A few centuries ago it was believed that the reason why people near the tropics didn't achieve the level of affluence of their northern conspecifics was that the heat made the blood grow thicker, and that slowed down their movements, and thoughts (thoughts at that time used to take place not only in the head, but also in the heart).
It's a funny theory, very catchy, as mechanistic as the time demanded and all that. No wonder it was appreciated for a while.
Many centuries have passed now, and we have a lot of better hypotheses for why there is less development in tropical areas than elsewhere. Here are a few.
More diseases that consume family resources
Lower average IQ
Centuries of exploitation by Europe and US
Fewer Institutions (There is a terrible paper by Daron Acemoglu, whom I hear otherwise is a great economist, on that)
Shorter east-west axis within a land area (Guns, Germs and Steel)
More frequent natural disasters, in particular floods, leading to property damage.
Probably all of those play a small role. I just want to say that primitive as it is as an explanation, I still think that the heat, and sunshine that comes with it, is a very strong factor, still today. Development is not my target though, my target is individual productivity and individual freedom, here thought of as "amount of things per unit time someone could be doing", not political freedom.
So far I've spent three weeks in England, at the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, this month. During those 21 days, I have experienced strictly 08 (eight) minutes of sunlight. Outside it is freezing. So no wonder that all interactions I had were had inside walls. Meanwhile talking to friends back home, at the Tropic of Capricorn, they had outside parties, picnics at the park, bike riding days, shopping outside in the streets, free dancing at the streets festivals, learning to do slacklining, swimming pool etc...
In this grey lowlight world of English weather, with the added factor that by and large interaction between anglophones is mostly linguistic, it is not admirable that many come to office even on Saturdays and Sundays, and also stay late during weekdays. Basically, where else would they go?
The same distinction I saw while in California when comparing it to Boston. Both I saw in the winter-ish. In Boston you can basically choose in which venue you will eat, and in which venue you will read. In California you could go to the park, or to the mountains, or hike in the woods, or walk through the beach, or even go to a theme park, or that weird place where people surf false waves...
Brains are devices you can train. If you train them to skateboard, or play with dogs, or play soccer in a park, that is what they will learn. If a brain is compelled to think all day long, and read, speak, listen and write, that is what it will get good at.
The cold constrains, and a lot, what people do on a daily basis, and thus they become more specialized, and better, in the things they do. I think that this plays an enormous role on why tropical people don't tend to intellectual/high productivity lives as much as people in colder regions.
A few more subtle considerations: There are human drives relating to outside activity that not even the cold can stop. But it can still significantly hinder. Groups of young people still summon the strength to face the cold in particular for two activities: Training for sport competitions, and staying in line for a dancing club. Curiously, those are ritualized forms of hunting and courtship, something that our most northern relative, the Japanese Macaque, finds worthy of leaving hot baths to do. You'll find Japanese Macaques walking around in the snow for the same reasons you'll find someone walking around in the snow in many of the coldest cities, and that is saying something. Kids in both species also play outside heated areas. Playing, finding food (or defeating rowing arc-rivals), and doing some sort of ritualized courtship are sufficiently worthy, for us and them,to face the spiking thorns of the cold.
The cold transforms sport into just sport. Get there quick, enter, play, leave. Whichever surrounding rituals could have arisen around sport, either they are left for the summer time, or they will perish culturally.
Same with the nightclub lines. No one will stay more than one second longer than necessary outside, they become only lines, strictly lines, and mini-skirted women pay in pain the price of wanting to be attractive/sensual. Men do also wearing fewer coats. No extra time before or after the party. And the only kind of making up that is allowed outside is the really drunk kind, since no one whose peripheral nervous system is sending the right signals to their brain would tolerate that cold, the same peripheral nervous system that should be delivering ecstatic feelings of seduction and desire.
Young people pay quite a price for the cold. But it's nowhere near the price that older people pay. In an Arabic country, there is a disproportion of males in the streets, and a western eye will frequently think that this is prejudice, or something bad, happening against women. Boston and Oxford are university towns, but even accounting for that, the absence of people at the 40-80 age group in the streets is shocking. In Buenos Aires, 23:00 on a Tuesday, you'll see hundreds of people, of many ages, strolling around the streets, chatting, having dinner, drinking beer, laughing etc... same for Rio, or São Paulo. Some people face the cold at older ages in Oxford and Boston, but not so many, they could get a cold after all, and they are mostly done with sport and nightclubs. There are more women walking around in Syria, than 50 year olds walking around in Oxford.
