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Might the destiny of nations be controlled by the underlying shape of their geography?

This is the subject of a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors – political scientists David Laitin, Joachim Moortgat and Amanda Robinson – calculated the area, size and longitude-to-latitude ratio of every country on Earth.

They then plotted results against the number of indigenous languages spoken. Their aim was to see whether the size and orientation of a country could explain their levels of cultural diversity.

Does shape matter?

The current research builds on an idea first hypothesised in 1997 by American scientist Jared Diamond in his popular science bestseller and TV show Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond posited that big events in human history – continental migrations, colonisation, uneven development, ecological catastrophe – were shaped by underlying geography.

One of Diamond’s propositions was that continent shape and orientation mattered. Those continents stretching wider from east to west have less variation in climate and it easier for people to move around and for cultures to mix and blend.

Continents spanning a long distance north to south instead presented humans with huge variations in climate and landscape: deserts, jungles, ice caps and tundra wastelands. The result: cultural difference survives along a north-south transect more than east-to-west.

Instead of continents, Laitin’s team chose modern nation-states. Indigenous language was a proxy for cultural diversity.

After computing the north-south and east-west axes of each country, they plotted the number of surviving Indigenous languages, looking for any discernible pattern.

The results confirmed Diamond’s earlier hunch. The degree of north-south orientation is positively related to the persistence of linguistic diversity. Countries such as Chile, long and thin, had higher levels of linguistic diversity than wider, flatter states, such as Russia.

Such findings, the authors say, help explain how cultures expanded and conquered.

Shortcomings the study

There is much to be seduced by in this story. The trouble is that the whole exercise is undermined when assumptions and method are scrutinised.

Proving causality is near impossible. Laitin’s team found a pattern of association between country orientation and language diversity – but no evidence to prove the former caused the latter.

There are also problems and limitations – that Laitin’s team acknowledge – assuming that the present shape of countries is related to their ancient history.

As recently as 1900, British Geography textbooks showed vast swathes of Africa without country boundaries. “Sudan” once referred to the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa, rather than the predominantly north-south orientated nation we now see in atlases. National borders have been re-drawn repeatedly. Using surviving indigenous languages as proxy for cultural diversity is also blunt.

In today’s jumbled-up world of A380 flights, social media and transient workers, culture is far from geographically static.