Huntington, Ellsworth (1876–1947)
CONTEMPORARIES WERE impressed by the clarity of Ellsworth Huntington’s style, the intensity of his reasoning, the simplicity of his grand theories, and his unique ability to generalize: “With devastating logic and sound scholarship, Ellsworth Huntington shows how climate, weather, geographical location, diet, health and heredity control the character of a nation—and determine its dominant or defensive position in history and the advance of civilization.” Such is how the geographer was described on the book jacket for his Mainsprings of Civilization (1947).
Huntington was probably the geographer who defended the cause of environmental determinism with the highest degree of conviction. His work on how climate has influenced the evolution of human societies was informed by the fieldwork he first did in Asia and the MIDDLE EAST, and later in the American southwest. He had traveled widely over North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Huntington’s writings reached an audience well outside the small circle of American geographers.
Geographers did not unanimously approve Huntington’s bold generalizations, and some refuted early on the conclusions of Huntington’s The Pulse of Asia. Historians were annoyed by the way in which Huntington overworked his materials to restate his thesis on the development of high-type civilizations. His racist deductions were not exempt of contradictions. For instance, past migration through the Arctic would explain Native Americans’ inability to innovate, but Eskimos would be especially ingenuous because they have remained in the Arctic.
Colleagues called his work an enthusiastic toast to himself because New England was always depicted as the most advanced area on his world maps of the “distribution of general progress.” Most scholars criticized Huntington’s speculations on the influence of weather on culture and his measurement of civilization level. Conducted largely by botanists and geologists, later studies on climate change have proved, however, that his speculations on the succession of wet and dry cycles were correct.
Huntington was born in Galesburg, Illinois, went to Beloit College for his B.A. degree, then taught at Euphrates College (Harput, Turkey) from 1897 to 1901. He resumed his studies in the United States and received an M.A. from Harvard University in 1902. As a graduate student, he took part in two scientific expeditions in central Asia, which he described in Explorations in Turkestan (1905) and his famous The Pulse of Asia (1907). Yale awarded him a Ph.D. in 1909. After graduation, he worked at the Carnegie Foundation for three years. Huntington returned to Yale, where he taught geography until 1913. He became a research associate in 1917, a position that gave him the freedom needed to concentrate on his ambitious research program on climate and civilization. He occasionally taught seminars at Clark and Chicago universities but did not seek contacts with students. Ellsworth Huntington died a professor emeritus of geography at Yale.
Huntington was an unusually prolific geographer. His articles were published in academic as well as nonacademic journals: the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, American Historical Review,
Harper’s Magazine, and the Journal of Race Development. He wrote no fewer than 29 books and co-authored many others, in which he either described the countries he visited or exposed his theories on climate change and eugenics. His bibliography includes major monographs such as Palestine and Its Transformation (1911), The Climatic Factor as Illustrated in Arid America (1914), Civilization and Climate (1915, re-edited twice), World Power and Evolution (1919), and Climatic Changes (1922).