Hindsight distortion and environmental determinism


“Climate determines culture.” This sentence and others like it (e.g., “climate determined societies” or “the success of civilizations was geodetermined” [Mächtle & Eitel 2013]) claim that there are monocausal, monodirectional, deterministic relationships in which a given change in one variable (climate, nature, the environment in general) will result in a specific change in another variable (culture, society, human activities). Such sentences present human beings and human societies as mere objects and deny the important role that choice and adaptation have played throughout history and prehistory. Cultures or societies are presented as monolithic units.

But if such sentences were true, how can very different cultures or societies exist under very similar climatic conditions? How can very similar cultures or societies exist under very different climatic conditions? How can societies change over time while climate remains stable, and how can societies remain stable while climate changes? And what is meant by “culture” or “society”? Certainly not the same as what is known by the terms society or archaeological culture. Perhaps only a certain component of “culture” or “society” is meant – but usually we are left to guess which. General material culture? Religion? Language? Literature? Technology? Even if this were specified, and even if such claims were constrained to particular environments such as very arid or very cold lands, one would have to ask: What could be the causal mechanisms by which climate determines culture/society, by which climate imposes a specific thought in the brains of people? Which causal mechanism leads from climatic changes to a specific invention such as the plough, the fishing hook, textiles, water wells, domestication, metallurgy?

What is misleading in all this is that only in hindsight everything looks so logical, only in hindsight there seem to be causal relationships. Yes, many cultural developments do seem to be determined by the environment when looking back at them. But: they only seem to be. In hindsight, it appears perfectly logical that drought would have “caused” the invention of irrigation and the development of the first states. It also appears perfectly logical that the same environmental change (drought) would have “caused” violent conflict and the termination of archaeological cultures. Elsewhere, it appears perfectly logical that drought would have “caused” migrations, a shift from an agriculture-based society to a trade-based society, a shift from agriculture to pastoralism, the invention fertilisation, of water harvesting techniques or of novel irrigation techniques such as water wells or pumps.

In agrarian societies, the failure of a one or even successive harvests due to drought, pests or war is an existential threat. Yet this does not mean that climate determines society, even if there is both archaeological evidence for malnutrition and population decline as well as paleoenvironmental evidence for contemporaneous climate changes. Why? Because human societies change and develop by constantly making conscious as well as unconscious choices which are based not only on their environment but to a large part on culture – technology, knowledge, beliefs. In times of climate change a society can break apart in internal strife, it can fight against its neighbours because they are better off (or because they are weaker), it can invent trade, it can turn to pastoralism or transhumance, it can use its last strength to build temples or draw lines in the desert. Some but not all of these choices would likely lead to what is commonly called “cultural decline”, but climate does not determine which choice is made. A particular result (e.g., “cultural decline”) is always the result of a combination of multiple factors. The same combination of society-internal and society-external factors may lead to very different results, and the same result may be related to combinations of very different factors – all depending on the choices that are made.

Thus, plain geodeterministic statements are generally based on simplistic, monocausal and monodirectional interpretations of past human-environmental interactions which ignore equifinality; and, most importantly, the role of choice and human agency.