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Theory of Evolution Influence on Physical Geography Development

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Published: 12th Oct 2021 in Geography

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Discuss the extent to which the development of Physical geography in the early 20th Century was influenced by Darwin's theory of evolution

Physical geography, as a discipline in itself, has been profoundly susceptible to an array of diverse influences throughout its development. Following on from an era of discovery and exploration came an advance in the way the discipline was interpreted and perceived. The 20th Century in particular, saw a major shift in geographical thinking, arguably determined by Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution (Origin of Species, 1859). (Galiev, 2015: 16) remarks that "Darwin's geological researches, as well as his theory of the origin of species, were revolutionary." The concept of evolution; progression through time, as an overarching theory, influenced the likes of William Davis (1850), Walther Penck (1888) and others who focused on identifying the process of landform evolution. With this however, it is also important to attain insight, pre-Darwinian evolution, to understand the formation of the discipline.

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Geography's past can usually be viewed as the key to its present, whether this is in a scientific or social sense. In this case, analysing the first influences upon physical geography, is fundamental in order to gain a deeper understanding of how the discipline has developed. The theory of Uniformitarianism, a term coined by William Whewell in the late 1700s, described a basis theory that landforms were shaped by repetitive events of a small degree over a long period of time. Whewell took this idea of investigating the past to understand the present, and suggested that maintained uniform processes such as erosion, produced landforms. (Gould, 1965). This idea influenced the likes of James Hutton and John Playfair who built upon this theory, proposing that processes which Whewell discussed such as erosion and deposition, take slow action, changing landforms very little through time. (Simpson, 1970). This initial theory of Uniformitarianism, influenced these geographers view of how landscapes were produced, enabling physical geography to develop as a discipline into the 20th Century.

However, this theory contrasted with that of Catastrophism, introduced by Georges Cuvier as a concept of describing Earth's evolution in the early 1800s. (Clube and Napier, 1984: 954) suggested that during the period of Catastrophism, it was presumed that "evolution may be largely controlled by impact catastrophes." This meant that as a consequence of certain events, such as meteor impacts, terrestrial occurrences would take place. Extensive flooding, and landslides were all presumed to have occurred based on thus, in turn shaping landscape features in a rapid time frame, rather than large-scale change over a significant period of time. This theory enabled geographers such as Charles Orth to conclude that the finding of component iridium in the earth's surface was cause by a "large extra-terrestrial object" (Alvarez, et al, 1982: 2). This shows how geographers of the 20th century were influenced by theory's proposed long before Darwin became apparent.

Propelling forward in history into the late 1800s, Charles Darwin introduced his Theory of Evolution, drawn from his publication 'On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life' (Darwin, 1859). The concept that consistent principles through time enabled biological organisms to progress and change, influenced geographers such as Grove Karl Gilbert and William Morris Davis. Darwin's theory of a progressive change through time in species was reflected in landform change and landscape evolution. Gilbert proposed a theory that, like Darwin's species, land formations also underwent consistent change through time as a result of uniform processes. It wasn't until the early 1900s, when Davis produced his Geographical Cycle of landscape evolution. In this model, clear correlations are seen between itself and Darwin's theory. Figure 1 is Davis' geographic cycle, whilst Figure 2 is an illustration of Darwin's theory of evolution resembled in the evolution of the species, homosapien.

Figure 1. Davis' geographic cycle showing the typical stages of a valley through a landscape (Pazzaglia, 2003: 250)

Figure 2. Darwin's theory of evolution portrayed in an illustration. The evolution of the species, Homosapien is being shown (Baxter, 2010)

There are distinct correlations that can be drawn from both of these Figures. The progression of change shown through a species and a landscape from "Youth, Maturity and Old" is evident in both figures. Clear stages of development are also evident in each figure.

The 'youth' stage of a landscape in Figure 1 shows high elevation and steep relief, whilst Darwin's 'youth' stage shows a species with hair all over the body, walking on all fours. Contrasting to this, in the 'old' stage of this species, the hair on the body isn't full coverage and the now man is walking on two feet.

Similarly, to this change, in Davis' model the landscape in its 'old/mature' stage shows a low elevation and flat relief. These distinct stages of change, show this characterisation of development, proving that the theory Darwin proposed of evolution, clearly influenced Davis' work on geomorphology in the early 20th Century.

