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Geographical determinism

Environmental determinism (also known as climatic determinism or geographical determinism) is the study of how the physical environment predisposes societies and states towards particular development trajectories. Nineteenth century approaches held that climate and terrain largely determined human activity and psychology, and it was associated with institutionalized racism and eugenics. Many scholars underscore that this approach supported colonialism and eurocentrism, and devalued human agency in non-Western societies.Jared Diamond, Jeffrey Herbst, and other social scientists sparked a revival of the theory during the late twentieth century. This "neo-environmental determinism" school of thought examines how geographic and ecological forces influence state-building, economic development, and institutions.

Early theories of environmental determinism in Ancient China, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome suggested that environmental features completely determined the physical and intellectual qualities of whole societies. Guan Zhong (720–645 BC), an early chancellor in China, held that the qualities of major rivers shaped the character of surrounding peoples. Swift and twisting rivers made people "greedy, uncouth, and warlike". The ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates wrote a similar account in his treatise "Airs, Waters, Places".

Writers in the medieval Middle East also produced theories of environmental determinism. The Afro-Arab writer al-Jahiz argued that the skin color of people and livestock were determined by the water, soil, and heat of their environments. He compared the color of black basalt in the northern Najd to the skin color of the peoples living there to support his theory.

  • It was notably attacked for not providing enough detail regarding causation of environmental variables, and for leaving logical gaps in reasoning. Anthropologist Andrew Sluyter argued that Diamond was just as ignorant as the racists of the 19th century. Sluyter challenged Diamond's theory since it seemed to suggest that environmental conditions lead to gene selection, which then lead to wealth and power for certain civilizations. Sluyter also attacks environmental determinism by condemning it as a highly studied and popular field based entirely on Diamond's "quick and dirty" combination of natural and social sciences.
  • Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson similarly criticized Diamond's work in their book Why Nations Fail. They contend that the theory is outdated and can not effectively explain differences in economic growth after 1500 or the reasons why states that are geographically close can exhibit vast differences in wealth. They instead favored an institutional approach in which a societies success or failure is based on the underlying strength of its institutions.


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