Determinism/Environmental Determinism : A School of Thought in Human Geography

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The point of view which professes that the environment controls the course of human action (Lewthwaite, 1966) is called as Determinism or environmental determinism.

In other words, the variation in Human behaviours can be explained by the differences in natural environment. The essence of Determinism lies in the fact that the history, culture, style of living, attitude and decision of human are exclusively or largely governed by the differences in physical factors such as terrain, drainage, temperature, pressure, soil, Rainfall, wind speed, flora and fauna etc.

The relationship between human behaviour and physical environment was first explained by the Greek and Roman scholars.

Protagonists of Determinism generally consider man as a passive agent and environment works actively to central human behaviour and course of action.

Also Read: Possibilism : Meaning, Case Studies and Limitations

Views of Different Geographers on Determinism

1. Thycydides

He saw the greatness of Athens in it's natural and geographical position.

2. Aristotle

He described the relation between climate and human behaviour and their actions. 

He described the people of Europe as more brave courageous but unintelligent, which made them unworthy to rule over neighbours. He attributed these traits of Europeans to the result of cold climate in Europe.

He further argued that the people of Asia (He meant Turkey) are more intelligent and cunning but they were weak, lethargic and he attributed these characters to Hot Tropical Mediterranean Climate.

While he said that the people of Greece were best suited to rule over it's neighbours and the world because the climatic conditions of Greece was more favourable as it was not very cold as well as not very hot. Hence, people of Greece had both traits i.e. they were intelligent as well as physically strong in build up.

3. Strabo (Roman Philosopher) 

He explained how slope, relief and climate all are the creation of god and how these phenomena govern the lifestyle of people.

4. Montesquieu

He carried over the ideology professed by Aristotle. He argued that people living cold region were more brave, courageous less cunning, less suspicious that the people living in warmer regions, who were generally weak, timid, cunning and lethargic.

4. Arab Geographers

They divided the world into seven Kishwars (terrestrial zones) and described the physical environment and cultural traits of the nations lying in each Kishwar.

5. Immanuel Kant 

He argued that peoples of New Holland (Indonesia and East Indies) having half closed eyes because of presence of large number insects flying in environment and half closed eyes protect them from entering into their eyes.

Due to half closed eyes, they needed to bend their heads backward to look forward.

6. Charles Darwin 

Darwin's theory of evolution influenced the Deterministic School of thought of Human Geography. According to this theory a constant struggle of survival persist among the species on the Earth. In this struggle the best suited organisms in the environment survived and unsuitable organisms get vanished. The philosophy of the theory of evolution is based on the fact that superior adaptation survive and inferior ones get eliminated.

7. Friedrich Ratzel

He was the founder of School of Scientific Determinism and Follower of the Evolution theory of Darwin.

He opined that similar locations lead to similar way of life. To prove this hypothesis he wrote two volumes of "Anthropogeographie", one volume in 1882 and other in 1891. These two books were remarkable milestone for the Human Geography.

8. Miss Semple

She was the direct descendent of Ratzel. She preached that "Man is a product of the Earth's surface" in her book titled as "Influences of Geographic Environment" in 1911.

She further described that the physical and behavioural character of man is directly dependent on the land which he tills.  

9. E. Huntington

He wrote the monumental book 'The Principles of Human Geography' in 1945. In this book, he described the role fo climate in determining the physical and behavioural characters of man. He believed that the climate was the fundamental character in the development of civilization.

According to him the Temperate climate is the best suitable climate for the development of highest level of health  energy and hence civilisation.

He divided the world into two zones having mild and harsh climatic conditions. He further argued the ancient civilizations i.e. Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indus and Chinese all were developed around river valleys having mild climates. He wrote that harsh climate lead to lethargic, indolent, timid, dull, less energetic and unintelligent. While mild climate having temperature around 20° Celsius is the best suited for the development of mind and physique of a person. 

The subsequent geographers like Halfrod J Mackinder, Chisholm, Davis, Bowman, Robert Mill, Geddes, Herbertson, Taylor etc. were also interpreted the progress of societies with a deterministic approach.

They made it vividly clear that the climate determines the nature of soil which ultimately determines the cropping pattern, dietary habits, physique and attitude of a person.

Case Studies

  1. Mac Carrison demonstrated conclusively that the strong build-up, superior stature and physical strength of Sikhs in North India in comparison to Tamils of South India are basically because of differences in dietary habits. The Diet of Sikhs include very high amount of protein in comparison to Tamils. 
  2. The peoples of Khasi Tribes are generally shorter than other Indians, because very low protein intake in their dietary habits. 
  3. Geddes proved the fact that poorly nourished people are prey to malnutrition , while proving this fact he analysed the data of Indians, in which he found that the Hindus having vegetarian dietary habits were more prone to Malaria than Muslims having Non-Vegetarian diet.


After 2nd World War, this theory of Determinism was heavily criticized in USA, Britain, Canada and Germany due to it's one sided approach in explaining the impact of environment on human behaviour, cultural traits and civilisations.

Environmental Determinism regarded by many people as over simplistic which neglected the impact of cultural tradition as well as behavioural approach of society and civilisations. For example Gujjars & Bakkarwals live in Jammu & Kashmir and use the slope as the grazing field for their sheep and goats while Kashmiris living in the same slopes become settled cultivator and uses arable lands available on slope for cultivation.  Gujjars and Bakkarwals are Nomads while Kashmiris living in the same geographical environmental conditions are settled agriculturists.

Spate criticised the Environmental Determinism and he stressed that "Environment taken by itself is a meaningless phrase; without man environment does not exist". Man is an integral part of environment. He further included that geographical environment is only one of the factors of terrestrial differentiation and it acts through society; cultural traditions has a certain autonomous influence.