Essay on “Environmental Determinism”

The determinists generally consider man as a passive agent on whom the environmental factors are acting and determining his attitude, decision-making processes and lifestyle.

An interest in the influence of the environment on people can be traced back to classical antiquity.

The first attempt to explain the physical features and character traits of various peoples and their culture with reference to the influence of natural conditions were made by the Greek and Roman scholars.

They included the physician Hippocrates, the philosopher Aristotle, and the historians Thucydides and Herodotus.

Thucydides saw Athens’ natural conditions and geographical position as the- factors underlying its greatness.

Aristotle explained the differences between Northern Europeans and Asians in terms of climatic causes.

He argued that the inhabitants of cold countries (Europe) are courageous, brave, but unintelligent, lacking in political organization and capacity to rule their neighbours.

He also thought that the people living in warm climates of Asia were intelligent but lacking in courage and so slavery is their destiny and their natural state.

The people of Greece, on the other hand, who occupy “the middle position (mid-latitudes) geographically,” he (Aristotle) sees as endowed with the finest qualities and thus destined by nature itself to rule all over.

The Greek scholars correlated the easy going ways of Asiatics living in the favourable environmental conditions, while the penurious Europeans had to work hard for some amelioration of their poor environment.

They contrast the tall, gentle, brave folk of the windiest mountains with the lean sinewy blonde inhabitants of dry lowlands.

Aristotle emphatically attributed the progress of certain nations to their favourable environmental conditions.

Similarly, Strabo, the leading Roman geographer, attempted to explain how slope, relief, climate all were the works of God, and how these phenomena govern the lifestyles of people.

Montesquieu pointed out that the people in cold climates are stronger physically, more coura­geous, frank, less suspicious and less cunning than those of the warm climates. The people of warm climates are timorous, timid, and weak in body, indolent, lethargic and passive.

The environmental determinism continued to dominate the writings of Arab geographers. They divided the habitable world into seven kishwars or terrestrial zones and highlighted the physical and cultural characteristics of races and nations living in these zones.

Al-Battani, Al-Masudi, Ibn-Hauqal, Al-Idrisi and Ibn-Khaldun attempted to correlate the environment with the human activity and their mode of life. Al-Masudi, for example, asserted that the land where water, is abundant, the people are gay and humorous, while the people of dry and arid lands are short-tempered.

The nomads who live in open air are marked by strength and resolution, wisdom and physical fitness.

George Tathan, a leading historian of the 18th century, also explained the differences between peoples with reference to the differences between the lands in which they lived.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was also a determinist, who stated that the people of New Holland (Indonesia, East Indies) have half closed eyes and cannot see to any distance without bending their heads back until they touch their backs.

This is due to the innumerable flies which are always flying in their eyes. Kant further stressed that all the inhabitants of hot lands are exceptionally lazy and timid.

Timidity engenders superstition and in lands ruled by kings leads to slavery. Kant strongly argued for a scientific base to the study of geographical or environmental phenomena which he considered to be just as essential as the exact sciences.

In support of his hypothesis of influence of climate, he stated that animals and men who migrate to other countries are gradually affected by their new environment. For example, the brown squirrels which migrate to Siberia turn grey and the colour of white cows in winter turns grayish.

The environmental causation continued throughout the 19th century when geographers themselves used to regard geography above all as natural science.

The Kant’s philosophy about man and environment relationship was adopted by Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter who developed an inductive approach for explaining natural phenomena.

Ritter, the leading German geographer, adopted an inductive approach and introduced the environmental determinism in the early 19th century.

Ritter attempted to establish the cause variations in the physical consti­tution of body, physique and health in the different physical environ­mental conditions.

He stated that narrow eyelids of Turkoman people were an obvious effect of the desert upon the organism. Many of his students attributed geography “as the study of relationship between the density of a people and the nature of their land”.

Many geographers of his school declared that their main task was to identify the influence exerted by geographical conditions on material culture and the political destinies of inhabitants of a given region, both past and present.

