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Human Geography and Environmental Determinism: The Arguments of Ellsworth Huntington and Ellen Semple September 17, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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In the literature detailing the foundation of the discipline of human geography, it is widely argued that the opening decades of the 20th century saw this developing enterprise in the throes of “environmental determinism.”

Ellsworth Huntington

Such determinism, furthermore, developed a series of propositions which defended racial superiority through a utilization of the guise of the objective, scientific geographer.  Thus, David Livingston, in his The Geographical Tradition (1993,)concludes that Huntington, in his Character of the Races (1924) conjoined “ethnic constitution” to “climactic circumstance,” which argued that “racial character was spatially referenced and could thus be presented in cartographic form.”  This “cartographic enterprise” in which the distributions of genius, health, and civilization were conveniently tied to the percepts of “cultural imperialism,” exactly those eschewed by Franz Boas.  In Huntington’s scheme, climate influenced health and energy, which in turn influenced civilization (225-6.)  Mark Blacksell in his Political Geography (2005,) notes that, “For a time in North America, in the first half of the twentieth century, environmental determinism held greater sway, largely through the writings of Ellen Semple and Ellsworth Huntington, but its intellectual dominance there was short-lived, not least because of the racist conclusions the philosophy frequently spawned (140.)

Neil Smith, like Livingston, in his America’s Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization points disapprovingly to Huntington and Semple’s “environmental determinism” and underscores contemporary academicians, specifically Isaiah Bowman’s disapproval, over the scope and content of the theories’ observations (47.) Carolyn Gallaher and Peter Shirlow in their Key Concepts in Political Geography (2009) conclude that “for much of the early twentieth century, especially in the United States, environmental determinism dominated the entire discipline.”  This was the case even though this “meta-narrative” was subject to “withering criticism” by prominent scholars such as Franz Boas who called Huntington’s theories “simplistic” and “reductionist” (2.)

Discussions of Huntington and his contribution to the foundation of the discipline of human geography have unfortunately revolved around an opposition of his ideologically driven, partial research to the more objective, value-free methodology of Franz Boas.  Such an opposition has the advantage of showing how human geography emerged from the shadows of racial prejudice and theoretical reductionism, much like the modern inquiry of social anthropology.   Huntington as well as Ellen Semple are critical components of the theodicy of human geography’s emergence as a scientific discipline, underscored through the consistent invocation of Boas’ disapproval of Huntington’s methodology.  As important to this theodicy is the argument for the similitude of Huntington and Semple’s intellectual projects.

However, Huntington and Semple’s work is important as an exemplar of a type of argumentation ubiquitous in the nineteenth century and the twentieth, that of an interlocking system of claims, causal mechanisms, and evidentiary procedures which aimed to provide a comprehensive explanation for the persisting inequalities among groups of people in the present as well as for the advent of specific forms of civilization in the history of human beings within specific locales.  As importantly, Huntington’s emphasis on the biological constraints upon civilization, rather than upon the relativity of ‘culture,’ points to the continuity of a strand of argument, preserved in a heavily modified form in the practice of physical anthropology, of a recourse to biology rather than to the pedagogy of culture.

This form of argument, mindful of but consistently resistant to the work of Boas and his school,  existed in the writings of one of the primary methodological cannon-builders of  physical anthropology, Aleš Hrdlička, and emerged again in Carleton S. Coon’s The Origin of the Races (1962).   Anthropology in the 20th century witnessed the continual efforts of practitioners in the use of this concept to distinguish their labors from the malfeasance of earlier racial ideologues such as Samuel Morton and Josiah Nott.

The attention upon the form of argumentation known as “environmental,” “physical,” or “geographic” determinism, by scholars, I would argue, is a form of reductionism guiding the formulation of a disciplinary history, in which environmental determinism and its attending racial imperialism forms a “pre-scientific” phase of the inquiry of human geography.  While much of Huntington’s arguments about civilization depended upon the mechanism of climate, he was aware of difficulties with this theory.  In his discussion of the differences in New World civilization between the “relatively advanced” position of the Incas and the “low position” of the Indians of the northeastern United States, a problem which had perplexed writers since the enlightenment historian William Robertson, Huntington clarified his position as to the importance of the explanatory effect of climate.

Huntington declared, “The distribution of civilization in pre-Columbian America merely brings out the fact which I have again and again tried to emphasize: although climate is highly important, there are other factors whose weight is equally important.”  He continued, “Even if our climactic ideas are correct, it will still be true that the ordinary events of the historical record are due to the differing traits of the races, the force of economic pressure, the ambition of kings, the intrigues of statesmen, the zeal of religion….” (Civilization and Climate, 278-9.) Thus, while the narrative and rhetoric of the work gives the impression of the preponderance of the climate factor, Huntington, particularly while entertaining objections, underscores the limitations of his own theory, the multiplicity of causal factors (some of which had yet to be found,) and the potential scope of his arguments relative to his evidence.  In the defense of his enterprise, Huntington reveals an awareness of the limits of his assumptions and introduces a multiplicity of interconnected arguments.

