April 17, 2011

Ellsworth Huntington was one of the early twentieth century’s most prolific science writers. The author of 28 books, contributor to 29 others and author of more than 240 articles, [1] Huntington was a climatic determinist who held that geography was the “basis for history.” [2] Civilization according to Huntington owed its rise to the weather. He suggested his superior “Teutonic stock” was a natural consequence of the same atmospheric conditions that cause thunderstorms.

But Huntington was worried. He felt he had solid statistical evidence that as his race took on what he thought was its evolutionary obligation to dominate it faced two serious threats: the physically and morally debilitating effects of the tropics and tropical women on WASPs who worked abroad, and the productivity-sapping effects of luxuries like central heating on those who worked at home.

Initially Huntington proposed simple mechanical solutions to these “problems,” like a housing unit that would artificially cycle its internal barometric pressure, and by this action keep his fellow New Englanders charged up wherever they lived. But in the 1920s, with his academic career stalled, Huntington’s ideas began to darken. In 1934 he accepted the presidency of the board of directors of the increasingly nativist American Eugenics Society. By 1935 he was applying his writing talents to the development of that group’s “catechism,” a chilling book titled Tomorrow’s Children.

Huntington was an odd duck, criticized even in his day for possessing an “overheated imagination” that saw patterns in data where none existed and forced facts to fit predetermined conclusions. So why bother studying a man who labored as a lowly Research Associate at an insulting salary at Yale for nearly the entirety of his professional life?

Huntington was a fantasist with little peer support, but his popularity demonstrates how adept he was at framing a folk-science that, to borrow a phrase from Jerome Ravetz, provided America’s ruling class “comfort and reassurance in the face of the crucial uncertainties of the world of experience.” [3] In Huntington we see a metaphor for a nation. Once a jaunty optimist who saw continued cultural domination as a minor engineering challenge, Ellsworth Huntington joined a generation that grew increasingly inclined to promote coercive social policies as it rationalized the rejection of its stumbling personal advances as accumulating proof that the species was in decline.


In Barbarian Virtues, Mathew Frye Jacobson describes the state of the social sciences at the turn of the twentieth century.

… in the era of ‘armchair anthropology,’ the grand theories of human development encompassed a terrain of human geography far broader than had yet been examined firsthand by the ethnologist … Science thus remained largely at the mercy of travelers’ haphazard impressions. [4]

Ellsworth Huntington was one of these “travelers.” Originally a student of the classics, Huntington took up the study of geology and other sciences at Beloit College after gaining permission from his Congregationalist minister father. For a decade and a half after his graduation in 1897, Huntington engaged in what Theodore Roosevelt called “the strenuous life.” He shot the rapids on the Euphrates while teaching in Turkey in 1901, traveled with Raphael Pumpelly across Asia looking for evidence of a lost Aryan race in 1903 and 1904, traveled back to Asia in the Yale expedition of 1905, to Palestine in 1909, across the arid southwest United States in 1911, and to the ruins on the Yucatan in 1912 during the Mexican revolution. His biographer, Geoffrey Martin, writes of days of “bread and strong tea … weather which burned his face … and the eating of horseflesh,” [5] and nights that were so cold Huntington had to eat his dinner with his plate in the fire and “was obliged to record his daily notes in pencil for his pen had frozen.” [6]

An avid diarist from the time he was a college student, Huntington made sure to record and report every observation and thought he had during his travels, most of which he seems to have regarded as being of great historical and scientific importance.

In Huntington’s mind the landscape offered clear evidence in support of the hypothesis that central Asia had once been warmer and wetter, and that, through a series of climatic “pulsations,” successive waves of people made stronger by the challenges of their environment had been driven out from this cradle of civilization, as a heart pumps oxygenated blood. With 10 years of exploration and more than 20 articles already to his credit, Huntington published his first book in 1907, The Pulse of Asia, to widespread public acclaim and generally positive reviews. But, even as he was enjoying his first popular success, Huntington’s style of “armchair anthropology” was losing favor in academic circles. A new professionalism was taking hold the social sciences as it had in the hard sciences over the previous half-century, a development that would dramatically limit Huntington’s academic career. [7]


At the very moment of his greatest public success, the publication of The Pulse of Asia, Huntington, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, failed to pass his final exams. Fleming, in Historical Perspectives on Climate Change, writes, “ironically, his examination committee found he was ‘deficient in his knowledge of climatology and showed great weakness in historical geology.’” [8]

Certainly a victim of his own weak scholarship, Huntington was also a victim of a boarder war at Harvard between geography, which had yet to be granted status as a stand-alone discipline, and the other social sciences. [9] Huntington fled to Yale where geography, through “met with great scepticism (sic) by many of the faculty” according to the 1898 President’s Report, was proving popular with students. [10] To satisfy its teaching needs, Yale hired Huntington as an Associate Professor. But even at Yale there was a reluctance to establish a stand-alone Department of Geography. Instead the University established only the equivalent of a minor by assembling a hodge-podge of geology, geography and anthropology courses.

