The Major Thinkers of Geographical Determinism

There have been various schools of thought in the history of geographical thought, and geographical determinism is one such school of thought that deals with the interaction between man and nature. Geographical determinism began with the major initial source of geographical explanation that based its theoretical positions on the notion that human activity was dependent on the physical environment in which it was set.

Geographical determinism was a dominant school of thought until the Second World War and presented the point of view that human action is determined by the physical environment. Geographical determinism asserts that human history, culture, society and lifestyles, development, etc are shaped by their physical environment. Geographical determinism understands human social action as a response to the natural environment.

The Greek and the Roman philosophers were the first to base the physical features, personality traits and culture and society of humans as influenced by natural conditions. The Greek philosophers Xenophon and Thucydides attributed Athens’ characteristic features to the natural conditions and geographical position of the region, as the reason for its ascendance.

Rome was described in a similar way by Strabo. Even Aristotle held climatic differences as the reason for the distinction between Europeans and Asians (P. Mondal, 2016).

The Aristotelian distinction became a general line of thought for European essentialism in the period, which held the line that the harsher environmental conditions in most of Europe produced courageous people according to Aristotle while the people of Asia were said to lack in courage. Ancient Greece, Aristotle opined, occupied the middle position in terms of the benevolence of environmental conditions had people endowed with the finest qualities.

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This line of thinking in geographical determinism continued with Strabo through to Montesquieu who attributed courage to colder climates and cunning to warmer climates. While these are philosophical generalizations, an attempt at classifying geographical features was made by the medieval Arab geographers in their classification of the inhabited world into seven kisbwars or climatic zones. In their attempts at geographical determinism, they attempted to highlight the distinctive physical and societal characteristics of kingdoms falling within these kisbwars.

This mode of thinking of environmental causation was characterized even by Immanuel Kant, who attempted to explain personality traits of people from different regions in terms of environmental features. This continued in an arcane manner until the evolution of geography as a natural science in the 19th Century, when the German geographer Carl Ritter introduced an anthropocentric form of geographical determinism in the early 19th Century. However, there were certain notable thinkers of geographical determinism even before or concurrent to this. The following are some of the leading thinkers in terms of geographical determinism, starting with Carl Ritter.

Carl Ritter (1779-1859)Carl RitterFig: Carl Ritter
Source: Michael Schoenitzer

Famous Book | Die Erdkunde, or Earth Science, 1817
Famous Quote |“I am ready to argue that geography is next to the divine philosophy”
Work | As a pioneering geographer, what was of supreme interest to Carl Ritter was the human population of a specific area as determined by environmental features. Ritter believed that the Earth was part of God’s plan and included theology in his writings, although he took an anthropocentric view in considering humankind the ultimate purpose of creation.

Ritter believed that the central purpose of geography as a science was to understand the interaction between humankind and nature, else it would fail in its task. He believed in the cultural development of geographical areas such that the greatest possible harmony between nature and culture is achieved. In this task, instead of the traditional study of nations, Ritter undertook the study of regions and their environmental features, forming in total an Earth organism interacting historically with the human organism. Ritter thus held that humankind and the characteristic features of human beings are elements forming part of the total Earth organism and all parts within are thus interconnected. He placed his argument prior to Darwin in the setting of human history.

Ritter’s major work Die Erdkunde, or Earth Science (German for Geography), first published in 1817, which was intended as the total geography of the Earth organism, however, remained incomplete. He could only cover Asia and Africa before his death in 1859. The full translation of the title is The Science of the Earth in Relation to Nature and the History of Mankind.

Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859)Fig: Alexander Humboldt
Source: Nikita Vorobiev

Famous Book | Kosmos, 1845-1862
Famous Quote | “In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.”
Work | Alexander Von Humboldt is a German naturalist and explorer who was a contemporary of Carl Ritter. The Humboldt Current which is located off the Western Coast of South America is named after the explorer. Born into a Prussian Aristocratic family, a young Humboldt left his life of privilege to explore Latin America for five years, and since then became a traveller and explorer, travelling and exploring the remotest corners of the world.

Humboldt was a celebrity scientist in his lifetime, and was sought after for his depth of natural knowledge and explorer’s worldliness, with an in depth hands on knowledge of physical geography. Like Ritter, Humboldt described Earth as a living organism, and that nature was living whole bound together in a net-like intricate fabric. Humboldt with his theory of interconnectedness and closely following Ritter, his formulation of Earth as a living organism revolutionized the way westerners saw nature in his age.

