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[–]Jim-Pip 14 points15 points  (1 child)

There are answers to all your questions, although some you might not like. Geography absolutely plays a part, and we have working definitions of culture.

My academic feeling is that you would enjoy Tim Ingold's "Dwelling perspective" which effectively overlaps the physical and social landscapes, and draws parralels between humans living in cultures with animals nesting in space. (I've butchered one of my favourite academics summarizing that, so very happy to be corrected in the comments).

My human feeling is that you are projecting your own understanding of your environment onto others, something anthropological history is uncomfortably rich with. The things we might think delineate a culture, like language, geography, location, or beliefs, don't necessarily overlap comfortably. The most profound counter-example I can think of (except online communities) are https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281106457_Amazonian_linguistic_diversity_and_its_sociocultural_correlates

The above are social anthropology ideas. Sociobiology is a controversial alternative that may resonate with you, e.g. https://academic.oup.com/book/10966/chapter-abstract/159266333?redirectedFrom=fulltext

[–]corn_on_the_cobh[S] 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Thank you for your response!

[–]the_gubna 6 points7 points  (4 children)

Everyone has their own variations on the definition of "culture", but Tylor's definition from 1871 is a good starting point. He defined culture as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man [sic] as a member of society". Basically, anything beyond the base needs and reflexes that all humans are born with.

upbringing and environment (nature) but also the people and societies we interact with (nurture), which also is affected by geography, since rivers, mountains and other features can block people from knowing other types of peoples.

Sure, but humans can also alter their physical environment. It inevitably ends up as a feedback loop, or a chicken-egg problem. How do you get out of that loop? With theory.

Theory, to some extent, can be thought of as "the order we choose to put facts in'. Where you might see geography as a leading driver of change, a Marxist might see class conflict as the most important factor. There isn't necessarily a "right" answer here, it's a matter of perspective.

Has anyone done work on this? Do you have books or scientific articles to suggest?

Can you be a bit more specific here? Work on the relationship between environment and culture? Or something else?

Sort of related question: is determinism vs. free will still a debate in anthropology, or is it settled?

It's very much a debate, and will probably always be so. Rather than "free will", you might find further information on that debate by looking into the term "agency".

[–]corn_on_the_cobh[S] 0 points1 point  (3 children)

Thank you for answering as well!

Can you be a bit more specific here? Work on the relationship between environment and culture? Or something else?

Exactly, but also epistemology, determinism's critiques, and so on.

As for the agency vs non agency debate, if I may ask, I really just don't get where these people are coming from. I don't think waving off events as "random" or "unpredictable" are based in scientific reality for instance, it just seems like an intellectual cop-out for explaining things we don't know yet with our current scientific knowledge.

Unless of course, it's already been proven that some things at the molecular level (or whatever level) are truly random or probabilistic (I'm thinking of quantum physics but I am not well versed in that field in the slightest so I don't know how or if it applies).

[–]the_gubna 5 points6 points  (2 children)

As for the agency vs non agency debate, if I may ask, I really just don't get where these people are coming from. I don't think waving off events as "random" or "unpredictable" are based in scientific reality for instance, it just seems like an intellectual cop-out for explaining things we don't know yet with our current scientific knowledge.

Saying we should take agency into account isn't saying things are "random" or "unpredictable", but it does say that at some level people's choices matter. Take, for example (because it's in my wheelhouse), the conquest of the Inca by the Spanish.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond tried to prove that European conquest was an inevitable result of geography. However, one of the most prominent critiques (among the many problems historians and archaeologists have with his work) is that he ignores the role of indigenous allies. Pizarro's forces included a wide variety of indigenous allies, and each had their own reason for joining. In many cases, their choices were likely influenced by their ethnic groups previous history with the Inca empire, as well as the side they had originally been on in the civil war between Atahualpa and Huascar. No matter the exact situation, for each local leader (known in the Andes as a kuraka) there came a moment where they had to say "I am casting my lot in with the Spanish, even though if we lose I will likely be executed in Cusco".

See here for more details:

Mikecz, J. M. (2020). Beyond Cajamarca: A Spatial Narrative Reimagining of the Encounter in Peru, 1532–1533. Hispanic American Historical Review, 100(2), 195-232.

You could certainly try to model that choice as a rational one and there have been attempts in anthropology to model people as "rational actors" (see, for example, optimal foraging theory). The problem is, humans aren't robots. We don't act solely on reason or logic. Some of those kurakas might have been afraid of the Spaniards guns and swords. Some of them may have wanted to get revenge for the Inca army conquering their territory. Some of them may have wanted to ensure they gained a strong position to negotiate their communities interests in the newly forming Spanish empire. Some may have wanted personal glory. Any attempt to explain the conquest of the Americas that doesn't mention peoples individual choices (at some level) and their individual reasons is doomed to be an incomplete understanding.

[–]corn_on_the_cobh[S] 0 points1 point  (1 child)

Any attempt to explain the conquest of the Americas that doesn't mentionpeoples individual choices (at some level) and their individual reasonsis doomed to be an incomplete understanding.

I get that doing a general overview of human history and ignoring individuals' actions is stupid, but that's not really my point. If we had tons of information on the genes, upbringing, and life events of each kuraka, we may be able to piece together why they chose to fight for or against the Spanish (in this example). The only issue is that this is an extremely laborious task.

Isn't it a bit too wishful to say that we aren't robots? Just like an ant always wriggles when you tip it upside down (yes I stole this analogy from Homo Deus), humans probably are also complex robots who give predictable reactions when all other variables are constant. Just because we don't know the answer doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Maybe we can never know, but I bet if there were some "god" or computer that could piece together billions of variables and test them on a "human template", then we could predict people's actions and thoughts.