Yale did grant Huntington his Ph.D. in 1909, but it refused him a full professorship in 1914. He left the institution the following year. Huntington’s biographer Geoffrey Martin implies that the reason for this departure may have been simply a matter of budget. But the head of the Department of Geology, under which geography was taught, wrote when he denied Huntington’s promotion request (while recommending that of three other Assistant Professors), “Huntington … has brilliancy but is certainly immature … [and] has the disadvantage of an enormous overestimate of his own importance to the University.” [11] Fortunately for Huntington he had an unidentified champion within the administration, though evidentially not a very strong one. In 1919 Huntington was rehired, but at a mere $200 a year salary (about one-fifth of what Yale paid his secretary), and under the awkward title of Research Associate in Geography, a title Huntington would carry through his nearly 30-year career at the University.


Ellsworth Huntington, when he is mentioned in histories of the era at all, is usually labeled a eugenicist, and from at least the mid-1920 through World War II, that appellation is appropriate. From 1934 to 1938 Huntington served as president of the American Eugenics Society (AES). He is credited as the author (though he was more a compiler) of the AES’s 1935 “eugenics catechism” Tomorrow’s Children: The Goal of Eugenics. He contributed to Birth Control Review, Eugenical News, Eugenics, and as Martin writes, “in the thirties alone … exchanged over 5,000 pieces of correspondence on eugenics, euthenics, and cacogenics.” [12] But prior to 1920 Huntington saw eugenics as a challenge to his favored theories.

In World Power and Evolution, Huntington wrote,

When the world realizes that the human race must be bred as carefully as race horses, and that even when people inherit perfect constitutions their health must receive as much care as does that of consumptives, it will be time for a book in which training, heredity, and environment receive exactly equal emphasis. [13]

Huntington’s pandering here is easy to misinterpret. Martin and others have focused on this quote [14]. And out of context, it sure sounds like Huntington was supporting eugenic management. But what Huntington was actually doing was making a case for why he was writing a book that did not focus on eugenics at a time when the idea was reaching its apotheosis.

To understand what Huntington was saying we must read back few sentences. Huntington opened his argument by claiming, “a few generations ago the emphasis was all upon the various agencies which combine to furnish training … these include the Church, the Home, the School, the State and other institutions.” He then stated, “recently tremendous emphasis has justly been given to … heredity.” But Huntington then disparaged the notion, often then stated, “that heredity plays nine parts and training one in determining what a man’s character shall be.” He complained that such a false dichotomy left no room for the “physical environment” as a contributing factor. His argument thusly arranged, Huntington wrote, “training, heredity, and physical environment are like food, drink, and air.” [15] Returning to the point later in the book, Huntington added, “among these factors air is by far the most variable” and “is the first necessity of life.” [16]

Although his argument is laughable – human character is variable, air is variable, and if human character is influenced by anything it probably influenced most by the air – it does show that, at least as of 1919, Huntington had not yet conceded that eugenicists held the key to the development of human character. He still believed he did.

World maps from Mainsprings of Civilization (1945)

In Mainsprings of Civilization (1945), Ellsworth Huntington reprinted maps from his own textbook purporting to demonstrate the correlation between regions of so-called “climatic efficiency” and regions of “general progress.”

The core of Huntington’s climatic hypothesis as it developed through the 1910s is easy to describe. Already an environmental determinist as evidenced by The Pulse of Asia, Huntington found in a letter sent to him in 1911 by Charles J. Kullmer, a Syracuse University professor of German, the simple motor he believed drove both physical and mental activity, and by extension, individual ambition and cultural progress – variability in temperature and relative humidity. It is a childish notion based on the common sense idea that on days that are too hot or too cold people do not work as efficiently as they do on days that are “just right.” But to show his was no simple “Goldilocks” theory, Huntington added that even on days when the temperature is ideal, people often still do not work at maximum efficiency. Variation, but not too much variation, around a comfortable mean – roughly 65˚ to 70˚ Fahrenheit with a relative humidity of between 60% and 75% – were the climatic conditions that Huntington claimed stimulated both the mind and the body. Fleming labels this idea “meteorological Taylorism,” [17] and for a good reason.

