Thursday, September 6, 2007

745 Environmental Determinism

Message no. 745[Branch from no. 742] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Monday, April 2, 2007 4:15pm Subject: Re: Relational Summary

A nice summary Daniela! I think we can all relate to your reaction to the weather and its affect on your mood. Sluggish and lifeless describes how I have often felt when the weather changes too.

I wonder, however, if it is the weather itself, or a combination of our expectations and the kind of envrionment we spend most of our time in. If, for example, we spend most of our time in an environment at 20 degrees C and we go outside into an environment that is 35 degrees C, our bodies will have to acclimitize and this could affect our mood as well.

You talked in your summary about determinism, possibilism and probabilism. As you may know, there is an old hypothesis used to describe why Europe dominated the world culturally and technologically that comes under the heading of "racist environmental determinism". I'm sure you know the argument: People from warm climates are "sluggish and lifeless", i.e. lazy, while people from cold climates are "invigorated and hard working".

The biggest offender using this hypothesis was Thomas Griffith Taylor. Here is a quote from this website about his work:

"Environment and Race: A Study of the Evolution, Migration, Settlement and Status of the Races of Man. London: Oxford University Press, 1927.

This the most scary of Taylor's books, where he lays out his theories of human evolution under the influence of environment. These ideas easily are turned into rationales for racism and imperialism.

"In the past it has been usual to explain national progress largely in terms of military power, religious beliefs, and sagacious rulers, as witness almost any history written in the nineteenth century. It would be foolish to deny the great influence of these factors, but there is a growing school of thinkers who believe that the environment is at least of equal importance, although the study of this factor has been neglected in the past. . . . Further than this, many scientists are coming to the conclusion that it is the variation in the environment which is the most potent factor of all in influencing human evolution, whether biological or social."

Racists who applied environmental determinism to social behavior used the hypothesis to justify conquest. What they didn't point out was how, if the theory were true, civilization emerged in the hottest climates while Europe was still hunting and gathering.

Could we design any real experiments to PROVE that climate has a real PREDICTABLE effect on behavior? As the first link you provided us states:

"Still, the claims of biometeorology are difficult to confirm. Although medical conditions from angina and arthritis to hip fractures and dental periostitis have been statistically linked to weather, statistics alone are not proof of cause and effect. "I'd rank this stuff up there with the signs of the zodiac and old astrology texts," says Dr. John Renner, a family physician and president of the National Council for Reliable Health Information. "Put it this way: Would they be willing to ground a pilot or a plane based on the current evidence? Let's separate the hunches and impressions from the hard medical facts." Surprisingly, many biometeorologists agree. "We have--and I exult in this--the Missouri attitude: Show me!" says Dennis Driscoll, a biometeorologist at Texas A&M University. "I would like to see both doctors and meteorologists take the bit in their mouths, so to speak, and start doing some definitive research."

But how? Designing such experiments is practically impossible. "I had one patient tell me, `The frost is on the pumpkin and the pain is in my joints.' How would you test that?" says Terence Starz a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. "It would be too invasive. You'd be sticking measuring devices in peoples' joints." Similarly, Sharon Phelan, an obstetrician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has been present at births that occurred during times of falling barometric pressure. "Hurricanes, too, have been associated with the rupture of the amniotic membrane," she says, "but it's all anecdotal. A study with real patients? I don't know how you would do that."


The third link you gave us suggests very powerfully that we can find CORRELATIONS between climate and behavior, particularly among many animal species:

"Effects of Climate: Spatial Synchronization and the Moran Effect Climate as a synchronizing agent for population fluctuations in space, the so-called Moran effect, has received much attention (12, 13). Rainfall changes associated with ENSO, for instance, produce a highly synchronic pattern of massive germination of annuals (14), rodent outbreaks (15), and vertebrate predators responses"

In reading this we can certainly predict that climate change is likely to increase the amount of infectious disease we will face. But can we really predict how humans will respond? When do correlations prove CAUSE and EFFECT?

A great book that I am reading now and suggest to all of you is "Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another" by Phillip Ball. It does a great job of describing the history of "the law of large numbers" and how we can use statistical science to understand human and social behavior. The book review says the following:

"In this wide-ranging investigation of pioneering attempts to explain social behavior by applying formulas borrowed from physics, Ball explains how maverick social theorists are now using discoveries about molecular motion and crystal formation to predict the behavior of various human groups, including crowds of soccer fans and clusters of pedestrians. Ball acknowledges that past "political arithmeticians" have often dehumanized their subjects by adopting mechanistic assumptions about individual psychology and have sometimes legitimated totalitarian rulers by giving them a putatively scientific charter. But Ball's numerous detailed examples of the new social physics show how statistical models from physics can yield highly reliable predictions for large-group outcomes without abridging the unpredictable freedom of individual choice. These same examples teach that a consistent physics of society yields not an ideological straitjacket stipulating how people should act but rather a detailed portrait of how people do act. Because the new social physics can help managers and policy makers in dozens of fields, this accessibly written book will attract a very diverse audience."

A good review can be found here:,6121,1178982,00.html

If you really want to get a handle on how science is used to predict human behavior, read this most excellent book!

Finally, Daniela, thanks for providing the quote from a Christian perspective on Global Warming!

"But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteous dwells." (2 Pe 3:10-13)

Reading that quote in the website you linked us to makes me wonder if perhaps we shouldn't all follow Patricia's lead in "looking for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteous dwells." A Eutopia on Mars perhaps?? :)

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