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Thoughts on geographical determinism

Posted November 20th, 2012 at 08:54 AM by Tuthmosis III
Updated November 21st, 2012 at 12:32 PM by Tuthmosis III

“Free will” and “determinism” are polar opposites in a certain recurring philosophical debate; neither abstraction accurately reflects reality. Humans actually exercise choice in a broader or narrower range of options when faced with a given situation. Therefore, “determinism” is simply too strong a word to describe the influence of any one aspect of human existence, even one as obviously pervasive as geography. It is clear that man does not have carte blanche to develop his ways of life as if his natural environment did not matter, but geography is best regarded as a necessary, not a sufficient, explanation of the course of history.

Geography sets the stage…
That our historical trajectory has been channeled by geography into certain general directions is beyond question.(1) At a basic level, geography has given us, through the process of genetic adaptation, those physical and phenotypical differences we call ‘race’ that continue to seed so many of our social conflicts today. Region by region, the natural habitat outlines the limits of the possible, indicating with relative bounty or scarcity the most favorable survival strategies available.(2) Even in our modern age, in the face of disasters against which we are still quite powerless, it would be foolish to equate freedom from absolute dependence on the forces of nature with victory over them. The shadow of geography looms largest on the grand scale.

In his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond points to often overlooked reasons for the early development of agriculture-based complex societies in Eurasia: a variety of particularly high-yield grains and cereals, the preponderance of the domesticable animals of the globe, and an “axis” that, unlike those of other major landmasses, runs east to west, allowing techniques and ideas to be diffused across broadly similar climates.(3) These and other derivative factors are good long-term explanations of the advantages held by Eurasians over the relatively isolated, relatively resource-poor peoples of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania whose societies were overwhelmed in the years following 1500 CE.

…Man moves the props
Diamond is notably less successful when, for example, he tries to account for differences in political evolution between Europe and China. He compares the coastlines of the two, hinting that geography favored the unification of the latter into a single imperial state, while preserving the systemic plurality and dynamism of the former.(4) But the same abundant waterways fragmenting Europe into its constituent peninsulas no doubt also served as convenient routes of communication and integration in a pre-industrial age. In any case, China is as geographically variegated as Europe on the whole, a fact Diamond chooses not to emphasize. Prior to 221 BC, what is now China also had a system of competing states, and the reasons for the collapse of that system – and the eventual ‘canonization’ of the imperial idea – turn out to be not so easily reducible.(5)

In Why the West Rules - For Now, Ian Morris takes us on almost the same journey in time that Diamond does. But Morris is mainly concerned with just the type of shorter-term comparisons for which Diamond’s elegant yet sweeping observations prove inadequate. He develops an “index of social development” in order to examine several aspects of Chinese and Western history in detail. He sums up his argument:

“I have made two general claims in this book. The first was that biology, sociology, and geography jointly explain the history of social development, with biology driving development up, sociology shaping how development rises (or doesn’t), and geography deciding where development rises (or falls) fastest; and the second was that while geography determines where social development rises or falls, social development also determines what geography means.”(6)

Morris reminds us that technology plays a role in history, annihilating distance, changing the importance of locations, shifting the definition of strategic resources – and, therefore, the priorities of statesmen. In the challenge of sustaining complex societies, man has become a shaper as well as a subject of nature. In inverse proportion to the scale of time under consideration, the need to supplement geographical explanations increases.

1 The Geography behind History (W. Gordon East, 1963: p. 2) This little book remains one of the best general introductions to the subject.
Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature (Felipe Fernández-Armesto, 2001: p. 6)

3 The main arguments of Part Two of Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond, 1997: pp. 85 – 191), the strongest section of the book.
4 Diamond, 1997: p. 413-416
5 War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe (Victoria Tin-bor Hui, 2005) is a strongly recommended work of comparative analysis.
6 Why the West Rules – For Now (Ian Morris, 2010: p. 592)
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