Humboldt, one of the founders of modern geography and a contemporary of Ritter, also asserted that the mode of life of the inhabitants of mountainous country differs from that of the people of the plain.

The deductive and mechanistic philosophy earlier advocated by Newton was continued in the work of Darwin.

In 1859, he published the classic work Origin of Species in which he charted the development of life, and advanced theories on evolution.

For the followers of determinism, this is the most significant publication since it suggests a relationship between environment and organism and, moreover, charts a develop­mental sequence.

The scientific milieu in the later half of the 19th and early 20th centuries was dominated in part by Darwin’s idea, deductive approaches and an acceptance of the Newtonian cause and effect relationships.

Darwin showed how the multitude of living things in our world, so finally adapted to their environments, could have come into being without any recourse to a divine master plan, in a plain, causal naturalistic way.

Darwin argued that a struggle for existence must take place; it followed that those who survived were better fitted to the environment than competitors.

Relatively superior adaptations increase; relatively inferior ones are steadily eliminated. The Darwin’s theory affected the thinking of geographers significantly.

Fitting well into this intellectual environment, the theme of environmental determinism, developed mostly by geographers, was the prevailing view in German and American geography at the turn of the 20th century.

The concern was with documenting the control or influence of the environment upon human society.

The founder of the scientific determinism was Friedrich Ratzel. He supplemented ‘classical’ geographical determinism with elements of Social Darwinism and developed a theory of the state as an organism (Lebensraum) which owed its life to the earth which was ever striving to seize more and more territory. Ratzel argued that “similar locations lead to similar mode of life”.

In support of his argument, he cited the example of British Isles and Japan and asserted that both these countries have insular locations, which provide natural defence against the invaders.

Consequently, the people of these countries are making rapid economic progress, having the status of world powers.

Ratzel, a follower of Darwin, believed in the survival of the fittest and saw man as the end-product of evolution, an evolution in which the mainspring was the natural selection of types according to their capacity to adjust themselves to physical environment.

He was convinced that the course of history, the mode of life of the people, and the stage of development are closely influenced by the physical features and location of a place in relation to mountains and plains.

In his deterministic approach, he gave more weight age to location in relation to topographic features. He opined that location of a place determines the attitude and lifestyle of its peoples.

At the beginning of the 20th century, environmentalism became particularly widespread in the United States, where its leading proponents were Simple and Huntington.

Simple was the direct descendant of Ratzel. She preached the philosophy of her master and thus was a staunch supporter of determinism.

The book Influences of Geographic Environment, which she wrote, starts with the opening paragraph: “Man is a product of the earth’s surface.

This means not merely that he is a child of the earth, dust of her dust; but that the earth has mothered him, fed him, set him tasks, directed his thoughts, confronted him with difficulties that have strengthened his body and sharpened his wits, given him the problems of navigation, or irrigation, and at the same time whispered hints for their solution.

She has entered into his bones and tissue, into his mind and soul. On the mountains she has given him leg muscles of iron to climb the slope; along the coast she has left these weak and flabby, but given him instead vigorous development of chest and arm to handle his paddle or oar.

In the river valleys, she attaches him to the fertile soil, circumscribe his ideas and ambitions by a dull round of calm, exacting duties, and narrow his outlook to the cramped horizon of his farm.

Upon the windswept plateaus, in the boundless stretch of the grasslands and the waterless tracts of the desert, where he roams with his flocks from pasture to pasture and oasis to oasis, where life knows much hardship but escapes the grind of drudgery, where the watching of grazing herd gives him leisure for contemplation, and the wide ranging life a big horizon, his ideas take on a certain gigantic simplicity, religion becomes monotheism, God becomes one, unrivaled like the sand of the desert and the grass of the steppe, stretching on and on without break or change.

Chewing over and the end of his simple belief as the one food of his unfed mind, his faith becomes fanaticism; his big special ideas, born of that ceaseless regular legitimate fruit in wide imperial conquest.”