To “prove” his theory that variability in temperature stimulated mental and physical activity, Huntington analyzed piecework records from Connecticut factories. He claimed he found evidence that people worked harder when the barometric pressure varied over the course of day. With charts, graphs and tables (in which he saw patterns and evidence his colleagues often could not), Huntington claimed his factory productivity figures supported the idea that a stimulating climate drove the development of superior “racial character” and the advance of civilization.

Productivity became the scale against which Huntington measured civilizations. He produced a world map (which he reproduced it in every book he wrote on the topic through 1945) which he claimed showed a more than coincidental correlation between regions of ideal climatic variability and civilization, as measured by productivity. He called these areas “regions of cyclonic storms,” and they included Western Europe, the southeast coast of Australia, California and of course his native New England. Huntington’s reasoning was never more clearly circular than it was here.

In his 1915 book, Civilization and Climate, Huntington included an appendix of tables listing the relative “level of civilization” of various regions of the world, but the data upon which it was based was unashamedly cooked. Huntington constructed his tables by polling “civilized men” (and they were all men) … from a list he created and weighted by region. Said more simply, Huntington contacted a number of “experts” from regions he felt were civilized in direct proportion to his preconceived notions of how civilized those regions were (Huntington listed these experts as: 25 Americans, 7 British, 6 Teutons, 7 Latins, and 5 Asiatics). Not surprisingly, the results of his survey matched the prejudices of those surveyed, and Huntington’s, exactly. Massachusetts offered the most stimulating climate, with Rhode Island and Connecticut following closely. [18]

Criticism of Huntington’s overly grand ideas and fast and loose use of facts emerged early. Though he remained popular with the public, [19] and though reviewers would often call his ideas “stimulating and provocative,” in scientific circles his ideas were often considered absurd. Fleming quotes from a critique of Huntington’s two 1920’s books on astrometeorology by William Jackson Humphreys of the Weather Bureau. Humphreys wrote, “its broader conceptions are mere fantasies, while its details show little regard for facts and none for physics … it is as far from being scientific as Alice in Wonderland.” [20]

In the 1920s, his career going nowhere, Huntington relatively optimistic beliefs in engineering solutions to character and productivity issues gave way to an exploitive embrace of eugenics. In The Character of Races published in 1924, Huntington wrote of the need to encourage “large families among the tenth of the population having the soundest combination of physical health, good intellect, strong wills, and fine temperaments,” and of the corollary need to shut down reproduction for the lower tenth entirely. Huntington racialism, which in the 1910s was usually employed only in hypothetical situations to illustrate the long-term effects of climate, was replaced with calls for direct eugenic action. Stoking fears of impending “racial wars,” Huntington wrote, “if open war is not threatened, there is even greater danger that the highest racial values will be irrevocably swamped by those of lower caliber.” [21] And, in what may very well be a first in his writings, Huntington takes note of an exception in his data – in this case the number of “eminent literary persons born” between 1781 and 1850 in Charleston, South Carolina (7) verses the number born in Cincinnati, Ohio (0) – to suggest that climate may not be all, or that the “climatic factor” most responsible for the poor performance of some southern regions may be disease, not the effects of temperature and humidity on “racial character.” [22]

Ellsworth Huntington’s final book, Mainsprings of Civilization, published in 1945 is remarkable, mostly for how it highlights its author’s ability to adjust his language to current social norms, without ever adjusting his original ideas. In Mainsprings, the subject of eugenics (and Huntington was in 1945 still a regular contributor to Eugenical News) is given only glancing mention, demonstrating Huntington’s adroit post-war pivot away from the now Nazi-associated ideology. More striking, on the subject of race, Huntington comes off as positively Boasian in some passages, as when he wrote:

It is methodologically inescapable that the specific linguistic, religious, mental, temperamental, or other behavior forms or emotions of any people have to be considered products of complex historical and social forces – not biological forces. [23]

