Environmental determinism is the idea that the physical environment shapes the destinies of humans and societies. The theory has its roots in antiquity and has been revived and rejected periodically throughout history.
Definitions of environmental determinism usually take one of the following forms:
- The belief that the physical environment is a significant factor in shaping human societies (aka it’s an extreme version of the ecological perspective in social sciences).
- The idea that the physical environment can determine the development of civilizations.
- The claim that climate and geography are the main drivers of history.
- The argument that some cultures are more virtuous than others because they live in a harsher climate
Although popular throughout history, the theory of environmental determinism fell out of favor in the 20th century, as it was increasingly seen as a racist and colonialist way of looking at the world. Nevertheless, it’s still studied in courses such as AP Human Geography.
However, it has experienced a revival in recent years, with some scholars arguing that the physical environment is still a significant factor in shaping human societies. Whether or not this is true remains a matter of debate.
Environmental Determinism Theory – Explained
In the late 20th century, environmental determinism theory experienced a revival, primarily through the works of Jared Diamond and dependency theorists.
Jared Diamond is an American scientist and author who has argued that the physical environment has a significant impact on the development of human societies. He has used this theory to explain why some cultures are more advanced than others, and why some societies are more prone to collapse than others.
Dependency theorists are scholars who argue that the economic development of a country is determined by its relationship to the rest of the world.
They claim that countries which are economically dependent on others will always be less developed than those which are not, and that this is due to the unequal distribution of resources around the globe.
Environmental Determinism Examples
1. The Nile Gave Birth to the Egyptian Empire
One of the earliest proponents of environmental determinism was the Greek historian Herodotus, who argued that the physical environment determined the development of civilizations.
For example, he claimed that the Egyptians developed a complex civilization because they lived in a fertile river valley, while the Persians were warlike because they lived in a harsh, desert climate.
Herodotus’ ideas were later taken up by the Roman historian Tacitus, who argued that the Germans were virtuous people because they lived in a cold climate. This theory was used to explain the decline of the Roman Empire, as it was thought that the warmer climate of Italy made its citizens lazy and decadent.
2. llamas Helped Grow the Inca Empire
The Inca Empire was one of the largest empires in the history of the Americas, extending over much of present-day Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, and Argentina.
Between the 13th and the 16th centuries CE, the Incas built a flourishing civilization most noted today for its architectural marvels such as Machu Pichu.
The German geographer Carl Troll (1899 – 1975) argued that the extent and reach of the Inca empire was determined, and eventually limited, by the availability of the Llama – the only pack animal available to the Incas.
Llamas were domesticated in the highlands of Peru between 4000 and 3000 BCE. They allowed the Inca to travel across the empire, carrying goods and messages.
To back his argument, Troll pointed out that the greatest extent of the Inca empire coincided with the geographical range that had the greatest density of Llamas and Alpacas (Gade, 1996).
3. Tsetse Fly and Underdevelopment in Africa
The tsetse fly is a species of blood-sucking fly that is found in equatorial Africa. The fly transmits a disease called sleeping sickness, or African Trypanosomiasis, which can be fatal to humans and cattle.
Dr. Marcella Alsan of the Harvard Kennedy School has proposed that the prevalence of the tsetse fly in Sub-Saharan Africa (the area to the south of the Sahara desert) is a major reason for its underdevelopment. As of 2015, the disease continues to affect more than 11,000 people and causes over 3400 human deaths annually.
This figure is a significant improvement from the high human death toll it caused till as late as 1990, when it accounted for more than 34,000 human lives. Its impact on cattle is even more severe, with an estimated loss from cattle productivity amounting to over USD 1 Billion each year. (Ilemobade, 2009)
The result of this environment has been that until the advent of modern medicine, societies in sub-Saharan Africa were forced to be confined to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, thus preventing the formation of large centralized states. (Alsan, 2015) In the long run this resulted in underdevelopment and poverty in Africa.
4. The Equatorial paradox
The equatorial paradox is the observation that countries near the equator are often poorer than countries at higher latitudes. The reason for this, it is argued, is that the physical environment near the equator is less conducive to economic development.
As an example, its proponents point to the fact that the poorest countries in the world are all strung out all along the equator, while the richest countries, such as Scandinavia, Canada etc. are located the farthest from the poles.
The equatorial paradox is a subset of environmental determinism and is sometimes also referred to as climatic determinism, as it focuses only on one aspect of the human environment – its climate.
Among its most articulate proponents was the American geographer Ellsworth Huntignton. The theory has been advocated in the 20th century by David Landes in his popular book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, and in the 21st century by Philip M. Parker.
5. Native Americans and the Bison
The North American Bison was a highly valued resource among the indigenous populations of North America before European colonization. The Bison provided the Native Americans with meat, hide for making their homes known as Teepees, wool for their blankets, skin for making their drums, and much more (Driver, 1969).