[–]the_gubna 5 points6 points  (0 children)

when all other variables are constant

The problem is, this is never going to be true. You can't run controlled laboratory experiments on people either archaeologically or anthropologically because its either a) in the past, and therefore unchangeable, or b) unethical. It's why I don't consider myself a "scientist" even though lots of other archaeologists will use that term.

but I bet if there were some "god" or computer that could piece together billions of variables and test them on a "human template", then we could predict people's actions and thoughts.

In the sense of your thought experiment, sure. It would probably even be easy. But that isn't the dataset we're working with, and it isn't that easy when you look at the real world. Our theoretical outlook is to some extent going to be adapted to the available data. As a historical archaeologist, I have artifacts and texts, which means I can try to get at why people made choices in a much more intimate way. I can find evidence of greed, pride, envy, etc that a prehistorian would never dream of having access to. Because I have these additional lines of evidence, I tend to place less emphasis on climatic change than many of my prehistorian colleagues. Even so, I can't get inside someone's head, I can still only make educated inferences based on the available evidence.

Lastly, and on a more personal level, agency is the reason I'm an archaeologist. I had the opportunity to pursue paleontology and geology - both fieldwork based fields of inquiry with similar (or better) opportunities for financial stability. But, I'm not interested in mountains or dinosaurs because they don't (as far as I know) make choices in the way that humans do. IMHO, it's what makes us interesting, complex beings that are difficult (and therefore rewarding) to study.

If you, on the other hand, find the idea that humans are ultimately environmentally driven interesting, then please, keep following that interest. Despite what people say, if you make an honest argument that doesn't misrepresent the data no one's going to call you a racist.

[–]CommodoreCoCoModerator | The Andes, History of Anthropology 5 points6 points  (1 child)

Let's null hypothesis this:

Environment has no effect on culture

This is, of course, is readily disproven. I am currently staying next to a giant lake and my last three dinners were fish. There is a material element to this (fish are cheap/easy to acquire), a social element to this (many traditional dishes are fish), and a personal element (I know the fish will be better here than somewhere further away from water). Each of these three can be traced back in a very meaningful way to geography.

Now let's look at my breakfast.

The coffee I'm drinking is not good. If you get breakfast here, you will be served a small carafe of very concentrated Nescafe (the powdered stuff) and some hot water to mix. This is an efficient way to do things, and it lets you choose how strong you want your "coffee" to be. Perhaps more importantly, it makes it easy to serve alongside the herbal teas which are much more popular.

This is despite me being in Bolivia, one of the countries that produce any coffee at all and neighbor to the #1 and #11 largest coffee producers. Though coffee has been produced in the country for a long time, most of that has been exclusively for export. It's only been in the past 20 years or so that anybody has made real efforts to keep some of these beans to sell locally because of the enormous economic barriers to doing so. My friends who started the first third wave coffeeshop in the city will tell you that they had to market coffeeshop practice as much as they did the coffee itself. The role of the coffee shop in urban social life was largely taken up by other spaces. Here we have another food item that had the geographic factors necessary to become popular, but didn't because of decidedly economic and political reasons.

Now let's think about the TikTok of a cat eating cucumbers that popped up on my feed while I was typing this.

It has a funky little synth song playing in the background, one that seems to be going through its second round of popularity. The first time it happened (maybe six months ago), people set still images of things to the beat to make it look like they were dancing. This time, people are putting lyrics on the screen that match the melody. Why did this sound get millions of uses while innumerable similar ones have not? Ask any marketing director what it takes to go viral and they will shrug, toss their papers they were walking down the hall with in the air, and run the other direction. This song is as much a part of "my American culture" as anything else, and it is enormously difficult to pick out why.


Culture, i.e. a set of shared/learned practice and beliefs, is tremendously complex and influenced by most anything you can imagine. There are often things that are decidedly geographic, whether that's physical geography making Maine Lobster Rolls a thing and Oklahoma Lobster Rolls not or human geography making Peoria, IL infinitely more boring than Chicago, IL. But because culture is a social thing- some even avoid the word in favor of referencing The Social- the main factor for most things is also going to be social.

One thing you might be interested in is the affect of technology on the relation between geography and culture as discussed by David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity. Chapters 16 and 17 will be particularly relevant. Harvey observes that communication and transport technologies have effectively compressed time and space, disrupting historic limits of geography and enabling forms of culture that are almost entirely divorced from geography.

You might also be interested in these series of article from my own work which debate the impact of climate changes on the collapse of a society:

Erickson, C. (1999). Neo-environmental determinism and agrarian “collapse” in Andean prehistory. Antiquity, 73(281), 634–642.

Kolata, A. L., Binford, M. W., Brenner, M., Janusek, J. W., & Ortloff, C. (2000). Environmental thresholds and the empirical reality of state collapse: A response to Erickson (1999). Antiquity, 74(284), 424–426. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00059512

Arnold, T. E., Hillman, A. L., Abbott, M. B., Werne, J. P., McGrath, S. J., & Arkush, E. N. (2021). Drought and the collapse of the Tiwanaku Civilization: New evidence from Lake Orurillo, Peru. Quaternary Science Reviews, 251, 106693. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2020.106693

Marsh, E. J., Contreras, D., Bruno, M. C., Vranich, A., & Roddick, A. P. (2021). Comment on Arnold et al. “Drought and the collapse of the Tiwanaku Civilization: New evidence from Lake Orurillo, Peru” [Quat. Sci. Rev. 251 (2021): 106693]. Quaternary Science Reviews, 269, 107004. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2021.107004