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Environmental Determinism

Environmental Determinism

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Published by: Sanjeev Kumar on Mar 03, 2013
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 A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #
environmental determinism
The doctrine that human activities are controlled by the environment (Lewthwaite, 1966).Since ancient times a belief in the moulding power of the physical environment on humanculture and constitution has attracted many advocates (Glacken, 1967). Hippocrates, forinstance, linked the characteristics of people in particular places to the influence of suchenvironmental factors as humidity, altitude and terrain; while Aristotle believed that the world\'s climatic zones (frigid, temperate, and torrid) determined global habitability. Later,during the Renaissance, such climatic imperatives were, as in the case of Bodin during the mid-sixteenth century, frequently tied to astrological convictions that linked the microcosm of the body with the macrocosm of the heavens (Wands, 1986). The widespread publicizing of suchenvironmental doctrines during the Enlightenment owed much to the writings of Montesquieu,and in particular to his volume on
The spirit of the laws
(1748). To be sure, many others hadflirted with the idea, notably the Abbé Dubos and John Arbuthnot; but Montesquieu\'sproject of locating legislative regulation within the framework of the entire social andenvironmental conditions of which they were a part was exceptionally influential. Thereby contextualizing law and custom, and drawing from a burgeoning travel literature, Montesquieudisclosed how climatic conditions governed both the degeneration and persistence of culturaltraits. Because everything from human physiology to social practices, from religious principlesto moral judgements, were geographically conditioned, he presented the case for culturalrelativism (Shklar, 1987). Montesquieu\'s penchant for recounting how religious beliefsmirrored geographical circumstance (Carrithers, 1995) enjoyed a lasting legacy: ErnestRenan\'s later expression of the tradition in the dictum that \'the desert is monotheist\'persisted well into the twentieth century (Deffontaines, 1948). By the same token, his Americandisciples â
” such as Samuel Stanhope Smith â
” used the doctrine of climatic determinism inthe New Republic to underwrite a common human nature and the superficiality of racialdifference (Livingstone, 1999).Notwithstanding the critiques of figures like Herder during the second half of the eighteenthcentury, environmental determinism flourished in the pre-Darwinian period among those likeHenry Buckle who sought for a historicist history that subjected human activities to natural law (Bowler, 1989; see historicism), among regional sociologists like Le Play who causally connected up work, family and place (Brooke, 1970; cf. le Play Society), and amongethnologists who accounted for racial differentiation in climatic terms (Stocking, 1987). It alsofound expression in the writings of those espousing a teleological metaphysics like VictorCousin who, from time to time, gave the impression that national psyche could be read straightoff topographic cartography: \'give me the map of a country â
and I pledge myself to tell you,a priori, what the man of that country will be, and what part that country will play in history,not by accident, but of necessity\' (quoted in Febvre, 1932, p. 10; cf. teleology). In theaftermath of the \'Darwinian Revolution\' the naturalistic construal of human culture in thecategories of natural law received further encouragement (see also Darwinism; human ecology;Lamarckism; Social Darwinism). It clearly surfaced, for example, among those writers working
on the interface of geography, history and anthropology who continued to read the humanstory through racial lenses (cf. racism). The role of environment in shaping racial\'achievement\' was thus emphasized in the writings of figures like A.R. Wallace, Sir JohnLubbock and A.H. Keane (Stepan, 1982). The doctrine persisted too in the sociological work of  writers like Edmond Demolins who reduced ethnic character and the genesis of civilization topatterns of communication routes. Throughout, the assumption was that human culture wasineluctably shaped by nature.These currents of thought were clearly registered within the geographical tradition. After all,Friedrich Ratzel and Oscar Peschel in Germany acquired distinguished reputations inanthropology as well as geography. Yet for all that there is much to be said for the view thatevolution\'s reinforcement of environmental determinism sprang less from classicalDarwinism than from the Neo-Lamarckian version (Campbell and Livingstone, 1983; seeLamarckism). Ratzel\'s Anthropogeographie, with its cardinal notion of Lebensraum, and hisorganismic conception of the state, owed much to the migration theories of the LamarckianMoritz Wagner; and while the environmental determinist element in his early work hasperhaps been overestimated, the evolutionary outlook of figures like Wagner and Haeckel didmuch to legitimate any such tendencies in Ratzel\'s project (Livingstone, 1992; see alsoanthropogeography).The Ratzelian programme, in its more sternly environmental determinist guise, found its American voice largely through the writings of Ellen C. Semple. Her American history and itsgeographic conditions (1903) and Influences of geographic environment (1911), while not socrude as some commentators have implied, nevertheless did much to establishenvironmentalism as the dominant mode of explanation in American geography during theearly decades of the twentieth century. And with the reinforcement of earlier works from writers like Shaler and Brigham its scientific stature seemed secured (Livingstone, 1987). Such was also the conviction of Ellsworth Huntington whose voluminous writings on climate andcivilization displayed his pre-dilection for racial typecasting and environmentalistexplanations. Yet here again we find another victim of the historical stereotype. For even whilehe advocated human history on the grand environmental scale, Huntington constantly reiterated the importance of genetic constitution