Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/May 1888/The Moral Influence of Climate



A PHILOSOPHIC advocate of religious tolerance holds that "the most effective way to explode a popular fallacy is to explain it." If we should apply that method to the exorcism of the mediæval specters that still haunt the by-ways of the nineteenth century, we might say that the moral aberrations of the middle ages sprang chiefly from the tendency to underrate the moral effects of physical causes. If the chronic despondency of a mediæval dyspeptic reached the phase of suicidal temptations, his confessor would advise him to defeat the wiles of the arch-fiend by devoting his leisure to the recitation of a few thousand paternosters. If peppered hash and want of exercise had vitiated the temper of his wife to an unbearable degree, he was instructed to consider the visitation a judgment incurred by his unbelief, or by his opposition to an extra assessment of the tithe-collector. The epidemic increase of the alcohol-habit was persistently treated as a disorder amenable to the influence of prayer-meetings. For nearly a thousand years the history of European morals was, indeed, the history of the efforts and failures of visionaries who hoped to reconcile the promotion of ethical reform with a total neglect of physiological studies.

Since the revival of naturalism, however, the tendencies of educational reform make it probable that the progress of moral philosophy will become identified with the development of a new science, thus far only outlined in a few incidental treatises on the interaction of body and mind. The possibilities of that science are suggestively indicated by the results of the statistical studies devoted to one of its branches—the moral influence of climate. Modern French, scientists are nothing if not methodical, and have repeatedly called attention to the curious regularity in the geographical distribution of certain vices and virtues: intemperance, for instance, north of the forty-eighth parallel; sexual aberrations south of the forty-fifth; financial extravagance in large seaport towns; thrift in pastoral highland regions. It is, indeed, a remarkable circumstance that in the home of the best wine-grapes, in Greece and southern Spain, drunkenness is far less prevalent than in Scotland, or in Russian Poland, where Bacchus can tempt his votaries only with nauseous vodka. The idea that a low temperature begets an instinctive craving for alcoholic tonics seems disproved by the teetotalism of the Patagonian savages, who horsewhip every Spanish stimulant-monger without benefit of clergy. The Lesghian mountaineers, too, observe the interdict of the Koran in the icy summit-regions of the Caucasus; but there is no doubt that the bracing influence of a cold climate affords a certain degree of immunity from the debilitating effect of the alcohol-vice, and that a Scandinavian peasant can for years survive the effects of a daily dose of alcohol that would kill an Egyptian fellah in a single month. But it is equally certain that the temperance of south-land nations is considerably facilitated by the abundance of non-alcoholic pastimes. The Spaniards have their fandangos and bull-fights; the Greeks their border-raids, cocking-mains, and horse-races; while the Scotchman, after six days of hard work, is confronted with the choice between the delirium of an alcohol-fever and the appalling tedium of Sabbatarian asceticism, and naturally chooses the less dismal alternative.

The question, though, remains, if religious gloom itself is not an outcome of climatic influences. Cardinal de Retz, indeed, held that orthodox loyalty is a flower that can not flourish north of the Alps; but it is more than probable that the survival of that plant has been greatly assisted by the conniving bonhomie of south European ecclesiastics, who, centuries ago, began to appreciate the wisdom of extending the practice of renunciation to the claim of consistency. The "climate of superstition" can not be defined by geographical specifications; but, as the gilded clouds of the South float grizzly over the moping firmament of the North, dogmas which the inhabitants of the lower latitudes manage to reconcile with a good deal of secular beatitude are apt to assume a gloomy character in the land of the hyperboreans, whose rational rigorism, however, may recalcitrate against self-contradictory tenets, and accept a thoroughly uncomfortable more readily than an illogical doctrine. Thus we find the Nahagathas, the Protestants of Buddhism, confined to Japan and northern China, and the schismatic Shiites to the Islamized highlands of Central Asia. The most obstinate dissenters of the Greek Church have their strongholds in northern Russia, while the heresies of the Cossacks are limited to ultraconvivial celebrations of ecclesiastic holy-days. Even in ancient Greece the South-Hellenic Spartans seem to have been much less heterodox than their North-Hellenic rivals.

The supposed concomitance of low latitudes and low morals—in Origen's sense of the word—is a theory considerably modified by the reports of our latter-day north-pole explorers. Chamisso, Pallas, Adams, Gabriel Sarytchew, and Kane agree that certain tribes of the polar regions are sensual to a degree that would have scandalized the natives of ancient Lesbia, and certainly suffices to amaze the modern Cossacks, who, in their turn, astonish the not over-scrupulous moralists of the Danubian principalities. Among the Yakoots of northern Siberia mesalliances of an unmentionable kind are condoned as readily as a still more unprecedented degree of sexual precocity which Chamisso ascribes to the "almost exclusively animal diet of the wretched pygmies." Our equally carnivorous Indians are, however, characterized by a sexual apathy which an able American ethnologist seems inclined to consider a principal cause of their gradual extinction; and Chamisso's hypothesis must probably be supplemented by other explanations—for instance, the enforced idleness of his pygmies during the snow-bound season of short days and overlong nights. Idleness may likewise account for the erotic excesses of islanders enjoying the benefits of a fertile soil and a genial climate, like the notorious natives of various parts of the Grecian Archipelago and the Lesser Antilles, not to mention the ne plus ultras described in the reports of the first South Sea explorers. As a rule, the prevalence of incontinence bears an inverse ratio to the predominance of active modes of life; in any sense of the word, the continence of hunters and nomads being almost rivaled by that of intensely industrial communities.