Due to its importance to their lives, Native Ameicans considered the Bison sacred and invested considerable effort in ensuring that Bison populations thrived on the American continent. In the words of John Fire Lame Deer, an elder of the Lakota tribe:
“…the bison gave us everything we needed. Without it, we were nothing.” (Lame Deer & Erdoes, 1994)
Early European settlers realized that indigenous populations thrived because of the Bison. Thus in order to limit their expansion and seize more of the indigenous territory, it was necessary to eradicate the Bison.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the Bison in America & Canada numbered well over a few hundred millions. Throughout the 19th century, governments in America and Canada followed a population of targeted extermination of the Bison in an attempt to limit the expansion of indigenous Native American tribes (Robins, 1999). The campaign yielded the desired results – by 1880, only 1081 Bison remained in North America.
With the near extermination of the Bison, populations of indigenous Americans began to dwindle as well. The Bison today remains an endangered species in the US and Canada, while indigenous Americans have been confined to scattered reservations.
The destruction of their natural environment, and its most important resource, the wild Bison, led to a disintegration of native American society and culture.
6. Pygmies and Short Stature
Pygimes are an ethnic group native to the Congo basin in Africa who are noted for their short stature. Pygmy men on average are no taller than 155 cm or 4 feet 11 inches.
It was earlier believed that the short stature of Pygmies is due to malnutrition. However, latest research on Pygmy genetics suggests that the short stature of Pygmies may be a result of the environment they live in.
The Congo Basin in Africa where the Pygmy dwell includes some of the densest tropical rainforests on earth. High rainfall, intense heat, and oppressive humidity make the Congo basin a harsh place to survive in. The moist climate also acts as a fertile breeding ground for pathogens. Pygmies, being the earliest inhabitants of the basin are believed to have genetically adapted to survive in this climate.
Scientists believe that the genes that enabled the Pygmies to survive the onslaught of tropical pathogens found in their hunter-gatherer diets may also be the cause of their short stature. Additionally, the dense tropical rainforests keep out much of the sun and its UV rays, thus resulting in Vitamin D deficiencies in the population, and in turn, smaller bone development (Stix, 2012).
7. Lactose Intolerance
Lactose intolerance is the inability of certain individuals to completely digest and absorb lactose – a sugar present in milk and milk products.
Symptoms of lactose intolerance may include stomach cramps, flatulence, and vomiting. The primary cause of lactose intolerance is the absence of an enzyme called lactase in the bodies of lactose intolerant individuals. This enzyme is responsible for breaking down the lactose present in dairy products into glucose and galactose.
Researchers have discovered the primary reason for lactose intolerance is genetic and historic. Or in other words, it is the result of the environment in which specific populations evolved through history, thus acquiring genetic traits that render them able or unable to digest lactose.
East Asians for instance, are often highly lactose intolerant. North and West Europeans on the other hand display the lowest occurrences of lactose intolerances. (Storhaug, et al., 2017)
The reason behind this, it is argued, is that cattle were domesticated early in Europe, and milk and milk products came to form an important part of the west European diet as early as the neolithic period.
Tens of thousands of years of living in an environment in which dairy was an important part of their diets predisposed west Europeans to have greater lactose tolerance as compared to other populations where domesticated cattle arrived very late (Segurel, 2017).
Otherwise, humans, like all mammals do not possess the means to digest lactose after the weaning period. Thus lactose intolerance is the norm throughout the entire mammal population of earth. Through the influence of a specific environment, a small sub-set of human population has been able to defy this norm and acquire a greater degree of tolerance to lactose.
8. The Myopia Boom
The prevalence of myopia or near-sightedness has increased drastically in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In some regions, for instance, East Asia, it has reached epidemic proportions. It is estimated that in Singapore, between 85-90% of the adult population suffers from myopia.(Chia, 2021)
Researchers have linked the rise of myopia in human populations to a changed lifestyle and altered occupational environment. Humans now spend more time indoors and staring at screens than at any other point of time in history. Crucially, a lack of exposure to sunlight has been identified as a major factor in the high prevalence of myopia. (Dolgin, 2015) .
Strengths and Weaknesses of Environmental Determinism Theory
1. It Provides Contextual Explanations for Poverty
Often, people’s personalities or personal faults are used as an explanation for poverty. One interpretation of the environmental determinism theory is that it can explain how poverty is not a personal failing but a contextual one.
For example, we can see that some people are not poor because of their aptitude (or lack thereof), but because they grew up in an unfitting environment. Being raised in the desert or in a war-torn country naturally places you at a disadvantage. Environmental determinism theory recognizes this and sees how this has large-scale impacts on societies living in less-than-ideal circumstances.
