Source Book for Sociology

Author: Ellen Churchill Semple  | Date: 1911

46. Classes of Geographic Influences3

Many writers have held that geographical conditions determine the culture of a society, but modern social scientists are distinctly skeptical of such a view. They hold rather that geography is a limiting, not a determining, factor in the origin and development of culture. Friedrich Ratzel, a German geographer, held a somewhat moderate view of geographical determinism. His best-known American disciple was Ellen Churchill Semple. The following selection from one of her books summarizes his views concerning the principal geographic influences upon man and his behavior.

. . . Since the causal conception of geography demands a detailed analysis of all the relations between environment and human development, it is advisable to distinguish the various classes of geographic influences.

Four fundamental classes of effects can be distinguished.

1. The first class includes direct physical effects of environment, similar to those exerted on plants and animals by their habitat. Certain geographic conditions, more conspicuously those of climate, apply certain stimuli to which man, like the lower animals, responds by an adaptation of his organism to his environment. Many physiological peculiarities of man are due to physical effects of environment, which doubtless operated very strongly in the earliest stages of human development, and in those shadowy ages contributed to the differentiation 133 of races. The Unity of the human species is as clearly established as the diversity of races and peoples, whose divergences must be interpreted chiefly as modifications in response to various habitats in long periods of time. . . .

The Indians of South America, though all fundamentally of the same ethnic stock, are variously acclimated to the warm, damp, forested plains of the Amazon; to the hot, dry, treeless coasts of Peru; and to the cold, arid heights of the Andes. The habitat that bred them tends to hold them, by restricting the range of climate which they can endure. In the zone of the Andean slope lying between 4,000 and 6,000 feet of altitude, which produces the best-flavored coffee and which must be cultivated, the imported Indians from the high plateaus and from the low Amazon plains alike sicken and die after a short time; so that they take employment on these coffee plantations for only three or five months, and then return to their own homes. Labor becomes nomadic on these slopes, and in the intervals these farm lands Of intensive agriculture show the anomaly of a sparse population only of resident managers. . . .

The relation of pigmentation to climate has long interested geographers as a question of environment; but their speculations on the subject have been barren, because the preliminary investigations of the physiologist, physicist and chemist are still incomplete. The general fact of increasing nigrescence from temperate towards equatorial regions is conspicuous enough, despite some irregularity of the shading. This fact points strongly to some direct relation between climate and pigmentation, but gives no hint how the pigmental processes are affected. The physiologist finds that in the case of the Negro, the dark skin is associated with a dense cuticle, diminished perspiration, smaller chests and less respiratory power, a lower temperature and more rapid pulse, all which variations may enter into the problem of the Negro’s coloring. The question is therefore by no means simple.

Yet it is generally conceded by scientists that pigment is a protective device of nature. The Negro’s skin is comparatively insensitive to a sun heat that blisters a white man. . . .

2. More varied and important are the psychical effects of geographic environment. As direct effects they are doubtless bound up in many physiological modifications; and as influences of climate, they help differentiate peoples and races in point of temperament. They are reflected in man’s religion and his literature, in his modes of thought and figures of speech. . . . The whole mythology of the Polynesians is an echo of the encompassing ocean. The cosmography of every primitive people, their first crude effort in the science of the universe, bears the impress of their habitat. The Eskimo’s hell is a place of darkness, storm and intense cold; the Jew’s is a place of 134 eternal fire. Buddha, born in the steaming Himalayan piedmont, fighting the lassitude induced by heat and humidity, pictured his heaven as Nirvana, the cessation of all activity and individual life. . . .

3. Geographic conditions influence the economic and social development of a people by the abundance, paucity, or general character of the natural resources, by the local ease or difficulty of securing the necessaries of life, and by the possibility of industry and commerce afforded by the environment. From the standpoint of production and exchange, these influences are primarily the subject matter of economic and commercial geography; but since they also permeate national life, determine or modify its social structure, condemn it to the dwarfing effects of national poverty, or open to it the cultural and political possibilities resident in national wealth, they are legitimate material also for anthropo-geography.

They are especially significant because they determine the size of the social group. This must be forever small in areas of limited resources or of limited extent, as in the little islands of the world and the yet smaller oases. The desert of Chinese Turkestan supports, in certain detached spots of river-born fertility, populations like the 60,000 of Kashgar, and from this size groups all the way down to the single families which Younghusband found living by a mere trickle of a stream flowing down the southern slope of the Tian Shan. Small islands, according to their size, fertility, and command of trade, may harbor a sparse and scant population, like the five hundred souls struggling for an ill-fed existence on the barren Westman Isles of Iceland; or a compact, teeming, yet absolutely small Social group, like that crowding Malta or the Bermudas. Whether sparsely or compactly distributed, such groups suffer the limitations inherent in their small size. They are forever excluded from the historical significance attaching to the large, continuously distributed populations of fertile continental lands.