Huntington’s equivocations regarding eugenics and his newly found benevolence toward the “family of man” positioned the author for another run at popular success. Though he would not live to see it, Huntington’s final work, its environmentalist claims little changed from those first proposed in Civilization and Climate in 1915, would find paperback favor as “A Mentor Book” republished in 1959 and reprinted in 1962 and 1964 alongside On Population by Thomas Malthus, Julian Huxley and Frederick Osborn, Cultural Patterns and Technical Change by Margaret Mead (ed.) and Heredity, Race and Society by L. C. Dunn and Theodosius Dobzhansky, all part of a Cold War promotion of evolutionary ideas in support of claims of authority and theories of social control in a time of rapid cultural change. [24]


[1] Geoffrey J. Martin, Ellsworth Huntington: His Life and Thought (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1973), xv. Published to generally negative notices in 1973, Martin’s biography, “fails in the biographer’s first task of re-creating his subject’s emotional life,” according to a review by Ronald Tobey of the University of California. Plagued by sloppy editing and poor proofreading (according to the index, Chapter IX, which begins on page 146, is followed by Chapter X on page 139), Martin’s book nonetheless is a valuable reference, or as good a reference as we have got. Though Tobey writes, “Martin’s biography will not deter new studies of Ellsworth Huntington,” as of October 2005, no other biography devoted to Huntington has appeared.
[2] James Rodger Fleming. Historical Perspectives on Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 97. Fleming’s chapter on Huntington seems to be the only significant biographical sketch of this paper’s subject published by an academic press in recent years. Though Fleming does attempt to “re-create Huntington’s emotional life,” he clearly relies on Martin’s biography as his primary source.
[3] Jerome Ravetz, Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 386. The idea that Huntington is better understood as a folk-scientist rather than a pseudo- or failed- scientist, owes a debt to Edward B. Davis’s article “Fundamentalism and Folk Science Between the Wars” Religion and American Culture, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), 217-248.
[4] Mathew Frye Jacobson. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 141.
[5] Martin, Ellsworth Huntington, 39.
[6] Ibid., 57.
[7] Jacobson writes that the “Boasian critique,” Franz Boas’ warning – outlined fully in his 1911 book The Mind of Primitive Man – that anthropological data should not be interpreted against models that ranked cultures on a progressive scale, did not take hold in academic circles until after World War I. However, as the discipline of Geography struggled to secure a place in the academe in the early years of the twentieth century, tensions were already strong between “environmental determinists” who embraced “evolutionism,” and who imagined their discipline as critical to an understanding of history, and proponents of a less exciting but more “professional” geography that emphasized the more scientifically grounded, earth science-based, sub-disciplines of geomorphology, climatology and physiography. Huntington’s academic career began at the end of the era of “armchair anthropology” and went downhill from there.
[8] Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change, 97.
[9] Smith, Neil Smith, “Academic War over the Field of Geography: The Elimination of Geography at Harvard, 1947-1951.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Jun., 1987), 155-172.
[10]Martin, Ellsworth Huntington, 71.
[11] Ibid., 87.
[12] Ibid., 184.
[13] Ellsworth Huntington, World Power and Evolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919), 8.
[14] Martin, Ellsworth Huntington, 178.
[15] Huntington, World Power and Evolution, 8.
[16] Ibid., 58-59.
[17] Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change, 100.
[18] The one interesting “exception” to Huntington’s favoring of Anglo-Saxon cultures is his ranking of Japan as a country of high civilization. It reality this is no exception at all. Japan was greatly admired by Theodore Roosevelt and others at the time for its surprising success in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. Still, Huntington was careful to rank the Japanese a step or two below “Teutonics,” though he apparently had no problem ranking them a step above the Irish. One strong clue that Huntington’s work is not a science but a folk-science is that his ranking of civilizations contains no exceptions or surprises of any significance. There is nothing in his work – in all of his many charts, tables, graphs, and maps – that suggest avenues of inquiry. There are only endless confirmations of preconceptions.
[19] Mainsprings of Civilization, Huntington’s final book, his “big book,” was first published in 1945, and was then reprinted in 1959, 1962 and finally 1964.
[20] Martin, Ellsworth Huntington, 105.
[21] Ellsworth Huntington, The Character of Races (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924): 364. It is impossible to read Huntington’s reference to “the tenth of the population having soundest … intellect … wills … and temperament” and not think of WEB Du Bois’ “talented tenth.”
[22] Ibid., 351.
[23] Ellsworth Huntington, Mainsprings of Civilization (New York: Mentor Books, 1945, 1962), 51.
[24] Ibid.


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The Journal of Race Development, Vol. 2 No. 3, January, 1912.

–. “The Adaptability of the White Man to Tropical America” The Journal of Race Development, Vol. 5 No. 2, October, 1914.

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