Man no more can be scientifically studied apart from the ground which he tills, or the lands over which he travels, or the seas over which he trades, than polar bear or desert cactus can be understood apart from his habitat.

Man’s relations to his environment are infinitely more numerous and complex than those of the most highly organized plant or animal.

So complex are they that they constitute a legitimate and necessary object of special study.

The investigation which they receive in anthropology, ethnology, sociology, and history is piecemeal and partial, limited as to the race, cultural development, epoch, country or variety of geographic conditions taken into account.

Hence, all these sciences, together with history (so far as history undertakes to explain the causes of events) fail to reach a satisfactory solution of their problems largely because the geographic factor which enters into them, all has not been thoroughly analyzed.

Man has been so noisy about the way he has ‘conquered nature’ and nature has been so silent in her persistent influence over man that the geographic factor in the equation of human development has been overlooked.

Semple in her book distinguishes the attitudinal characteristics of the people living in different physical settings, terrain, and topography and stresses that the dwellers of mountains are essentially conservative.

There is little in his environment to stimulate him to change and little reaches him from the outside world.

Hence, innovation is repugnant to him. As a matter of fact, the process of diffusion of new ideas and innovations in the hilly tracts of isolation and relative isolation is slow as compared to the well linked plain parts of the world.

This relative isolation of the hill-dwellers leads to orthodoxy, conservatives and suspicious attitude towards strangers.

They are extremely sensitive in their traditions and do not like criticism. They have strong religious feelings and an intense love for family.

The bitter struggle for existence makes the hill-man indus­trious, frugal, provident and honest. Contrary to this, the people of plain parts of Europe are energetic, serious, thoughtful, rather than emotional, and cautious rather than impulsive.

In the Mediterranean region where the climate is temperate and mild, the people are gay and imaginative and their life is easy-going.

Huntington, the American geographer, who wrote the monumental book The Principles of Human Geography in 1945, was a protagonist of environmental determinism.

He made the most decisive step since the time of Hippocrates towards something new and conclusive in environ­mental causation thinking.

So, over many years, he was engaged in devel­oping the idea of climate’s leading role in the advancement of civilization.

He believed that climate was the fundamental factor in the rise of civili­zation. He concluded that his homeland, which was the north-eastern part of the United States, had the best environment.

He even produced a map, based primarily on the opinions of the North Americans, which showed that temperate climates had the highest level of health and energy and civilization.

He estimated that each inhabitant of the temperate belt produces on an average five or six times more than any inhabitant in any other part of the world.

The basic philosophy of Huntington was that the supreme achieve­ments of civilization in any region were always bound up with a particular type of climate and variation in climate led to ‘pulsations’ in the history of culture.

He suggested that the best climates for work were those in which there was variety and in which the temperatures fell within a certain range.

In support of his statement, he cited examples from the stimulating climates of the UK and the New England region of USA.

He associated with the climatic cycles the Golden Age in ancient Greece, the Renaissance in Western Europe, and cyclical fluctuations in iron production or the price of shares.

Huntington divided the world in the mild and harsh climatic zones and established that the ancient civilizations (Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indus, and Chinese) flourished in the fertile river valleys of mild climates.

He also established the hypothesis of invasion and tribal warfare. The great outpouring of nomadic people from Central Asia which led to Mongols’ conquest of Turan, Turkistan, China and India and the raids in Eastern Europe in the 13th century could be explained by the drying of pastures on which the nomads were dependent.

According to Huntington, the religion and racial character are the products of climate.

A temperature of about 20°C and variable atmospheric conditions (temperate cyclonic weather) are the ideal for the high mental and physical efficiencies. Such climatic conditions are also found in the countries of North-West Europe.

The advancement of Europeans in the fields of science and technology has thus been attributed to climatic conditions by Huntington.

The underdevelopment of tropics, he explains, is owing to the humid, hot, oppressive weather which makes the people lethargic, lazy, inefficient, timid and indolent.

