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Does the shape of countries shape their destiny?

Might the destiny of nations be controlled by the underlying shape of their geography? This is the subject of a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors…

The length and width of countries might influence their cultural diversity … or not. byJoeLodge

Might the destiny of nations be controlled by the underlying shape of their geography?

This is the subject of a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors – political scientists David Laitin, Joachim Moortgat and Amanda Robinson – calculated the area, size and longitude-to-latitude ratio of every country on Earth.

They then plotted results against the number of indigenous languages spoken. Their aim was to see whether the size and orientation of a country could explain their levels of cultural diversity.

Does shape matter?

The current research builds on an idea first hypothesised in 1997 by American scientist Jared Diamond in his popular science bestseller and TV show Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond posited that big events in human history – continental migrations, colonisation, uneven development, ecological catastrophe – were shaped by underlying geography.

Jared Diamond jurvetson

One of Diamond’s propositions was that continent shape and orientation mattered. Those continents stretching wider from east to west have less variation in climate and it easier for people to move around and for cultures to mix and blend.

Continents spanning a long distance north to south instead presented humans with huge variations in climate and landscape: deserts, jungles, ice caps and tundra wastelands. The result: cultural difference survives along a north-south transect more than east-to-west.

Douglas Fernandes (South America "addicted")
Laitin’s team tested Diamond’s continental axis theory.

Instead of continents, Laitin’s team chose modern nation-states. Indigenous language was a proxy for cultural diversity.

After computing the north-south and east-west axes of each country, they plotted the number of surviving Indigenous languages, looking for any discernible pattern.

The results confirmed Diamond’s earlier hunch. The degree of north-south orientation is positively related to the persistence of linguistic diversity. Countries such as Chile, long and thin, had higher levels of linguistic diversity than wider, flatter states, such as Russia.

Such findings, the authors say, help explain how cultures expanded and conquered.

Shortcomings the study

There is much to be seduced by in this story. The trouble is that the whole exercise is undermined when assumptions and method are scrutinised.

Proving causality is near impossible. Laitin’s team found a pattern of association between country orientation and language diversity – but no evidence to prove the former caused the latter.

There are also problems and limitations – that Laitin’s team acknowledge – assuming that the present shape of countries is related to their ancient history.

How Africa appeared in A Class-Book of Modern Geography, 1900 Chris Gibson, "Australasia", in International Encyclopedia of Human Geography (Elsevier)

As recently as 1900, British Geography textbooks showed vast swathes of Africa without country boundaries. “Sudan” once referred to the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa, rather than the predominantly north-south orientated nation we now see in atlases. National borders have been re-drawn repeatedly. Using surviving indigenous languages as proxy for cultural diversity is also blunt.

In today’s jumbled-up world of A380 flights, social media and transient workers, culture is far from geographically static.

It’s also unrealistic to think that cultures can (or should) stay frozen in time.

Map of the world by French cartographer Nicolas de Fer in 1724 falco500

A problem of geography

The clincher that relegates this study to the curiosity box rather than place it at the scholarly cutting edge is that Laitin’s team forgot to read their geography textbooks. They succumb to an age-old fallacy – one academic geographers call environmental determinism.

It’s a doctrine stretching from Charles Darwin back to Hippocrates and Aristotle: that human culture is determined by surrounding ecological conditions. The doctrine has been discredited by academic geographers since the 1920s.

While patterns of habitation are coarsely linked to climate, aridity and availability of soil nutrients (that’s why the inland of Australia has always been more sparsely populated than the coast), environmental determinism invites false conclusions that culture or the mindset of individuals are dictated by climate or topography.

Uluru nosha

This once popular premise led early twentieth-century geographers to fanciful and hurtful theories about racial and cultural difference.

Infamously, climatologist Austin Miller argued that “the enervating monotonous climates of much of the tropical zone, together with the abundant and easily obtained food-supply” produced “a lazy and indolent people” more suitable to slavery than employment.

Even worse, German geographer Friedrich Ratzel’s theory of the organic state as biological organism provided an intellectual foundation for fascist imperialism.

