Week of June 14, 2020
The Geographical Stranglehold, Part II: Champions and Challenges
I say the answer is location, location, location.
Jared Diamond, interview with National Geographic
Classical thinkers were fascinated by the diversity of the Eastern Mediterranean, where a profusion of ethnicities and cultures interwove at the nexus of three continents. Inspired by the obvious differences between Greeks, North Africans, and Eurasians, writers from Herodotus onward recorded and speculated endlessly on variations in culture, belief, and biology, seeking—as in all fields—coherent explanations in both the temporal and divine. Geography and climate provided compelling examples of the former. The French historian Lucien Febvre traced the tradition of geographical determinism back to Hippocrates, in whose On Airs, Waters, and Places he found a claim that the hilliness of a country determined the physiology and character of the inhabitants. A grand tradition followed, including Plato, Aristotle, and Galen, passing through Lucretius into the Renaissance. Febvre framed the problem as that of “what conditions are imposed on history—imposed in advance—by the habitable Earth”; however, he disdained the “insufficiency and arbitrariness” of “rigorous geographical determinism,” which promoted a fatalism closer to astrology than science. Montesquieu, in his framing, authored the first comprehensive and explicit theory, incorporating climate and location as decisive factors behind physical development, general disposition, and cultural evolution. Further speculations would follow into the Enlightenment and beyond, often incorporated by practitioners of a nascent historical discipline into the grand theories of the nineteenth century. Kant himself proposed that those living outside of temperate zones had experienced “no feeling that rises of above the trifling,” and generally employed geography and climate to explain racial differences. Darwinism further accelerated the trend, before the Rankean school returned the theorists to the empiricism of political and documentary history.
In the new departments of geography and anthropology, however, the turn of the century saw determinism flourish. Halford Mackinder epitomized the spirit of the times with his 1904 essay “The Geographical Pivot of History,” which identified Afro-Eurasia as a “World-Island” whose control could be secured by the conquest of the “Heartland,” the region stretching from the Volga and the Yangtze north of the Himalayas. He maintained that geography should be a causal science charged with interpreting physical evidence of the “varying environment,” and that humanity could simply react to present conditions. “[N]o rational political geography,” Mackinder wrote, “can exist which is not built upon and subsequent to physical geography.” By the 1920s, however, academics had deemed his mission pseudo-scientific quackery. A 1956 paper noted that determinism had become “a discredited mode of thinking” and a “heresy” to be hidden by the “respectable” geographer. Scientism was going out of style, and too much of Mackinder’s legacy reeked of mysticism and teleology. Efforts to reinsert free will through “possibilism,” sponsored by Febvre, failed to convince, relegating geography to a peripheral place among the twentieth century’s most influential social sciences. Apart from David Landes’s controversial The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, which enumerated the complications of development in tropical climates, few accredited works extended the classical paradigm.
The following year, however, Karl Wittfogel’s influential Oriental Despotism turned the tide (apologies). Natural environments in Asia, he argued, tended to allow groups to monopolize control of water resources. As these scarce reserves supplied the complex irrigation systems that permitted ordinary citizens to farm otherwise adverse terrain, the holders had sufficient economic leverage to assert strong central authority. Proto-totalitarian states quickly arose, against which revolution was increasingly impossible as governments took responsibility for quotidian aspects of life. Property rights were weak, initiative state-led, and representation nonexistent. Prominent examples could be found in Mesopotamia, China, India, and Ancient Egypt. These civilizations, in turn, developed deeply-rooted traditions of absolute rule, stable dynastic succession, and social stratification that continued to structure subsequent regimes in their respective regions. China and Communist Russia, for example, could be understood as reversions to recognizable patterns of rule engrained for millennia and imposed by geography. Immensely popular and outrageously controversial upon publication, Oriental Despotism remains an influential framework for analyzing social development. Wittfogel’s model was explicitly co-opted by Marvin Harris in his 1977 Cannibals and Kings, and seems to underlie the present scholarship of Berkeley economist Gerard Roland. Harris, moreover, recognized the philosophical implications of the “hydraulic thesis,” noting that “despotic forms of government may arise” in response to environmental conditions “which can neutralize human will and intelligence for thousands of years.” Regular responses to regularities in geographical endowments seemed to imply the existence of subtle laws of social development.
