Since the 1700s, experts have looked upon soil and air quality, rainfall and temperature as factors that contribute to a country’s affluence. The abundance of tropical diseases (the Tropics,) or the presence of difficult-to-domesticate animals (Africa,) have long been considered determining factors in human success on the land. Some experts say this controversial explanation — also called biogeographical determinism — shows why nations in cooler lands have been more prosperous.

Science Magazine reports on a recent study that shows only two factors — soil type and climate — are the primary indicators of human prosperity. The article makes a simple comparison: Germany has rich soil, and it has thrived as a nation. Chad has poor soil, and it has not. These conclusions came from a computer model that was designed to track moths. The study has created controversy, and critics argue that history and culture are also major factors in determining a country’s wealth.

Jan Beck is a moth specialist at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Using a computer model originally designed to predict an animal’s geographic range, Beck and student Andrea Sieber looked at 19 climate and soil variables to see how they influenced human success on the land. This included soil type and precipitation in the coldest and warmest seasons. They studied how soil and climate affected farming, raising animals, nomadic wandering and hunting/gathering.

Beck tells Science Magazine that the results were surprising. According to Beck, “Using just those two factors, climate and soils, we were able to predict human land use fairly reliably.” If a land had fertile soil, it could support ample crops, as is evident in Europe. In places that could support both agriculture and nomadic pastoralism, such as in Africa, conflict seems to be more prevalent. 

But history and culture may also have an influence on land use. Beck concludes that his model “may just help identify those places where environmental conditions alone don’t explain everything.” In one third of instances, Beck’s model did not accurately predict current land use. In these cases, past political or economic histories may also have something to do with the current state of the area.

Critics says Beck’s model has its faults. Economist Holger Strulik says technological, economic, and demographic trends need to be accounted for as well. He points out that Germany is no longer a farmer nation but is still an economic power in the world. Others point out that historic climate and soil may be different than the climate and soil of today. 

 

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