The subsequent geographers like Halford J. Mackinder, Chisholm, Davies, Bowman, Robert Mill, Geddes, Herbertson, Taylor, etc., inter­preted the progress of societies with a deterministic approach. Many of the scholars made it vividly clear that climate influences the physical properties of soil which ultimately determines the cropping patterns, dietary habits, physique and attitudes.

Mac Carrison demonstrated conclusively that the greater stature, strong constitution and superior physical resistance of the Sikhs of North India as compared to the Tamils of South India are a direct result of the superior Sikh diet and particularly its greater richness in protein.

The Khasis of the plateau of Meghalaya have in general a poor physique because the protein intake in their diet is significantly low.

Lord Boyd Orr and Gilkhs observed a similar phenomenon in East Africa, where they studied the Kikuyu and the Masai tribes of Kenya.

The Kikuyus are farmers living on a diet of cereals, tubers and legumes; the Masais, on the other hand, are cattle raisers, whose diet includes meat, milk and ox-blood, which they take from the animals.

These two human groups living side by side in the same environment differ profoundly in their physical measurements. This difference is the direct result of their fundamentally different diets.

Similarly, there is no doubt that the low stature and poor physique of most of the masses of India is the result of starvation, under-nourishment and malnutrition.

How closely soil and vegetation influence the health and stature of peoples and animals have been explained by Karl Mackey.

He cites the case of Shetland ponies in the following words: “On the Shetland Island, at the northern extremity of the British Isles (60°N), are found the smallest horses in the world, only about three feet in height.

Traditionally, it used to be thought that these Shetland ponies constituted a separate race of horses, stabilized by inbreeding, until some businessmen decided to supply the American market by raising these* ponies in USA.

To their great disap­pointment, the ponies born under the new conditions got bigger and bigger generation after generation until they were the same size as horses of other ‘races’.

The fact is, there is no separate race of ponies. Even after hundreds of generations, when the ponies were taken to areas with richer soil they regained the characteristics of their ancestors.”

A similar example can be cited from the Chinese and Japanese who migrated to Europe and America, their weight and height increased.

The Pygmies also lose their characteristics when transplanted to plain regions where agriculture and cattle raising provide much more varied food. Thus, the short-statured races became tall-statured races.

Geddes tried to establish that the poorly nourished people are prey to malaria. In support of his hypothesis, he stated that the meat eating Muslims in India are much less subject to malaria than are the Hindus with their vegetarian diet.

The influence of physical factors on food habits and the consequent effect on the rate of birth in the different regions can be seen from the fact that the high birth rates (above 30 per 1,000) are all confined to tropical countries.

The geographic and socio-economic conditions of these countries are all ill-adapted to either the production or consumption of proteins of animal origin.

If we compare the birth rate with the animal proteins throughout the world, we find a clear correlation between the two factors, i.e., the fertility going down as the consumption of such proteins rises.

For example, the daily intake of animal protein in Sweden and Denmark is 65 and 60 grams and the birth rate is 10 and 13 per 1,000 respectively, while in India and Malaysia only about 10 and 12 grams of animals’ protein is consumed respectively and the corresponding birth rate in these countries is 23 and 26 per 1,000 (2011).

It may be an overgeneralization as many other factors like literacy, education and health, standard of living and socio-cultural attributes also contribute to birth rate, yet there is no denying the fact that the quality of diet has a close bearing on the increase, decrease and longevity of population.

There are evidences showing that terrain, topography, temperature, moisture, vegetation and soil, both individually and collectively, affect the social and economic institutions and thereby the mode of life of people, yet the role of man as the transforming agent of his physical surroundings is quite pertinent. In fact, works of man reveal many facts for which environmental forces alone can give no satisfactory explanation.

For example, similar environment does not always invoke the same response. Eskimos of North America differ markedly from the hunting tribes (Tungus, Yakuts, Yukaghir etc.) of Siberia. Pygmy hunters share the equatorial forests of Central Africa with agricultural Negroes in a remarkable symbiosis.