Ironically, a staunch opponent of Wittfogel’s theory was most responsible for rescuing determinism from inevitable accusations of abstraction and inaccuracy. Jared Diamond’s 1997 classic Guns, Germs, and Steel presented a powerful and sophisticated thesis situating geographical factors as “ultimate causes” for the vast technological and economic disparities of the Great Divergence. In answer to the “Yali’s question” of why Europeans had all the weapons and luxuries, Diamond proposed that the distribution of domesticable species, axial orientation, and continent size presented arbitrary but significant advantages for the West. Where crops and animals could be harnessed, technologies and people diffused, and innovation prospered, civilizations were handed the tools for accelerated development; elsewhere, the random, discontinuous march of “progress” could be easily stifled. Cultures, events, and ideologies are dwarfed, in this account, by the primordial forces of nature—as Diamond, eager to suppress societal differences, had intended. Why seek a special “Protestant Ethic” when economic disparities are explicable in purely material terms? His response to the “determinism” tag is not a denial:
[These] factors constitute big environmental differences that can be quantified objectively and that are not subject to dispute. While one can contest my subjective impression that New Guineans are on the average smarter than Eurasians, one cannot deny that New Guinea has a much smaller area and far fewer big animal species than Eurasia. But mention of these environmental differences invites among historians the label “geographic determinism,” which raises hackles. The label seems to have unpleasant connotations, such as that human creativity counts for nothing, or that we humans are passive robots helplessly programmed by climate, fauna, and flora. Of course these fears are misplaced. Without human inventiveness, all of us today would still be cutting our meat with stone tools and eating it raw, like our ancestors of a million years ago. All human societies contain inventive people. It's just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions, than do other environments. (Diamond 1997, p. 408)
Diamond’s response dodges the implicit question—whether geography merely circumscribes or completely erases the human will. Stating that populations contain similar proportions of creative individuals and emphasizing the importance of those creators does not grant anyone the agency to produce dramatic historical change. Varied behavioral responses to geography, however, would imply differential suitability for economic development among human societies. Inevitably, then, criticism was swift and severe. LSU’s Andrew Sluyter damned GGS as “pernicious… junk science,” aimed at naturalizing “the horrendous living conditions of millions.” Such “fatalism” threatened to wreak far more evil than Diamond’s anti-Eurocentrism could possibly erase. James Blaut, meanwhile, saw a teleological “valorization” of temperate climates (Montesquieu revived) in the choices of “ultimate cause” and remained skeptical about the sublimation of culture. His 1999 essay on the subject cast Diamond into the same boat as Landes, an avowed Eurocentrist.
Nevertheless, Diamond’s views—in some respects more politically-neutral successors to Harris’s—remain influential inside and outside of the ivory tower. Geographical determinism is tenable, if controversial, as an explanation for divergent development. Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules… For Now adopts a modified version of the GGS thesis, attributing the West’s initial superiority (later overcome) to in part to the first-mover advantage bestowed by domesticable plant and animal species on the Near East. Morris, however, extends the influence of geography beyond initial conditions; it is the continuing interactions of human civilizations, land, and climate change that determine the course of history. The implications of terrain and resources are variable, and crucial innovations frequently arise from the “advantages to backwardness”—including the Industrial Revolution.
The recent rise of OLS regressions and differences in differences techniques in economics has triggered a series of novel studies analyzing—albeit in less philosophical terms—the influence of geographical variations on historical change. Perhaps the most ambitious finds, using lights as a proxy, that the location of 47% of international and 35% of within-country economic activity can be explained by a set of 24 physical geography attributes. These parameters—ranging from ruggedness to proximity to rivers—are divided into two groups: relevance to fertility and importance for trade. The authors noted that agricultural variables were paradoxically more significant in developed than in developing countries, suggesting that falling transport costs have been mediating the influence of initial factor endowments. Geography molds history, in Diamond’s words, but time weakens the cast. Another paper, authored by recent John Bates Clark winner Melissa Dell, returns to (a version of) the anathematized Montesquieu thesis, finding that upward fluctuation in temperatures depresses poor country growth in both the short and medium run. Her works compound the findings of Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson, who contend that disease mortality rates determined settlement patterns in colonial South America, and thus where extractive institutions arose.
The new literature focuses less on grand theory and synthesis, but the mathematical rigor and targeted explanations are rehabilitating geography as a channel of persistence and path dependence. The metaphysical speculations of the early twentieth century, which Diamond and Landes perhaps too closely resembled, have given way to hard econometric analysis. Having moved from the map-room to the laboratory, determinism—now implicit—is back, and here to stay.
Poverty or Prosperity in Northern India?, by Pim de Zwart and Jan Lucassen
A new dataset of Indian wages suggests that the divergence with European incomes began in the late seventeenth century, contradicting claims that colonialism stifled growing prosperity. British rule and manufacture-dumping may have been deleterious, but the wage split cannot be blindly attributed to imperial domination.
Reflections on Project Orion, by Jeremy Berenstein
Eminent physicists muse on an epic project to build a rocket powered by chains of atomic (then hydrogen) bombs, and the implications thereof. The science-fictional tone throughout approaches the surreal—as if the revelation of a joke must surely be imminent. Yet, wondrously, it never comes.
Jiang Shigong’s Chinese World Order, by Vincent Garton
A brilliant overview of the thought of Jiang Shigong, whose nuanced and compelling political theory appears to be gaining traction in upper-level Chinese policy circles. His schema of empires both logically and historically preceding liberal-nationalist regimes is particularly interesting; only in the modern age, he contends, have states espousing “homogenizing” political tendencies been successful. The Romans, Turks, and Chinese themselves incorporated multiple polities, ethnicities, and ideas into a concept Garton calls “one country, n systems.” Hong Kong, from this perspective, represents a challenge to China’s ability to experiment with such heterogeneity in the face of an American world order that has (in his view) manifestly failed to do so. Strongly recommended.
Shipping Out, by David Foster Wallace
Just in case you have a cruise planned this summer.
Best Books on the Philosophy of Science, by Stathis Psillos
The recommendations are solid, but Psillos’s introduction to the discipline and the major problems—from sociology to epistemology—is lucid and profound. Before reading his chosen prefatory work, read the article—and then reread twice. Psillos clearly sketches each issue more concisely than any book could.