In this formulation, no single component of the natural world including human beings could be considered in isolation. In this interconnected natural web, one missing link could create a domino effect for all. A lifetime abolitionist, Humboldt considered colonialism as disastrous for the environment after his stint in Venezuela, where he criticized the anthropogenic interventions of the Spanish on the environment (A. Wulf, 2015). In his sense, abundantly relevant for contemporary times, all anthropogenic activity must align itself with the Earth organism, making a singular case for geographical determinism. In his most famous publication Kosmos, Humboldt describes this harmony of the universe in terms of the universal laws of nature and the history of science.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)Charles DarwinFig: Charles Darwin
Source: Andrew Comings

Famous Book | The Origin of Species, 1859
Famous Quote | “One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”
Work | Charles Darwin is an English naturalist whose theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most influential ideas in human history. His theory though, when it first came out, greatly offended the Victorian society of his age, and he was sometimes the object of ridicule for saying that humans and monkeys had a common ancestry. His theories at the time went against the fundamentals of religion and its theory of creationism, and thus was a revolution for science.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was published two decades after his travels across the world as explorer and scientist as The Origin of Species (1859). This work revolutionized the biological and geographical sciences out of which grew a new understanding of the natural world as based on common organic descent, multiplication of species, gradualism, natural selection, variation, and inheritance. Darwin explained how the mechanics of order works in the natural world, making humanity come to a clearer understanding of the workings of the natural world.

Darwin endorsed the associative organization of the natural world while rejecting the teleological and theological aspects of earlier geographical thought to come to an understanding of Earth as a living organism with component parts. Crucial in Darwin’s hypothesis was the struggle for existence and adaptation to environmental conditions that every organism must adhere to, else it would be eliminated. With this, Darwin essentially linked the man-environment equation into a natural law of science. Darwin demonstrated how humanity cannot possibly escape its natural endowments. Darwin in fact did most to establish geographical determinism as an important school in geography.

William Morris Davis (1850-1934)William Morris DavisFig: William Morris Davis
Source:  Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Famous Book | Geographical Essays, 1909
Famous Quote | “It is the relationship between the physical environment and the environed organism, between physiography and ontography (to coin a term), that constitutes the essential principles of geography today.”

Work | William Morris Davis is an American geographer, geologist and meteorologist noted for his studies of landforms. William Morris Davis in fact founded the geographical sub-field of geomorphology. Prior to Davis, dominant thought in landform formation was based on abstract notions such as the Biblical flood. Davis formed a theory of landform formation and erosion, which he called the geographical cycle, more popularly known as the geomorphic cycle. His theory established and comprehensively explains how landforms such as mountains are created, then evolve and mature, and then become old and erode (M. Rosenberg, 2017).

Although in contemporary times, his theories have been greatly modified, Davis revolutionized how humanity understands the process of creation in the geomorphological world. Davis was instrumental in helping humanity gain knowledge and understanding of the man-environment dichotomy in terms of an ontological understanding of geography.

Other than his study of landforms and geomorphology, Davis was also interested in systems of human occupancy, and his essay Regional Geography published in 1899 was part of a detailed regional treatment of the United States. Published in H. R. Mill’s Physical Divisions of the United States, the book and Davis’ essay made extensive observations of human occupation on landforms and detailed a scientific plan for anthropogenic activity dealing with landforms in the United States.

Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904)Friedrich RatzelFig: Friedrich Ratzel

Famous Book | Anthropo-geographie, 1882
Famous Quote | “A philosophy of the history of the human race, worthy of its name, must begin with the heavens and descend to the earth, must be charged with the conviction that all existence is one—a single conception sustained from beginning to end upon one identical law.”
Work | Friedrich Ratzel was a German geographer and anthropologist who followed on Darwin’s theory of natural selection to make the argument that all human beings are creatures of their environment. Ratzel established his thesis of geographical determinism in his work Anthropo-geographie, in which he indulged in a discussion on the impact of the physical environment on human behaviour. In his anthropological understanding Ratzel opined that the nature of human interaction with the environment varies between cultures. The diffusion of these cultural traits required a historical analysis across cultures of the links between history and geography.

Geographical Determinism in Modern Geography

Friedrich Ratzel revived geographical determinism in the late 19th Century, heavily influenced and buoyed by Darwin’s theories. In the early 20th Century, geographical determinism was popularized in the US by Ratzel’s student Ellen Churchill Semple, who proliferated the idea in her publications History and its Geographic Condition in 1903 and in Influences of the Geographic Environment in 1911. Semple in her works engaged in a description of how the physical environment greatly controls human activity.

Semple in turn influenced Ellsworth Huntington and William Morris Davis. In his works The Pulse of Asia and Civilization and Climate, Ellsworth Huntington describes how the climate influences human occupancy and civilization, and how the climate stimulates the development of human accomplishment. His work led to a subset in geography called climatic determinism in the early 20th Century.

However, since the 1920s geographical determinism began its decline, and its claims were often countered. Geographical determinism was also frequently interpreted in terms that were politically racist and facilitated thought on empires and imperialism. This led to the formation of geographic possibilism through the French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blanche who proposed that although the environment establishes limits on culture, it does not completely define culture (A. Briney, 2017). Geographical determinism by the 1950s had been replaced by geographical possibilism as the dominant school of thought in geography

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