Another geographer in the early 20th Century who was influenced by Darwin's theory of evolution was Walther Penck. This geomorphologist, built upon the ideas of Davis' landscape change and applied them to hillslope retreat and replacement. (Pazzaglia, 2003). His ideas saw landscape evolution on a major-scale, (Johnson, 2002) resembling Darwin's theory. Pencks' idea of weathering as a constant control on hillslope evolution clearly draws parallels with the biological controls upon species evolution. Unlike Davis, Penck produces the idea that hillslopes have an area of waxing development; increasing relief and altitude, at its 'youth' stage, and an area of waning development, where relief gradually decreases. (Bryan, 1940). However, even though both geographers produce different views on hillslope retreat, like Davis, Penck uses ages to categorise his model, showing links to Darwin's theory of evolution.

Darwin's influence was also visible in the early 1900s, from his concept of environmental determinism (Darwin, 1859), providing a scientific leap in the theory of physical geography. It was Herbert Spencer however, who composed the term "survival of the fittest" based upon Darwin's theory in the late 1800's. He proposed the idea of 'Social Darwinism' as showing the interrelationships between living organisms and their environment (Stoddart, 1966). This influenced many geographers thought processes, causing a paradigm shift within the discipline, into how physical geography can impact human lifestyles. Carl Ritter, went on to investigate the inter-relations of regions, based upon this idea of 'Social Darwinism.' `It was the overarching theory of continuous growth, that allowed these geographers to develop this theory of environmental determinism. Both Spencer and Ritter, proposed the idea that this relationship between organism and environment, repeatedly expanded its structure as it matured, (Peet, 1985) resembling Darwin's theory of evolution.

However, the trajectory in which physical geography had undergone in the early 20th century, also included influences that weren't connected to Darwin's theory. 1939 saw the start of World War 2, causing a distinct adjustment to the disciplines practice and adoption for knowledge. Academics in the field were vital for their knowledge in terms of land surveying, cartography, and climatology. (Balchin, 1987), but a progression in technology also saw new purposes for physical geographers. Ariel photography was first introduced in the second World War in order to investigate terrain for warfare. This meant that geographers were starting to ask the questions of how geography directly impacts life, instead of focusing on describing formations and their evolution. This allowed areas of physical geography such as, climatology and oceanography to develop; as information on tidal patterns were essential for beach landings during World War 2. It could be argued however, that this idea built upon the theory of environmental determinism, growing this relationship between organism and environment further into the 20th century.

The ambiguous quantitative revolution which took place in the early to mid 1900s, drastically changed physical geography. The rise of a new theoretical way of thinking about physical geography, in particular, became apparent. Measurements, data and statistical analysis were all considered key elements of this new birth of scientific explanation. This thirst for scientific evidence as a way of proving theories came into play in the 20th Century. Arthur Strahler was a key player in advancing geomorphology as a scientific sub-discipline, submitting the use of measurements such as slope angle and profile to test and prove hypothesise. Thus, enabled more advanced theories surrounding geomorphology to be provided. Ideas such as denudation, seismic activity and isostasy (Aliyu, 2019) formed, enhancing Davis' cycle of erosion. Although Davis' model was simplistic in its explanation it still aided geographers such as Strahler, when developing their own theory of geomorphology. This shows an indirect influence that Darwin held upon geographers of the 20th century.

Physical geography, like anything in history, has been extremely susceptible to a variety of influences throughout its development. The early theories of Uniformitarianism and Catastrophism, created a foundation for geographers such as Hutton, Playfair and Orth to develop and expand their own theories into the 20th century. However, in my opinion, it was Charles Darwin who revolutionised the discipline. The direct influence that his theory of evolution had upon geographers from the likes of Davis, Gilbert and Penck is monumental in the development of geomorphology. His early concept of environmental determinism in organisms allowed geographers such as Spencer and Ritter to reflect this relationship between the landscape and human development with the theory of continual growth being paramount. Although there were separate influences from Darwin which enhanced the discipline in the early 1900s, such as World War 2 and the quantitative revolution, indirect links to Darwin are still apparent. His influence upon Davis, provided key knowledge surrounding geomorphology, enabling geographers such as Strahler to develop scientific measurements and improve such theories within the quantitative revolution. The extent of Darwin's influence is evidently vast upon physical geography as a discipline within early 20th Century, rendering his contribution highly commendable.


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