Geographical Evolution

From Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.

Geographical Evolution by Sir Archibald Geikie

IN the quaint preface to his Navigations and Voyages of the English Nation, Hakluyt calls geography and chronology “the sunne and moone, the right eye and the left of all history.” The position thus claimed for geography three hundred years ago by the great English chronicler was not accorded by his successors, and has hardly been admitted even now. The functions of the geographer and the traveller, popularly assumed to be identical, have been supposed to consist in descriptions of foreign countries, their climate, productions, and inhabitants, bristling on the one hand with dry statistics, and relieved on the other by as copious an introduction as may be of stirring adventure and personal anecdote. There has indeed been much to justify this popular assumption. It was not until the key-note of its future progress was struck by Karl Ritter, within the present century, that geography advanced beyond the domain of travellers’ tales and desultory observation into that of orderly, methodical, scientific progress. This branch of inquiry, however, is now no longer the pursuit of mere numerical statistics, nor the chronicle of marvelous and often questionable adventures by flood and fell. It seeks to present a luminous picture of the earth’s surface, its various forms of configuration, its continents, islands, and oceans, its mountains, valleys, and plains, its rivers and lakes, its climates, plants, and animals. It thus endeavours to produce a picture which shall not be one of mere topographical detail. It ever looks for a connection between scattered facts, tries to ascertain the relations which subsist between the different parts of the globe, their reactions on each other and the function of each in the general economy of the whole. Modern geography studies the distribution of vegetable and animal life over the earth’s surface, with the action and reaction between it and the surrounding inorganic world. It traces how man, alike unconsciously and knowingly, has changed the face of nature, and how, on the other hand, the conditions of his geographical environment have moulded his own progress.

With these broad aims geography comes frankly for assistance to many different branches of science. It does not, however, claim in any measure to occupy their domain. It brings to the consideration of their problems a central human interest in which these sciences are sometimes apt to be deficient; for it demands first of all to know how the problems to be solved bear upon the position and history of man and of this marvelously-ordered world wherein he finds himself undisputed lord. Geography freely borrows from meteorology, physics, chemistry, geology, zoology, and botany; but the debt is not all on one side. Save for the impetus derived from geographical research, many of these sciences would not be in their present advanced condition. They gain in vast augmentation of facts, and may cheerfully lend their aid in correlating these for geographical requirements.

In no respect does modern geography stand out more prominently than in the increased precision and fullness of its work. It has fitted out exploratory expeditions, and in so doing has been careful to see them provided with the instruments and apparatus necessary to enable them to contribute accurate and definite results. It has guided and fostered research, and has been eager to show a generous appreciation of the labours of those by whom our knowledge of the earth has been extended. Human courage and endurance are not less enthusiastically applauded than they once were; but they must be united to no common powers of observation before they will now raise a traveller to the highest rank. When we read a volume of recent travel, while warmly appreciating the spirit of adventure, fertility of resource, presence of mind, and other moral qualities of its author, we instinctively ask ourselves, as we close its pages, what is the sum of its additions to our knowledge of the earth? From the geographical point of view—and it is to this point alone that these remarks apply—we must rank an explorer according to his success in widening our knowledge and enlarging our views regarding the aspects of nature.

The demands of modern geography are thus becoming every year more exacting. It requires more training in its explorers abroad, more knowledge on the part of its readers at home. The days are drawing to a close when one can gain undying geographical renown by struggling against man and beast, fever and hunger and drought, across some savage and previously unknown region, even though little can be shown as the outcome of the journey. All honour to the pioneers by whom this first exploratory work has been so nobly done! They will be succeeded by a race that will find its laurels more difficult to win—a race from which more will be expected, and which will need to make up in the variety, amount, and value of its detail, what it lacks in the freshness of first glimpses into new lands.

With no other science has geography become more intimately connected than with geology, and the connection is assuredly destined to become yet deeper and closer. These two branches of human knowledge are, to use Hakluyt’s phrase, “the sunne and moone, the right eye and the left,” of all fruitful inquiry into the character and history of the earth’s surface. As it is impossible to understand the genius and temperament of a people, its laws and institutions, its manners and customs, its buildings and its industries, unless we trace back the history of that people, and mark the rise and effect of each varied influence by which its progress has been moulded in past generations; so it is clear that our knowledge of the aspect of a continent, its mountains and valleys, rivers and plains, and all its surface-features, cannot be other than singularly feeble and imperfect, unless we realise what has been the origin of these features. The land has had a history, not less than the human races that inhabit it.

One can hardly consider attentively the future progress of geography without being convinced that in the wide development yet in store for this branch of human inquiry, one of its main lines of advance must be in the direction of what may be termed geographical evolution. The geographer will no longer be content to take continents and islands, mountain chains and river valleys, table-lands and plains, as initial or aboriginal outlines of the earth’s surface. He will insist on knowing what the geologist can tell him regarding the growth of these outlines. He will try to trace out the gradual evolution of a continent, and may even construct maps to show its successive stages of development. At the same time, he will seek for information regarding the history of the plants and animals of the region, and may find much to reward his inquiry as to the early migrations of the fauna and flora, including those even of man himself. Thus his pictures of the living world of to-day, as they become more detailed and accurate, will include more and more distinctly a background of bygone geographical conditions, out of which, by continuous sequence, the present conditions will be shown to have arisen.

The complete text of Geographical Evolution on Bartleby