Historical origins and use of Deus ex machina in Geography


The concept of “Deus ex machina” originates from Greek theatre, where it literally means “god from the machine”. It refers to a sudden and unexpected intervention that resolves a crisis or plot in a play. However, this term has also been applied to other disciplines, including geography.

In geography, the use of Deus ex machina can be traced back to the 19th century with the emergence of theories such as environmental determinism. This theory proposed that the physical environment determines the development of human societies, without considering other factors such as culture, politics, or economy. It was often used as a convenient explanation for societal differences without delving into the complexities and nuances of human-environment interactions.

One practical example of environmental determinism can be seen in the 19th-century study of tropical environments. Researchers used this theory to justify the underdevelopment and perceived backwardness of tropical regions. It was believed that the hot and humid climate of these areas inhibited the mental and physical capacities of its inhabitants, leading to their perceived lack of progress.

Another example of Deus ex machina in geography can be seen in the concept of “climatic determinism”. This theory suggested that climate was the primary factor in shaping a society’s development. For instance, it was argued that regions with extreme climates, such as deserts or polar regions, were incapable of supporting complex civilizations. This simplistic explanation ignored the human agency and adaptability that allowed societies to thrive in these hostile environments.

In addition to these historical examples, the use of Deus ex machina can also be seen in contemporary geographic theories and research. For instance, some studies on urban and regional development continue to focus solely on the physical and environmental factors, ignoring important socio-economic and political dynamics. This results in a reductionist understanding of complex urban and regional systems.

Moreover, the concept of Deus ex machina is also reflected in the use of statistical techniques in geography. While statistics can provide valuable insights into various geographic phenomena, it is often used as a “cure-all” approach, overshadowing the need for in-depth qualitative analysis. This reliance on numbers can lead to a simplified and limited understanding of complex geographical processes, much like the use of Deus ex machina in theatre.

However, it is worth noting that the use of Deus ex machina in geography is not entirely negative. In some cases, it can provide a starting point for further research and critical examination of existing theories. For instance, the initial theories of environmental determinism and climatic determinism sparked a shift towards more nuanced and holistic understandings of human-environment interactions.

Furthermore, the concept of Deus ex machina can also be used constructively in critical geography. By highlighting its presence in previous and current theories, geographers can be more aware of its influence and actively work to challenge and reject reductionist explanations. This critical approach can lead to a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of geographic phenomena.

In conclusion, the use of Deus ex machina in geography can be traced back to historical theories such as environmental determinism and climatic determinism. These theories provided convenient and simplistic explanations for complex geographical processes, ignoring the role of human agency. While this concept continues to be present in contemporary geography, its use is not entirely negative. Instead, it serves as a reminder to critically examine and challenge reductionist explanations, leading to a more nuanced and holistic understanding of geography.