Dr Alexander Cook is an intellectual and cultural historian based at the Australian National University. His research interests include the history of the human sciences during the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution, and the social uses history from ancient times to the present. He is currently completing two monographs: Volney: The Politics of Nature in the Age of Revolution and Revolutionary Voyages. A former editor of History Australia, he has also published in journals such as History Workshop, Intellectual History Review, Criticism, Sexualities and Annales historiques de la Révolution Francaise. He has co-edited several volumes, including Representing Humanity in the Age of Enlightenment (2013).
Questions about the origins and ongoing causes of cultural difference have been a feature of human intellectual life for millennia. The way those questions have been asked and answered has varied widely across time and space. For this reason, thinking about patterns of change and continuity in relation to debates on this topic can provide a kind of case study for thinking about the topic itself. This paper explores the dynamics of debate about the relationship between human nature, physical environment and socio-cultural differentiation in France during the era of the French Revolution. It considers these debates in relation to wider European intellectual patterns and local socio-political processes. In doing so, the paper seeks both to provide a modest genealogy for some influential patterns of thinking on these issues, and to reflect on the range of tools that historians use to try to explain cultural phenomena of this kind.