Ellen Semple’s writings similarly attempt to elucidate the strong connections between climate and civilization  while also underscoring the limitations of such an argument.  In her Influences of Geographic Environment, Semple noted in her “Preface” that, although her work was based upon  Friedrich Ratzel’s Anthropogeographie, she did not ascribe to Ratzel’s own account of the organic nature of societal growth, considering such to be an outdated appropriation of Herbert Spencer.  Semple’s own method was instead to compare “typical peoples of all races and all stages of cultural development, living under similar geographic conditions.”  Semple therefore downplayed the significance of the “racial factor.”  Semple, furthermore, avoided the enunciation of “hard-and-fast rules” or to attempt determine the relationship of “anthropo-geography” to any other scientific field or to define the scope of the field itself.  It was, moreover, the fluidity of anthropo-geography’s laws which defined the character of the science and which determined their utility.  For this reason, Semple, “shuns the word geographic determinism” and “speaks with extreme caution of geographic control” (vi-viii.)

As with Huntington, Semple prefaces her remarks on the scope of her theories and the state of the science with an assertion as to the incomplete nature of the inquiry and the tenuous nature of its conclusions.  Semple, like Huntington, does ascribe a great deal to the action of climate. However, her writing demonstrates her engagement with a multiplicity of causal factors which inform a system of related arguments.  Thus, the “low stature” of individuals within certain “misery spots” of Europe was “due in part to race,” in part due to “artificial selection” through the mass migration of more able individuals, and in “considerable part to the harsh climate and starvation food yield of that sterile soil” (35.) Semple, while giving much to climate, was also careful to delimit her arguments in some instances.  She concluded, “Enough has been said to show that the geographer can formulate no broad generalization as to the relation of pigmentation and climate from the occurrence of the darkest skins in the Tropics.”  Thus, the “rule can safely be laid down that in an investigation of geographic influences upon the permanent physical characteristics of races, the geographic distribution of these should be left out consideration till the last, since it so easily misleads” (40.)

In neither Huntington’s nor Semple’s works does geographic or environmental determinism play the argumentative role later scholars have assigned it.  Nor is it clear whether environmental determinism was ever an articulated position by practitioners.  Semple explicitly rejected it.  While Huntington could be classified as a racial essentialist, Semple was not.  Therefore, it is misleading to discuss her work along with Huntington’s without underscoring the marked differences between presentation styles and modes of argument.   Moreover, as Huntington’s work especially was criticized strenuously by anthropologists and geographers, it is difficult to see how his environmental determinism was as dominant in the early twentieth century as later scholars have described.



1. Michael Robinson - September 18, 2010

A very interesting post. I’ve looked through some of Huntington’s work and other racial geographers such as Coon and Thomas G Taylor. Two questions:

1. Do you think Huntington and others have been unfairly tagged as geographical determinists because of the maps that accompany their books (I remember graphs in Huntington’s 1915 book but racial maps in Taylor’s). They are so striking and, to modern eyes, so anathema to our current views on race and culture. Could it be the power of the pictures over the complexity of the text?

2. In his book On Human Nature, Carl Degler points to WWII as the event which sealed the folly of racial thinking and sent the West on its current trajectory towards the agency of culture. Do you think that the 20s and 30s were already moving towards this position? I always thought of this time as very contested, with Boas making inroads in academic culture, but with racial thinking going strong in broader society.

2. Christopher Donohue - September 19, 2010

Michael, thanks for the comment.
I think you are correct about the power of pictures, but reducing Huntington’s argument to a simplistic thesis enabled Boas as well as later generations of anthropologists and geographers to articulate their positions better and to sanction specific methodologies and uses of evidence over others. An account which begins with Huntington’s racism and reductionism also provides a linear narrative for the emergence of the science for later generations of historians.

I would also argue against WWII being the event which sealed racial thinking. Coon’s work demonstrates the longevity of the concept through the 1960s. Although my research is at the beginning stages on this topic, I think the conceptual and methodological assumptions which underlay Coon’s work were more widespread among anthropologists in the prewar and postwar periods than generally thought. Thus, I think Boas’ emphasis on culture was contested in some respects through the 1960s. I’m working on a follow-up post on Coon.

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Climate’s influence on health and energy and hence its influence on civilisation cannot be totally justified.

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6. Bob LIttle - November 1, 2012

The deterministic thesis is one geographers cannot hold on to any longer at least in its crude form, how do we clearly explain this if it is so?

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10. paa yaw - March 6, 2017

Can I get 5 major reasons why I should reject crude environmental determinism?

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