The Khasi, Garo and Jaintia tribes of Meghalaya and the Lushais of Mizoram, living under almost similar climatic and environmental conditions, have marked variations in physical traits, physique, dietary habits, standard of literacy, and attitude towards life.

It is also observed that the same physical conditions of land could have quite different meanings for people with different attitudes towards their environment, different objectives in making use of it and different levels of technological skill.

The Gujjars and Bakarwals of Jammu & Kashmir prefer to settle on slopes and to utilize these slopes for pastures while the Kashmiris like to settle in leveled areas and to utilize their arable land for paddy cultivation.

The former are nomads (transhumants) while the latter are cultivators. In agricultural areas it was clear that slope had one meaning for the man with a hoe and quite another for a man with a tractor drawn plough. It might be that the introduction of machinery could reduce the arable area of a country or change the kind of soil considered desirable.

People of one kind of culture might concentrate in the valleys (Masai and Kikuyu of East Africa) whereas another people in the same area might concentrate their settlements on fertile uplands.

Waterpower sites that were useful for the location of industries before the advent of steam engine lost that attraction when power came from other sources.

Environment undoubtedly influences man, man in turn changes his environment and the interaction is so intricate that it is difficult to know when one influence ceases and the other begins.

Many landscapes that appear natural to us are in truth the work of man. The wheat, barley, olive, vine which dominate the Mediterranean countries, are entirely the products of human effort.

The apple and almond orchards of Kashmir, Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh are the creations of man. Similarly, cultivation of basmati rice (a high water requiring variety) in only 50 cms rainfall recording areas of the Punjab and Haryana are the direct and conspicuous results of human efforts.

Countless such examples from the developed and the developing countries can be cited. Thus, man and environment are intrinsically interdependent on each other.

After the Second World War, the philosophy of environmentalism was attacked. Many geographers in USA, Britain, Germany, Canada and other countries were drawing attention to the one-sided approach adopted by the environmentalists in their interpretation of historical reality to their exaggeration of nature’s active role and the fact that they only acknowledge man as capable of passive attempts at adaptation.

Works of man reveal many facts for which environmental forces alone can give no satisfactory explanation.

Environmental determinism is regarded by many people as overly simplistic because it neglects the cultural factors that affect human behaviour.

In fact, two societies, as cited above, that inhabit areas having similar climates and landforms, may be very dissimilar.

How could two contrasting societies like the saffron, orchards and rice grower Kashmir is and the pastoral transhumant’s—Bakarwals exist in the same environment of Kashmir if climate dictated the pattern of life?

Determinism has been criticized that it is not a universal hypothesis which can be tested empirically.

Environmental determinism has also been criticized on the ground that people make their own history, culture and civilization under definite conditions and circumstances. Men act through a world of rules which our action makes, breaks and renews.

Thus, we are the creatures of rules, the rules are our creations; we make our own world—the world confronts us as an implacable order of social facts set over against us. And thus, man is not the product of his environment but the creation of his social rules and customs.

Spate criticized the fanatic approach of environmental determinists. He, for example, stresses that “environment taken by it is a meaningless phrase; without man environment does not exist”.

Equally important is his indication of the need to consider the psycho-physiological influence of the geographical environment via social structure.

In the final analysis, Spate concluded that geographical environment is only one of the factors of territorial differentiation and “it acts through society; cultural tradition has a certain autonomous influence”.

Recently, an Australian author Wolfgang Hartake argued that while the role of physical factors might well be relatively unimportant in the fringe zone of Frankfurt, “it is hard to imagine the extreme climatic conditions not playing a direct role in any human activity which occurs in the Sahara”.

Similar argument is put forward by Hartshorne; he rejected environmentalism purely on the grounds that the latter separates nature and man, and thus is “disruptive of fundamental unity of the field,” i.e., contradicts the concept of geography as an integrated science.