2. It Reveals how we are Shaped by Environmental Factors
Environmental determinism wades into the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate on a societal level. The theory sees that nature, not nurture, is the cause of societal demise.
The argument has some logic to it. There are aspects of nature that affect us all. For example, it is uncontroversial in sociology to state that growing up in a home with fewer books is known to affect literacy rates throughout a person’s life; and growing up in an unsafe home leads to trauma.
However, where EDT meets is detractors is that it’s seen to be too focused on nature and not focused enough on the role of nurture (e.g. culture, personal agency, oppression by colonizers) in impacting a social group.
1. It Fails to Ascribe Agency
Like technological determinism theory, EDT has too much of an emphasis on the role of the environment in ‘determining’ our future and fails to recognize that we can achieve success despite barriers and challenges.
For example, just because a society has some setbacks, it doesn’t mean they can’t achieve significant successes. Just like the success stories of people growing up in poverty and ending up extremely wealthy, we could imagine some societies working through struggle (with the help of its citizens) and achieving great success and wealth.
If we were to rely on EDT as a theory of social development, we would throw our hands up and give up on a range of societies, dooming them to failure because of situational factors that could, with good policy, be overcome.
2. Extreme Interpretations Justify White Supremacy
The most significant reason environmental determinism theory fell out of favor in the 20th Century was that it had been used as a justification of colonialism.
The theory underscored that almost exclusively white societies were societies of wealth, strength, and privilege, whereas people of color from closer to the equator were poorer and even less cognitively developed due to their environment. This was used as a justification for colonialism and eurocentrism.
Modern interpretations, such as that from Jared Diamond, took an opposite approach, interpreting it as an explanation for poverty, and a route for finding solutions for it. This became the anti-racist interpretation that is most commonly used today.
3. It Fails to Explain the Resource Curse (aka the Paradox of Plenty)
The resource curse, also known as the paradox of plenty is the phenomenon wherein regions that are most well-endowed with natural wealth suffer the most extreme poverty and underdevelopment.
The phenomenon is most prominently evident in nations of Africa and South America that despite being rich in natural resources, remain economically poor.
For instance, Nigeria, one of the largest producers and exporters of oil remains a low-income country that often has to import oil to meet its domestic needs.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recognizes 51 countries of the world as being “resource-rich” 29 out of these are low or middle-income countries (Venables, 2016).
Other Theories and Concepts in Human Geography
- Environmental Justice
- Central Place Theory of Development
- Multiple Nuclei Model of Development
- Urban Realms Model of Development
- Concentric Zone Model of Development
Environmental determinism theory has some serious weaknesses that limit its usefulness in understanding social development. However, it does provide a helpful way of thinking about how our environment affects us.
It is important to be aware of the potential limitations and misuses of the theory when using it so that we don’t make the mistake of giving up on entire societies or groups of people who could achieve great things given the right circumstances.
Alsan, M. (2015). The effect of the Tsetse Fly on African development. American Economic Review, 105, 382–410. doi:10.1257/aer.20130604.
Chia, E. (2021, June ) Myopia rising among kids in S’pore as screen time goes up during the pandemic The Straits Times https://www.straitstimes.com/life/myopia-rising-among-kids-here-as-screen-time-goes-up-during-the-pandemic
Driver, H. E. (1969). Indians of North America. The University of Chicago Press.
Dolgin, E. (2015) The myopia boom. Nature, 519, 276–278 . https://doi.org/10.1038/519276a
Gade, D.W. (1996). Carl Troll on nature and culture in the Andes (Carl Troll über die Natur und Kultur in den Anden). Erdkunde, 50 (4),301–316. doi:10.3112/erdkunde.1996.04.02
Lame Deer, J. & Erdoes, R. (1994). Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. Simon & Schuster.
Ilemobade A. A. (2009). Tsetse and trypanosomosis in Africa: the challenges, the opportunities. The Onderstepoort journal of veterinary research, 76(1), 35–40. https://doi.org/10.4102/ojvr.v76i1.59
Robbins, J. (1999, November). Historians revisit slaughter on the plains. The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331
Ségurel L, & Bon, C. (2017). On the evolution of lactase persistence in humans. Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics, 18 (1), 297–319. doi:10.1146/annurev-genom-091416-035340. PMID 28426286.
Stix, G. (2012, April) Why Pygmies are short: New evidence surprises Scientific American https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/why-pygmies-are-short-new-evidence-surprises/
Storhaug C.L., Fosse S.K., & Fadnes L.T. ( 2017). Country, regional, and global estimates for lactose malabsorption in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet. Gastroenterology & Hepatology. 2 (10), 738–746. doi:10.1016/S2468-1253(17)30154-1. PMID 28690131
Venables, Anthony J. (2016). Using natural resources for development: Why has it proven so difficult?. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 30 (1), 161–184. doi:10.1257/jep.30.1.161. S2CID 155899373.