Earth", we find statements like "Now the water of [the state of] Qi is forceful, swift and twisting. Therefore its people are greedy, uncouth, and warlike," and "The water of Chu is gentle, yielding, and pure. Therefore its people are lighthearted, resolute, and sure of themselves. in Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China: Who help create environmental determinism was Ellen Churchill Semple.

Another early adherent of environmental determinism was the medieval writer al-Jahiz, who explained how the environment can determine the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of a certain community. He used his early theory of evolution to explain the origins of different human skin colors, particularly black skin, which he believed to be the result of the environment. He cited a stony region of black basalt in the northern Najd as evidence for his theory:[2]

"[It] is so unusual that its gazelles and ostriches, its insects and flies, its foxes, sheep and asses, its horses and its birds are all black. Blackness and whiteness are in fact caused by the properties of the region, as well as by the God-given nature of water and soil and by the proximity or remoteness of the sun and the intensity or mildness of its heat."

The Arab sociologist and polymath, Ibn Khaldun, was also an adherent of environmental determinism. In his Muqaddimah (1377), he explained that black skin was due to the hot climate of sub-Saharan Africa and not due to their lineage. He thus dispelled the Hamitic theory, where the sons of Ham were cursed by being black, as a myth. slavery and Islam in Maghribi Mediterranean thought: the question of the Haratin in Morocco. Many translations of Ibn Khaldun were translated during the colonial era in order to fit the colonial propaganda map Translation and the Colonial Imaginary: Ibn Khaldun Orientalist, by AThe Negro Land of the Arabs Examined and Explained] was written in 1841 and gives excerpts of older translations that were not part of colonial propaganda. The Negro Land of the Arabs Examined and Explained: "When the conquest of the West (by the Arabs) was completed, and merchants began to penetrate into the interior, they saw no nation of the Blacks so mighty as Ghanah, the dominions of which extended westward as far as the Ocean. The King's court was kept in the city of Ghanah, which, according to the author of the Book of Roger (El Idrisi), and the author of the Book of Roads and Realms (El Bekri), is divided into two parts, standing on both banks of the Nile, and ranks among the largest and most populous cities of the world. The people of Ghanah had for neighbours, on the east, a nation, which, according to historians, was called Susu; after which came another named Mali; and after that another known by the name of Kaukau ; although some people prefer a different orthography, and write this name Kagho. The last-named nation was followed by a people called Tekrur. The people of Ghanah declined in course of time, being overwhelmed or absorbed by the Molaththemun (or muffled people;that is, the Morabites), who, adjoining them on the north towards the Berber country, attacked them, and, taking possession of their territory, compelled them to embrace the Mohammedan religion. The people of Ghanah, being invaded at a later period by the Susu, a nation of Blacks in their neighbourhood, were exterminated, or mixed with other Black nations.Ibn Khaldun suggests a link between the decline of Ghana and rise of the Almoravids. However, there is little evidence of there actually being an Almoravid conquest. The Almoravid Conquest of Ghana in the Modern Historiography of Western Africa by Pekka Masonen; Humphrey J. Fisher 1996.The Conquest That Never Was: Ghana and the Almoravids, 1076. I. The External Arabic Sources, by David Conrad and Humphrey Fisher © 1982 African Studies Association. Ibn Khaldun also anticipated the meteorological climate theory later proposed by Montesquieu in the 18th century. Like Montesquieu, Ibn Khaldun studied "the physical environment in which man lives in order to understand how it influences him in his non-physical characteristics." He explained the differences between different peoples, whether nomadic or sedentary peoples, including their customs and institutions, in terms of their "physical environment-habitat, climate, soil, food, and the different ways in which they are forced to satisfy their needs and obtain a living." This was a departure from the climatic theories expressed by authors from Hippocrates to Jean Bodin. It has been suggested that Ibn Khaldun may have had an influence upon Montesquieu's theory through the traveller Jean Chardin, who travelled to Persia and described a theory resembling Ibn Khaldun's climatic theory.The Spread of Ibn Khaldun's Ideas on Climate and Culture|author=Warren E. Gates|journal=[[Journal of the History of Idea

Environmental determinism rose to prominence in the late 19th century and early 20th century when it was taken up as a central theory by the discipline of geography (and to a lesser extent, anthropology). Clark University professor Ellen Churchill Semple is credited with introducing the theory to the United States after studying with human geographer Friedrich Ratzel in Germany. The prominence of determinism was influenced by the high profile of evolutionary biology, although it tended more to resemble the now-discredited Lamarckism rather than Darwinism.

