Environmental determinism proposes that physical environmental features alone cause human social and cultural behaviors. These features and their changes over time include: climate and temperature; land and soil conditions; rainfall and other water resources; harvestable wildlife and other natural resources; and levels of competition and predation among species.


Dating to the writings of the Greek philosopher and geographer Strabo (c. 64 BCE-23 CE), environmental determinism became prominent during the late 1800s of the Enlightenment period, when many scholars searched for explanations for and methods to study human behavior and societal organization. Its physical nature premise, which was one among many competing for theoretical hegemony, was based on the evolutionary biology of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1790-1869) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Lamarck believed that characteristics acquired by habits and other behavioral adaptations to changes in the environment could be genetically transmitted to offspring. (This idea was the precursor of biological or genetic determinism.) Darwin was strongly influenced by Lamarckism, as well as by the population dynamics described in An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), and by ideas regarding natural selection introduced by Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913). Darwin explained in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life how biological evolution of a species occurred as a result of its population’s environmental adaptation. In this adaptation process, traits that contribute to a species’ competitive struggle for survival are naturally selected and reproductively transmitted to future generations.

These ideas and the development of scientific positivism had a profound impact on Enlightenment thinking. According to Richard Hofstadter, "Darwinism established a new approach to nature and gave fresh impetus to the conception of development; it impelled men to try to exploit its findings and methods through schemes of evolutionary development and organic analogies" (1955, p. 5). Among the social philosophers who saw immediate opportunities to apply Darwinian principles and scientific empiricism, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) led the way to conceptualize society as an evolving social organism whose change from one stage to the next was the basis of social progress. Within this perspective, known as social Darwinism, Spencer reconciled the dualistic problem of natural and human processes by placing humankind within nature and subjecting it to the same natural laws of competition and survival of the fittest. Meanwhile, other scholars counter-argued for the distinctiveness of social phenomena, which they considered to be sui generis. They believed phenomena such as social behaviors, beliefs, norms, society, and culture are socially constructed products based on human rational choices and collective interaction.

During and after the 1880s, however, European naturalists and social scientists struggled to explain the causes of different levels of societal and cultural variation within and across different geographical spaces. Carl Ritter (1779-1859) incorporated social Darwinism to argue in his nineteen-volume Die Erdkunde im Verhaltniss zur Natur und zur Geschichte des Menschen (The Science of the Earth in Relation to Nature and the History of Mankind) written from 1817 to 1859, that these differences were attributable to a nation’s pursuit of lebensraum (living space) as a biological necessity for its growth. Frederick Ratzel (1844-1904) later expanded the concept’s meaning to propose the idea of the "organic state," which included human cultural evolution and the diffusion of ideas that occurs as a growing nation acquires more territory and natural resources, greater societal complexity, and higher levels of culture and civilization to meet its needs. The imperialist histories of Great Britain and Germany were often the benchmarks in comparative historical studies. Environmental determinists justified national expansionism by suggesting that primitive societies culturally benefited from contact with more civilized nations. The racist implication of this hierarchical reasoning was that primitive societies, especially those located in the equatorial latitudes, were inferior and culturally lethargic compared to the Nordic races of highly industrialized Northern Europe.

Environmental determinism still had a following, albeit minority, during the early 1900s. Ellen Churchill Semple (1863-1932), a former student of Ratzel and a reluctant social Darwinist, introduced his theory into the mainstream of American geography, though she rejected his idea of the organic state and established her own course. Her most prominent books, American History and Its Geographic Conditions (1903) and Influences of Geographic Environment (1911), were widely acclaimed (Colby 1933). Throughout her work, which was best known for studies of rural Kentucky, she applied scientific methods to demonstrate that geographic factors worked directly to influence the expression of racial characteristics and indirectly to define a people’s psychological, social, political, and cultural characteristics (Peet 1985, p. 319). This racial theme, or "scientific racism," was promoted during the next three decades particularly in the climatic determinism of Ellsworth Huntington (1876-1947) and in ethnographic studies conducted by Griffith Taylor (1880-1963) on Australia, Canada, and Antarctica. It even provided the Nazi regime with a convenient but distorted justification for its geopolitical and eugenic policies during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Although racist overtones were discarded in later decades, environmental determinism appears in a few contemporary studies by American geographers and other scholars (e.g., Frenkel 1992; Diamond 1999).


Many geographers and social scientists either eschewed or eventually divorced themselves from both social Darwinism and environmental determinism. Others eased into less apologetic possibilistic and probabilistic perspectives that viewed environmental factors as one among many influences on human choices and on the probable development of particular cultural patterns, dependent on specific social and economic conditions (Lewthwaite 1966). They charged that such a singular deterministic explanation (environmental or otherwise) is insensitive to epistemic differences among cultural, social, and psychological phenomena and the variations in ecological conditions. The anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) argued, for example, that all humans have the same intellectual capacity, all cultures are based on the same basic mental principles, and phenomena have meaning only in terms of their human perception or experience. He distinguished between the physical sciences, which seek to discover natural laws, and the historical sciences, which seek to achieve a comprehensive understanding of phenomena in their own contextual terms. For him and many other scholars, environmental determinism failed to offer a theory of human consciousness and purpose, as well as explanations of differences in and histories of societal organization and processes.

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