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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.)
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