Waning and LegacyEdit

Between 1920 and 1940, environmental determinism came under repeated attacks as its claims were found to be severely faulted at best, and often dangerously wrong. Geographers reacted to this by first developing the softer notion of "environmental possibilism," and later by abandoning the search for theory and causal explanation for many decades. Later critics charged that determinism served to justify racism and imperialism. The experience of environmental determinism has left a scar on geography, with many geographers reacting negatively to any suggestion of environmental influences on human society. Some believe this rejection has gone too far, and that incorporating environmental factors into explanations of social outcomes is not only useful but necessary.[3]

While this accurately reflects the popular belief and perception in the geographic community towards environmental determinism, the debate was overlaid with hues of gray. Rostlund pointed out in his essay in Readings in Cultural Geography: "Environmentalism was not disproved, only disapproved." He also points to the fact that the disapproval was not based on inaccurate findings, but rather a methodological process which stands in contrast to that of science, something the geographers have arguably sought to ascribe themselves to. Carl O. Sauer followed on from this in 1924 when he criticized the premature generalizations resulting from the bias of environmentalism. He pointed out that to define geography as the study of environmental influences is to assume in advance that such influences do operate, and that a science cannot be based upon or committed to a preconception."

A variant of environmental determinism was popular among Marxists, employing the dialectical materialism concept of history. To Marx's basic model of the ideological and cultural superstructure being determined by the economic base, they added the idea that the economic base is determined by environmental conditions. For example, Russian geographer Georgi Plekhanov argued that the reason his nation was still in the feudal era, rather than having progressed to capitalism and becoming ripe for the revolution into communism, was that the wide plains of Russia allowed class conflicts to be easily diffused. This Marxist environmental determinism was repudiated around the same time as classic environmental determinism.



Climatic determinism is an aspect of economic geography, also sometimes called the equatorial paradox. According to this theory, about 70% of the economic development of a country can be predicted from the distance between that country and the equator. In other words, the further from the equator the more developed a country tends to be. The paradox applies equally well both north and south of the equator. Australia, for example, has a higher level of economic development than Indonesia. The paradox also applies within countries — the northern U.S. states are more developed than the southern U.S. states.

Singapore is a notable counter-example: it is located at 1.22° N and is one of the world's most prosperous countries. This prosperity is based on its position as a port. (Although Singapore's strict and no-nonsense government system matches the "strict and authoritarian" system that Montesquieu cited as being necessary for a country in warmer areas to succeed by counteracting the environmental complacency of the tropics with human-induced strictures.) Other exceptions to the paradox tend to have large natural resources. Saudi Arabia is a good example.

One popular theory to explain this phenomenon is that development is less necessary in tropical regions - "you can lie in a hammock and pick bananas,"[citation needed] as opposed to the need to invent agriculture and economy in order to prosper and survive. This explanation, while convenient, may not be sufficiently complex to truly explain the equatorial paradox.

It is noteworthy that the equatorial paradox only emerged from the Modern Era onwards, with more highly developed cultures and economies being present in the tropical and subtropical regions than outside it. In the context of a statistical analysis, the paradox is probably more a consequence of subjugation and colonization. The latter all but arrested economical and infrastructural development, except as needed to fulfil the colonial power's aims.

Climatic Determinism was intensely studied by Ellsworth Huntington.


Main article: Architectural determinism

Environmental determinism has been adopted by the urban design field to describe the effects the built environment may have on behaviour. This is the basis of the concept of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) which attempts to modify disruptive behaviours through appropriate design of the physical environment. This concept is also the basis of active space which tries to encourage activity through the design of a space.

See also Edit


  1. Andrew, Sluyter (2003), "Neo-Environmental Determinism, Intellectual Damage Control, and Nature/Society Science", Antipode 4 (35): 813–817, 
  2. Lawrence I. Conrad (1982), "Taun and Waba: Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
  3. Ballinger, Clint (2011), Why Geographic Factors are Necessary in Development Studies MPRA Paper No. 29750

External links Edit


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