4. The next class belongs exclusively to the domain of geography, because it embraces the influence of the features of the earth’s surface in directing the movements and ultimate distribution of mankind. It includes the effect of natural barriers, like mountains, deserts, swamps, and seas, in obstructing or deflecting the course of migrating people and in giving direction to national expansion; it considers the tendency of river valleys and treeless plains to facilitate such movements, the power of rivers, lakes, bays and oceans either to block the path or open a highway, according as navigation is in a primitive or advanced stage; and finally the influence of all these natural features in determining the territory which a people is likely to occupy, and the boundaries which shall separate [them] from their neighbors.

The lines of expansion followed by the French and English in the 135 settlement of America and also the extent of territory covered by each were powerfully influenced by geographic conditions. The early French explorers entered the great east-west waterway of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, which carried them around the northern end of the Appalachian barrier into the heart of the continent, planted them on the low, swampy, often navigable watershed of the Mississippi, and started them on another river voyage of nearly two thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Here were the conditions and temptation for almost unlimited expansion; hence French Canada reached to the head of Lake Superior, and French Louisiana to the sources of the Missouri. To the lot of the English fell a series of short rivers with fertile valleys, nearly barred at their not distant sources by a wall of forested mountains, but separated from one another by low watersheds which facilitated lateral expansion over a narrow belt between mountains and sea. Here a region of mild climate and fertile soil suited to agriculture, enclosed by strong natural boundaries, made for compact settlement, in contrast to the wide diffusion of the French. Later, when a growing population pressed against the western barrier, mountain gates opened at Cumberland Gap and the Mohawk Valley; the Ohio River and the Great Lakes became interior thoroughfares, and the northwestern prairies lines of least resistance to the western settler. Rivers played the same part in directing and expediting this forward movement, as did the Lena and the Amoor in the Russian advance into Siberia, the Humber and the Trent in the progress of the Angles into the heart of Britain, the Rhone and Danube in the march of the Romans into central Europe.

The geographical environment of a people may be such as to segregate them from others, and thereby to preserve or even intensify their natural characteristics; or it may expose them to extraneous influences, to an infusion of new blood and new ideas, till their peculiarities are toned down, their distinctive features of dialect or national dress or provincial customs eliminated, and the people as a whole approach to the composite type of civilized humanity. A land shut off by mountains or sea from the rest of the world tends to develop a homogeneous people, since it limits or prevents the intrusion of foreign elements; or when once these are introduced, it encourages their rapid assimilation by the strongly interactive life of a confined locality. Therefore large or remote islands are, as a rule, distinguished by the unity of their inhabitants in point of civilization and race characteristics. Witness Great Britain, Ireland, Japan, Iceland, as also Australia and New Zealand at the time of their discovery. The highlands of the Southern Appalachians, which form the "mountain backyards" of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, are peopled by the purest English stock in the United States, descendants of the backwoodsmen 136 of the late eighteenth century. Difficulty of access and lack of arable land have combined to discourage immigration. In consequence, foreign elements, including the elsewhere ubiquitous Negro, are wanting, except along the few railroads which in recent years have penetrated this country. Here survive an eighteenth-century English Christmas celebrated on Twelfth Night, the spinning wheel, and a belief in Joshua’s power to arrest the course of the sun.

An easily accessible land is geographically hospitable to all newcomers, facilitates the mingling of peoples, the exchange of commodities and ideas. The amalgamation of races in such regions depends upon the similarity or diversity of the ethnic elements and the duration of the common occupation. The broad, open valley of the Danube from the Black Sea to Vienna contains a bizarre mixture of several stocks—Turks, Bulgarians, various families of pure Slavs, Roumanians, Hungarians, and Germans. These elements are too diverse and their occupation of the valley too recent for amalgamation to have advanced very far as yet. The maritime plain and open river valleys of northern France show a complete fusion of the native Celts with the Saxons, Franks, and Normans who have successively drifted into the region, just as the Teutonic and scanter Slav elements have blended in the Baltic plains from the Elbe to the Vistula.

Here are four different classes of geographic influences, all of which may become active in modifying a people when it changes its habitat. Many of the characteristics acquired in the old home still live on, or at best yield slowly to the new environment. This is especially true of the direct physical and psychical effects. But a country may work a prompt and radical change in the social organization of an immigrant people by the totally new conditions of economic life which it presents. These may be either greater wealth or poverty of natural resources than the race has previously known, new stimulants or deterrents to commerce and intercourse, and new conditions of climate which affect the efficiency of the workman and the general character of production. From these a whole complex mass of secondary effects may follow.

3 From Ellen Churchill Semple, Influences of Geographic Environment on the Basis of Ratzel’s System of Anthropo-Geography, 1911, pp. 33, 37, 38, 40–41, 43–46. By permission of Henry Holt and Company, publishers.


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Chicago: Ellen Churchill Semple, "46. Classes of Geographic Influences," Source Book for Sociology in Source Book for Sociology, ed. Kimball Young (Cincinnati: American Book Company, 1935), Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2023,

MLA: Semple, Ellen Churchill. "46. Classes of Geographic Influences." Source Book for Sociology, in Source Book for Sociology, edited by Kimball Young, Cincinnati, American Book Company, 1935, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: Semple, EC, '46. Classes of Geographic Influences' in Source Book for Sociology. cited in 1935, Source Book for Sociology, ed. , American Book Company, Cincinnati. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2023, from