and thus threw his weight behind variouseugenic enterprises (Spate, 1968).Elsewhere during the early years of the twentieth century similar conceptual manoeuvres werediscernible. Griffith Taylor, for example, advocated what he called \'stop and go\' determinismin the attempt to modulate the shrillest tones of inexorable necessitarianism. And in BritainHalford Mackinder who, at one point, insisted that the only rational basis for humangeography was as a causal science built upon physical foundations, nevertheless left space forhumanity\'s wresting the initiative from nature through the exercise of what he came to call theGoing Concern (O\'Tuathail, 1992).Given this sense of equivocation, it is evident that the distinctions between environmentaldeterminism, possibilism and probabilism turn out to be far from clear cut. To the contrary.Figures widely regarded as paradigm cases actually displayed greater ambivalence andconceptual nuance than is usually acknowledged. Vidal de la Blache, for instance, was convincedthat genres de vie were themselves reflective of nature even as they transformed it, and it would therefore be mistaken to consider his as an altogether radical voluntarism (Claval,1993). Never psychologistic, Vidal always conceived of human geography as a natural, not asocial, science (Buttimer, 1971; Livingstone, 1992). Similarly, the anthropologist Franz Boas\'spolemical crusade against an unsophisticated environmentalism (a campaign that influencedCarl Sauer\'s repudiation: see Berkeley School) must not be taken to imply an entire dismissalof the conditioning power of environment, as is clearly evident in his celebrated study of theenvironmental modification of the immigrant headform (Stocking, 1965; Speth, 1978). In the
light of such revelations it seems that the labels determinism and possibilism were retained with a degree of polemical typecasting compatible with the suspicion that other interests wereat stake in the controversies.Considerable debate on the subject also characterized Soviet geography (Matley, 1966).Withthe official endorsement of Lysenko\'s Lamarckism, and the stimulus of Plekhanov\'srevolutionized Marxism that causally connected the forces and relations of production tonatural environment, environmental determinism mobilized considerable support amongRussian geographers, notwithstanding the early critiques of Karl Wittfogel (Matley, 1966). Inthis espousal of the doctrine by the far left, Plekhanov\'s borrowings from Ratzel weredecisively significant, and he used it to combat racial theories of social development and toaccount for what he saw as \'the backwardness and social deformation of his own nativeRussia\' (Bassin, 1992, p. 3). During the second quarter of the century many more came toquery environmental determinism in the wake of Stalin\'s repudiation. Yet despite suchspurnings, V. Anuchin felt justified in reasserting the salience of at least a neo-determinism because he was convinced that classical Marxism was implicated in the attempt to trace causallinks between the material and the social (see also Marxist geography). Any acceptable account of the intellectual mainsprings of environmental determinism will haveto recognize its plural origins and purposes. Among these are the ways in which it wasconnected up to the philosophy of scientific and social scientific explanation, the place itoccupied in politically conservative regimes, its periodic underwriting of cultural pluralism,how it articulated the ideological interests of its academic advocates, and the role that it playedin bids to control disciplinary identity (Martin, 1951; Montefiore and Williams, 1955; Peet,1985; Livingstone, 1992). (DNL)References Bassin, M. 1992: Geographical determinism in
Marxism: GeorgiiPlekhanov and the environmental basis of Russian history.
 Annals of the Association of  American Geographers
82: 3-22. Bowler, P.J. 1989:
The invention of progress. TheVictorians and the past 
Oxford: Blackwell. Brooke, M.Z. 1970:
 Le Play: engineer and social scientist. The life and work of Frederic le Play
. London: Longman. Buttimer, A. 1971:
 Societyand milieu in the French geographic tradition
. Chicago: Rand McNally. Campbell, J.A. andLivingstone, D.N. 1983: Neo-Lamarckism and the development of geography in the UnitedStates and Great Britain.
Transactions, Institute of British Geographers
NS 8: 267-94. Carrithers, D. 1995: The Enlightenment science of society. In C. Fox, R. Porter and R. Wokler, eds,
 Inventing human science: eighteenth-century domains
. Berkeley: University of California Press, 232-70. Claval, P., ed., 1993:
 Autour de Vidal de la Blache: la formation del\'école française de géographie
. Paris: (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique(CNRS). Deffontaines, P. 1948:
Géographie et religions
. Paris: Gallimard. Febvre, L.1932:
 A geographical introduction to history
. London: Kegan Paul; Trench, Trà
 bner.Originally published in 1922 as
 La terre et l\'évolution humaine
. Glacken, C.J. 1967:
Traceson the Rhodian shore. Nature and culture in western thought from ancient times to the end of the eighteenth century
. Berkeley: University of California Press. Lewthwaite, G. 1966:Environmentalism and determinism: a search for clarification.
 Annals of the Association of  American Geographers
56: 1-23. Livingstone, D.N. 1987:
 Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and theculture of American science
. London: University of Alabama Press. Livingstone, D.N. 1992:
The geographical tradition. Episodes in the history of a contested enterprise
. Oxford:Blackwell. Livingstone, D.N. 1999: Geographical inquiry, rational religion and moralphilosophy: Enlightenment discourses on the human condition. In D.N. Livingstone and C.W.J. Withers, eds,
Geography and enlightenment 
. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Martin, A.F. 1951: The necessity for determinism.
Transactions, Institute of British Geographers
17: 1-12. Mattey, I.M. 1996: The marxist approach to geographical environment.
 Annals of the Association of American Geographers
56: 97-111. Montefiore, A. and Williams, W. 1955:Determinism and possibilism.
Geographical Studies
2: 1-11. O\'Tuathail, G. 1992: Putting

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