Such ideas faded into obscurity in academic geography in the 1940s, in the wake of Nazism. Academic geographers now seek to study complex interactions between environmental, political, economic and cultural factors.

Heading in the wrong direction

Laitin and colleagues say nothing about “race”, yet the logic of environmental determinism engulfs their study.

They suggest that geography got in the way of cultural blending that could have prevented problems such as “low economic growth, high rates of generalised distrust of others, high likelihood of local violence”.

In contrast to reporting of their study, cultural diversity is, according to this skewed logic, a bad thing.

What is perhaps most frustrating about environmental determinism is its defeatism. If we trust Laitin’s results, it becomes all too easy to believe that no-one in particular is to blame when cultural diversity is undermined, and that we’re powerless to support it.

What counts far more than a country’s shape are its attitudes and policies towards cultural diversity, the treatment of indigenous peoples and how humans are embroiled within dynamic ecological change.

In a world faced with complex environmental challenges, we would be well served to spend less time thinking about the shape of countries, and more time thinking about the interactions between diverse human beings and environments at all scales.

Join the conversation

9 Comments sorted by

  1. David Paxton


    Thank you for a well written conversation. I agree that grasping at correlations is less than productive.

  2. Derek Bolton

    Retired s/w engineer

    It is tempting, but wrong, to attack ideas based on their historical misapplication. The arguments of eugenicists don't demolish Darwinism. Likewise, the dubious arguments of Miller and Ratzel should not be used to cast doubt on those of Diamond.
    I agree entirely that there are many possible explanations for Laitin's findings; perhaps countries with NS alignments are often consequences of coastal mountain ranges, leading to fairly homogeneous geological environments and limiting the value of trade.
    Some influences of geography and geology seem extremely likely. A stone age could not arise in the Kalahari. In areas supporting large populations with easy travel, technology spreads easily.

  3. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    So how does a long, thin, north-southish land mass like Italy end up spawning a cultural and linguistic hegemony that lasted centuries?

    1. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Since Italy has only existed since the late 19th century, the answer is it doesn't. Unless you are referring to pizza delivery franchises.

      There was a term Italia, but it was rather flexible in meaning -at times it excluded Cisalpine Gaul - (ie the area between the Po and the Alps) and there was a long progression of steps in terms of extending who was a Roman citizen until after 221 AD Roman citizenship was extended to the whole empire.

      But presumably Latin, the language of the Latins, is that of the original rather restricted territories of the Latins in central Italy.

  4. David Elson

    logged in via Facebook

    The basic tenants of Diamond that differences between civilizations "originates in environmental differences" fails when one compares differences in mineral wealth and a nation level of advancement.

    Ie; the Congo should be one of the richest nations in Africa, based solely on the mineral wealth present within it's geographical boundaries.

    1. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to David Elson

      Diamond was talking about continental masses and landforms rather than countries and at a pre-historic period. His thesis was more about the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer to settled agrarian communities as a pre-cursor to civilisational development.

      Minerals and mining are a result of civilisation rather than a cause of it.

    2. David Elson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Thanks very much for clarifying Mat,

      Do we know enough about the environmental conditions in various landmass in prehistory to make these kind of assumptions?

      I always thought Diamond's point was that the differences in outcomes for modern humans could be explained away by access to resources; minerals/domestication animals (linked to location).

  5. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    This study and its commentary further ignores the reality of both cultural diversity and multiculturalism along east-west axes. Across Northern Australia, for example, lies the highest linguistic diversity of the entire continent, though not quite the same range as north-south, yet the assumption is still being made apparently that all those people are sedentary, that they stay home and do not mix, when in fact young people especially are astonishingly mobile.

    Coming-of-age and life-span development…

    Read more
  6. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    In terms of linguistic diversity, antiquity always saw the Caucasus mountains as being particularly diverse. Pliny thought there were 300 languages there, Strabo, more modestly, only counted 70.

    Mountains are more important that modern nation states. If, for whatever reason, Chile had joined the Argentinian provinces when they federated in 1850-60, it would not have changed linguistic diversity one bit.