Huntington, Ellsworth

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Huntington, Ellsworth



Ellsworth Huntington (1876-1947), American geographer, was the most notable exponent of environmentalism in the English-speaking world in the twentieth century, rivaled only by the Australian geographer Thomas Griffith Taylor. Trained as a geologist, Huntington took a post in 1897 at a small college in Turkey; after two years at Harvard, 1901-1903, he was attached to the Pumpelly expedition for geographic and rcheological explorations in Turkestan and Iran. This experience, and further travels in India, Tibet, and Siberia, inspired his first major work, The Pulse of Asia (1907), in which he stressed the role of climatic change, especially desiccation, in initiating chain reactions of nomadic movements that culminated in such upheavals as the Mongol, Mogul, and Manchu invasions. From 1907 until his death Huntington was associated with Yale University; he traveled extensively in all continents except Antarctica.

Although Huntington is best known for his stress on the climatic factor in historical causation, he was by no means neglectful of other factors, including cultural ones. In particular, he gave considerable weight to heredity, to selective migration and survival, and to the persistence of traits through endogamy: the last, indeed, is the theme of The Character of Races (1924). As a member, and sometime president, of the Eugenics Society, Huntington had a strong interest in biology, reflected in Season of Birth (1938). However, these aspects of his work should not be overstressed, since he ascribed the formation of group attributes and aptitudes primarily to environmental factors, especially climate.

Considerations of climate inform all Huntington’s work but are perhaps most formally displayed in Civilization and Climate (1915). Here he followed up older ideas of a progressive shift of civilization from origins in the Afro-Asian riverine environments to the cooler and more varied climates of northwest Europe, and in a sense he sought to clinch this line of argument by the famous, or notorious, maps that compare regions climatically optimal for human energy with those of high civilization. These maps show a high degree of correlation between climate conducive to energy and civilization—north-central Europe, the United States, and southeast Australia have the highest ranking on both maps.

It is evident that Huntington’s criteria in making his maps were highly subjective: for a man who had so much knowledge of Asia, he was extremely Eurocentric. Although, to be sure, Huntington himself did not claim that the map of climatic efficiency indicated the “cause of civilization,” his uncritical acceptance of undifferentiated activism as a criterion of civilization opened the way to such misinterpretations. Moreover, his assessment of civilization and ethical value was often amazingly naive. He implied, for example, that Bulgaria, having more cars per head of population, was somehow more civilized than China; and he attempted to rank religions both by latitude and by ethical value (the order turned out to be the same!). Yet easy as it is to laugh at his belief in progress as mechanics, it may be asked what else is at the bottom of the welfare state and the endeavors to develop the undeveloped world.

These illustrations come from Huntington’s culminating work, Mainsprings of Civilization (1945). This book, along with much fallacy, contains much sound observation drawn from an immense variety of phenomena, and also much penetrating argument. It repeats and often elaborates his main themes: the importance of climatic oscillations, whether short-term (such as sunspot cycles) or secular, and of noncyclical climatic changes, and the influence of these weather variations on human activity and the historic process; these he contrasted with the enduring significance of inherited physical and psychological attributes, which initially may have been environmentally determined. Huntington also tried to do justice, although his treatment is inadequate, to more purely institutional and cultural factors. It seems likely that at least some residuum of the argument in Mainsprings will have continuing value.

Environmentalism is today under a cloud, and the full position of Huntington and Taylor cannot possibly be sustained. But Huntington did put environmentalism on a new footing, especially by his detailed and, in general, well-documented stress on climatic factors. Many of his ideas reflect too faithfully a simpliste commonsense view of progress and of the effects of weather and climate on human life, and this has damaged his academic reputation. But although these factors cannot be allowed the altogether determinative character which Huntington (despite disclaimers) tended to ascribe to them, neither can it be assumed that they have no significant effects on human metabolism; and on a macroscale some, at least, of these effects may well carry over into social attitudes and, hence, into historical processes. With more finesse and sophistication and without Huntington’s overbold generalizations about social and historical causation, a good deal of current research on human ecology and medical geography actually carries on the tradition of Huntington’s thinking.

O. H. K. spate

[See alsoEnvironmentalismand Geography.]


(1907) 1919 The Pulse of Asia: A Journey in Central Asia Illustrating the Geographic Basis of History. New ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

(1915) 1924 Civilization and Climate. 3d ed., rev. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

1922 Huntington, Ellsworth; and Visheb, Stephen S. Climatic Changes: Their Nature and Causes. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

1924 The Character of Races as Influenced by Physical Environment, Natural Selection and Historical Development. New York: Scribner.

1938 Season of Birth: Its Relation to Human Abilities. New York: Wiley.

1945 Mainsprings of Civilization. New York: Wiley; London: Chapman.


Spate, O. H. K. 1952 Toynbee and Huntington: A Study in Determinism. Geographical Journal 118:406-428. → Includes four pages of discussion.

Visher, S. S. 1948 Memoir to Ellsworth Huntington: 1876-1947. Association of American Geographers, Annals 38:39-50. → Contains a bibliography.