Cæteris paribus, however, precocity increases with the distance from the isotherm of Stockholm, about the sixtieth degree of northern latitude in Europe and the forty-fifth degree in the western hemisphere. North of that parallel the stunted and short-lived hyperboreans marry as early as the premature children of the tropics, tropical highland regions generally excepted. The copper-colored natives of the Peruvian alturas marry late, while under the same parallel the Creoles of the Brazilian lowlands do not hesitate to encourage the matrimonial propensities of children in their earliest teens, boys of fourteen and girls of thirteen and twelve, or, if we shall believe Dr. Burmeister, even of ten and nine. The courtships of Sicily, too, are expeditious, even from an Italian point of view, while on the island of Corsica a peculiar state of agrarian difficulties has counteracted the influence of climate. Many of the campanitas or small terrace-plains have been so utterly exhausted that the available means of irrigation fail to redeem the impoverished soil, while a large percentage of the productive area is in the hands of the convents, which reserve the right of tenure for their old retainers. Combined with the straits of that land-famine, the over-increase of population became such an unqualified evil that the common sense of the peasants originated a system of ostracism, attaching infamy and social excommunication to the preliminaries as well as to the results of marriage before a specified age. In France the enormous burden of taxation has practically led to an identical result, and the prevalence of a mode of existence which Edmond About calls the "celibacy of prudence" is no longer confined to the larger cities.

The late marriage of mountaineers, too, may be partly explained by their instinctive love of independence. The sterile soil of a highland region necessitates far and frequent excursions in quest of the means of subsistence, and the unencumbered privilege of personal freedom thus became often a condition of survival. With a marmot and a hand-organ, if not with a marmot alone, the young Savoyard perambulates Europe from end to end till he has accumulated the equivalent of an Alpine competency. The monteros of the upper Apennines roam Italy like gypsies, ready to do any man's harvest work. Young Scotchmen cross the Tweed or even the Atlantic before they venture to run the risks of matrimony on the precarious resources of a Highland moor. The scantness of population, and the consequent distance from neighbor to neighbor, help to train highlanders in the habits of self-help, and thus form that instinct of independence which has generally justified the proud motto of West Virginia.

A similar cause, however, would seem to have produced a similar result among all true nomads, who likewise are obliged to

"Make each day earn the daily right to live."

But while the patriotism of the Arabs and Turkomans (as well as of the originally nomadic Hebrews) takes the form of an exportable national pride, a sort of hygienic intuition appears to teach mountaineers the superiority of their native climate and make them averse to a permanent change of habitation. Highlanders, though the stoutest defenders of their native soil, have therefore rarely engaged in wars of conquest; and the most expansive nations, to use a Bismarckian euphuism, were generally lowlanders—Prussians, Russians, Arabs, Mongols, Goths, and Tartars. We might add Romans, for the tide of conquest which inundated all the coast-lands of the Mediterranean originally emanated from the plains of Latium; and, if Mr. Katkoff's prognosis should be fulfilled by the disintegration of the American Union, it would be safe to predict that the larger part of our present territory would be reconsolidated by some eupeptic lowland State, Missouri or Michigan, and that the Alleghanies would maintain their independence by the stubborn resistance of their highlanders. The nomadic herders of western Texas, too, might prolong that resistance for many years; but, on the whole, the march of the new empire would follow the course of the Mississippi, for the double reason that the stream of conquest has generally moved seaward and southward. Russia will not rest till her fleet rides the eastern Mediterranean as well as the Euxine. Tamerlane avowedly intended to extend his empire to the Atlantic; and, from the campaigns of King Cyrus to the expansive enterprises of Victor Emanuel, nine out of ten international wars have ended with the victory of northern nations over their southern neighbors. The goddess of fortune would decline to be crowned with a fur cap, and the sun of the south that turns a lynx into a lion does not necessarily reverse the process in the case of the human animal; but it is true that a rigorous climate evolves superior "staying power," and in war the last shout is worth a dozen challenges. The history of Europe might, indeed, encourage the idea that certain northern nations love war for its own sake, though Prof. Vogt informs us that gratuitous combativeness is a sign of specific inferiority. "Ants and wasps that tackle every wayfarer," says he, "can not compete with the species that reserve their energy for serious emergencies, and without the protection of the dog-fancier the breed of bull-dogs would speedily succumb to their preposterous propensities." Waspish aggressiveness would rather seem to be a product of sterile plains, that appear to bristle with stilettos as spontaneously as with cactus-thorns—the brigandage of Turkistan and stony Araby having its exact analogue in the kidnapping and train-robbing rowdyism of our arid Southwest.

Nor is it quite certain that the "instinct of industry" can be considered an exclusive product of the higher latitudes. When all northern Europe was still slouching in bear-skins, Egypt and Phoenicia were buzzing hives of industrial activity. Our North American Indians had only wigwams when Mexico was studded with palaces. But here, too, the virtue of perseverance seems to have prevailed against the talent of initiation, and the energy of the North, Once started in the arena of industrial competition, has managed to distance the earlier enterprise of the South.

Civilization, in the modern sense of the word, is, however, to a large extent founded on the activity of the instincts of co-operation and altmism, both of which are undoubtedly stimulated by the emergencies of a rigorous climate. A hard-headed north-lander who has himself been snow-bound and frost-bitten will not ignore the distress of a help-needing neighbor; while the religious charity of the Siamese peasant is apt to be modified by the reflection that, after the total loss of their fruit-crop, his storm-stricken brethren in Buddha can still eke out a tolerable living in the woods.