This article provides an outline of the intellectual history of the concept of “environmental determinism,” and its critics, and of alternative understandings of the relationship between nature and humanity. Environmental determinism argues that both general features and regional variations of human cultures and societies are determined by the physical and biological forms that make up the earth’s many natural landscapes. It is one position in a wider series of literatures that examine the relationship between humanity and the global environment, forming part of the evolving corpus of several disciplines, including geography, history, archaeology, anthropology, and economics. Environmental determinism occupies one end of a continuum, cultural determinism occupies the other; each argues that the human condition is determined simply by nature or simply by culture. Between these two extreme positions lies a broad spectrum of positions described variously as “environmental possibilism” or “environmental probablism.” The “possibilists” are very close to a cultural determinist position; the “probablist” position—in which the vast majority of work is now done – argues that there has always been a complex and evolving mutual reciprocity between nature and humanity, an understanding broadly ecological in its appreciation of interconnection. The doctrine of environmental determinism, as it bears on humanity, has roots deep in the past in efforts to understand “man’s place in nature” within and then beyond theological frameworks. From the middle of the 19th century it has been shaped by debates in evolutionary theory, between the classical Darwinian position that evolution moves gradually, driven by the random natural selection of traits, and a countervailing position, effectively, environmental determinism for nonhuman biology, that evolution is shaped by speciation events caused by geographical isolation. Work unfolding on two fronts—a rising appreciation of how environmental forces drove biological and human evolution and how human forces are driving the “Anthropocene” destabilization of earth systems—is rapidly making it clear that culture and nature have to be seen in a complex evolving relationship. This article surveys the intellectual history of environmental determinism in some detail from the era of Humboldt and Darwin forward, in relation to evolutionary theory, cultural determinism, and the evolving spectrum of more middling approaches, which can be broadly grouped under the framework of cultural ecology. It also surveys the idealist/cultural and ecological/materialist approaches in environmental history, as well as the new climate history.
Samples of important wide-ranging studies that explore the wider intellectual history of environmental determinism and its critics in evolutionary theory, anthropology, archaeology, geography, and environmental history is given here. Preston and Martin 1981, Livingstone 1993, and Peet 1998 are key examinations of the history of the discipline of geography, where environmental determinism had its modern intellectual origins. Gould 2002 and Eldredge 2015 present important reviews of the debates in geology regarding the critique of Darwinian theory and the emergence of modern understandings of earth-systems history. Harris 2001 and Trigger 2006 situate environmental determinism in the development of anthropology and archaeology. Arnold 1996 and Isenberg 2014 do the same for environmental history. These works are cited here rather than repeating citations throughout this article.
Arnold, David. 1996. The problem of nature: Environment, culture and European expansion. Oxford: Blackwell.
Arnold explores the tension between cultural-idealist and ecological-materialist approaches to the history of humanity and nature.
Eldredge, Niles. 2015. Eternal ephemera: Adaptation and the origin of species from the nineteenth century through punctuated equilibria and beyond. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Eldredge’s overview of two centuries of evolutionary thought, concentrating on Darwin’s focus on random processes of natural selection, and the rise of environmentally driven interpretations since the late 1930s.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 2002. The structure of evolutionary theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
Gould’s massive account of the emergence of, and “hardening” of, the modern Darwinian synthesis, and the critical opening of the movement for an “expanded synthesis.”
Harris, Marvin. 2001. The rise of anthropological theory: A history of theories of culture. Rev. ed. Walnut Creek, CA: Altima.
A key intellectual history of anthropology, ranging from 19th-century determinisms to the Boasian cultural imperative to cultural ecology and Harris’s cultural materialism. Originally published in 1968. See, in particular, chapter 4, “Rise of Racial Determinism (pp. 80–107), and chapter 5, “Spencerism” (pp. 108–141). Originally published in 1968.
Isenberg, Andrew, ed. 2014. The Oxford handbook of environmental history. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
A comprehensive collection of review essays on the state of environmental history; Isenberg’s introduction describes the tension between cultural/idealist and ecological/materialist approaches among environmental historians.
Livingstone, David. 1993. The geographical tradition: Episodes in the history of a contested enterprise. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
An excellent intellectual history of geography from the 16th-century Renaissance into the 20th century.
Peet, Richard. 1998. Modern geographical thought. Oxford: Blackwell.
A definitive analysis of approaches and debates in 20th-century geography.
Preston, E. James, and Geoffrey J. Martin. 1981. All possible worlds: A history of geographical ideas. New York: Wiley.
A standard and comprehensive intellectual history of the field of geography, from Antiquity to the 20th century.
Trigger, Bruce G. 2006. A history of archaeological thought. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
The definitive overview of archaeological theory, with excellent analyses of the determinist-diffusionists and the rise of cultural ecology and processual archaeology. Originally published in 1989.
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