Civilization in the United States

I came across this unexpected map the other day:

Markham, S.F., Climate and the Energy of Nations, p. 189, Intelligence in the Uniteed States

This is the kind of thing you just do not want to take out of context. So here’s the context.

This is from a little hardcover volume I picked up at a used-book store, called Climate and the Energy of Nations. It was written over the course of the 1930s by a British author named S. F. Markham, and published in 1947 by Oxford University Press.

Markham describes himself as a former aide to British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, one of the founders of the Labour Party. Markham says he conceived a passion for investigating how climate—primarily temperature and humidity—affects the energy of nations. By ‘nations” Markham means both states and ethnic groups, the two being commonly conflated in the 1930s, when a state representing a specific nation was regarded as a formula for success. (E.g., Greece for the Greeks, Turkey for the Turks.) By “energy,” Markham is getting at—he never really defines this term—a sort of generalized ability to do stuff, be great, solve problems and get ahead. And, just to be forewarned, when he discusses energy it spills over pretty quickly into murky assertions about intelligence, civilization, and what nations produce “great men.”

Although ostensibly data-driven, the book somehow returns again and again to the conclusion that (since the invention of the chimney) northwest Europe has had the world’s best controllable climate coupled with the best reserves of coal and oil for heating—and therefore its people have the most “energy.” In a surprising coincidence, he discovers that the people in the world with the greatest national energy seem to be… the British.

isotherms in Europe Markham

Go figure.

So, anyway, what’s this about intelligence in the United States?

Well, Markham is quite interested in what happens when people from his ideal climate regimes move to less ideal climates. In the United States his data identifies New England and the Pacific coast as having ideal climates (north of the 75° F summer isotherm and south of the 10° F winter isotherm). The rest of the country, he concludes, at some point of the year is too cold or too hot for people to have optimal energy.

isotherms in US Markham

The map at the top of this post, “Intelligence in the United States,” is Markham attempting to support his climate point, which is that even when colonized by emigrants from the same part of northwest Europe, subsequent generations don’t do as well in certain parts of the United States.

But where did he get this state-by-state data on intelligence? Markham explains that it is from a contemporary of his, Frederick Osborn.

No assessment of a nation’s energy is or can be complete without some assessment of its culture or intelligence. … Possibly the best study ever carried out in this connection is that by Frederick Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History, who in 1933 produced an ‘Index of Cultural Development’ for the various states based on

  1. Mental test among schoolchildren
  2. Army intelligence tests
  3. Illiteracy percentages
  4. Magazine readers per 100 total population
  5. School teachers’ salaries
  6. Library statistics


(Notice, by the way, that Markham took Osborn’s Index of Cultural Development and mapped it as “Intelligence in the United States.” A bit of sleight of hand.)

I have to say, this is where I really put the book down and marvel at how far we’ve come since the 1930s. I mean, you would never today have someone taking these statistical indices and saying they represent cultural development—however much you agree that magazine readership and libraries are a good thing. Or, if you encountered it, you would assume it was a production of the far Right, not of a venerable institution like the American Museum of Natural History.

I’m not exactly sure what has happened in the world of ideas over the last ninety years to preclude this kind of thing now—something to do with a discrediting of positivism and the rise of critical theory. Maybe someone can fill me in.

But throughout the book one finds the evidence of what a distant and alien world the 1930s was. Markham, for example, inevitably speaks of “man:”

Since civilization is produced by men—and therefore by individuals—the question arose as to what conditions render it possible for a man to be at his best mentally and physically, for it seemed not illogical that where men enjoy conditions that permit them to be at their best there are present the raw essentials of civilization.

(p. x)

Although he rejects racial theories of predestination at the beginning of his book, the most incredible racial and ethnic generalizations seem to flow unconsciously from his pen.

Coolness is a prime essential to the physical work (including typewriting), without which all mental effort becomes, as the Arab’s, mere conversational speculation, barren in result.

(p. 215)

And then there’s his whole chapter on the ‘poor white’ problem.

There are, of course, great areas, such as India, China, and the Dutch East Indies, where no permanent white settlement has taken place, but in comparable areas, such as portions of South Africa, the southern states of the United States and the West Indies, there has arisen the problem known to the world as that of the ‘Poor White.’

(p. 134)

Well, back to the maps.

Continuing to demonstrate his climate theory, Markham presents two more maps that portray things he feels represent national energy: “Infantile Mortality 1930-34” and “Per Capita Income 1940.”

Markham, S.F., Climate and the Energy of Nations, p. 183, Infantile Mortality 1930-34Markham, S.F., Climate and the Energy of Nations, p. 192, Per Capita Income, 1940

[Canadians—well, certain Canadians—can take heart from that little caption below the figure on infant mortality: “If this map were extended to include Canada, British Columbia and the Ontario peninsula would be in the best (i.e., lowest) area.”]

Things aren’t looking good for the American South or mid-continent, but readers of Mark Monmonier’s excellent book How To Lie With Maps might have some intelligent questions to ask here about how Markham chose his data breaks. Was there a natural break at 58 deaths out of 1000 births, or was that chosen because it helped this map look like the isotherm map above?

Finally, he wraps it all up into an aggregate map whose data he says is a combination, with equal weighting, of the data behind the previous three maps. This map, he says, represents civilization.

Markham, S.F., Climate and the Energy of Nations, p. 195, Civilization in the United States

But of course when you look at it the first thing you’ll think is these are the two sides in the American Civil War. How Markham missed considering that the devastation of the South in that war might outweigh climate as an explanation for its scoring relatively poorly in the 1930s, I don’t know. I think he was doing what we should all never do in a Science Project: looking for data that confirmed his hypothesis.

[And, just a cartographer’s observation: that little wavy dividing line across Missouri—it’s quite suspicious. This is ostensibly state data: so how did they divide Missouri as if it were county data? Does this represent some embedded feud, some cultural rift,  between north and south Missouri that I don’t know about?]

At the end, Markham includes a chapter on air conditioning, which he thinks will “change the whole course of history in the United States,” a country that he sees as being for the most part burdened by its climate. However, he points out that while air conditioning makes office and factory work pleasant, it does not help the person working outside. In a cold climate, working outside keeps one warm, but in a hot climate “activity adds to one’s feeling of malaise.”

Climate and the Energy of Nations is kind of an entertaining read, if you’re able to tolerate how disturbing the 1930s was. I’m still not clear on whether Markham was invested in the status quo, or sought to change it. But, by choosing climate as his determiner of the “energy of nations” he picked something that (he would have thought) would never change. It’s a deterministic model of who will thrive. And to that extent, the book does get you thinking then about how hot and cold affect us all, and how climate change could yet have additional bad results we haven’t even clocked.