Lightlevels are also higher in inside areas than outside areas, as far as I recall, both in Boston and in Oxford, though not in California, Florida or the Latin cities cited. One more reason to stay inside.
My claim is then that life is more productive in the cold because the cold significantly constrains what people do, and it constrains it in the way that makes them produce for longer periods output of linguistic sort -including maths and programming and everything that is mostly parsing, coding, transforming symbols etc... - I'd further claim that this effect cannot be accounted for by the six factors mentioned above, and that it will at least be comparable in intensity with whichever one ends up being the strongest one among those.
A further claim is that because life in cold areas is significantly constrained, moving to colder areas is a costly signal of willingness to do lots of work. This could partially explain why most of the top 20 universities in the world are in very cold areas. You must really love studying if you are willing to constrain your life that much, and conversely, once your life is constrained, you'd better love studying.
Speaking of love, stats famously show that people in California are not happier than people in New England. Julia Galef famously disagrees. I don't know if the effect is neutral if you compare people born in one place who moved to the other. Like her, I'd bet highly it isn't. Sure after a long period there is a regression towards base level happiness, but I'll bet the regression is slow and incomplete, and the process takes very long.
I've spent about six months of my life in cold areas, partly travelling, partly working/researching. Despite all the costs that it entails, at this moment my inclination is to decide to live in one of those cold lowlight areas for a while. Get some work done, or some more work done, of a research kind, now that movement building already took some 2 years of me. I wrote this partly to better understand the trade-offs, to more clearly think about this decision. I hope it helps someone else who is thinking about similar, or opposite, decisions, I've met at least one person here, and one back in the US who were thinking of doing the reverse.
No wonder I'm writing from Oxford...
Silicon Valley in particular, and California more broadly seem to score quite well in the intellectual and productivity games, despite having much nicer weather than Boston.
Caltech, Stanford, and many of the UC schools are no slouches as top universities go.
Nowhere else comes close to Hollywood as a center of television and movie production.
Arguably California has better year round weather on average than much of the tropics.
There may be environmental reasons the tropics have not done so well. Then again it may be a result of characteristics not hugely influenced by the climate. But California is a pretty strong counterexample to your claim that people are generally more productive in cold, lowlight areas.
California has massive selection filters, and has had for hundreds of years. Only the few and brave moved there. California definitely is my personal aim for a great place to be. Outside filtered areas, such as the universities you mentioned, I think my claim remains true.
So I predict that people in California that have not been preselected exactly because they want to work crazy hours, start a startup, or become an academic will be less productive than the same people in Boston.
I maintain, to a lesser extend, that undergrads in California also work fewer hours.
People who moved during adulthood might report about that.
I am now a person who moved during adulthood, and I can report past me was right except he did not account for rent.
I'm really sceptical that this is as big a factor as some of the others, but I can see how it might be a significant factor. I've also lived in cold places most of my life, so I'm not in a very good position to judge. I feel like the biggest factor will ultimately turn out to be "that's how history played out", though. Looking back, it's not clear that the hypothetical dominance of the North was really noticeable until maybe the 17th century (I'm not entirely confident on this, so correct me if I'm wrong), so I'd be more inclined to attribute it to cultural, geological, and geopolitical factors. As an example, Greece and then Rome led the world in many things for a while, and they're pretty warm. So did China and many of its core areas are fairly warm as well.
Also consider the Mayans, Aztecs, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Indian regimes (exempli gratia Indus Valley, Mauryan), Carthaginians, Caliphates, Ottomans, etcetera.
I agree that generally speaking the warmer it is the lazier I am, but it's not quite like the colder it is the fewer ways of procrastinating I have.
Stay at home and watch TV/mess around on the Web/whatever? (EDIT: if you want something more old-fashioned, make that reading novels or knitting by the fireplace.) Go to the pub and play darts/pool with their friends?
I think that's partly cultural. Where I am, it's not that uncommon for there to be plenty of young people just hanging around in the streets (going into bars to get drinks, but not staying inside each bar very long), even with below-freezing temperatures. To the extent that many such groups of people include both single males and single females, you could argue that on some level it's analogous to the dancing club thing, but still. (And snowfights are fun, though you might count them as sport.)
I really doubt this idea, and I wouldn't be surprised if the truth was completely the opposite. Since people in high-latitude environments are left with relatively few days with pleasant weather, they cannot efficiently schedule their fun outdoor activities. Here in the northern Midwest, the first nice day of spring (or the occasional unseasonably warm day in fall) often has many people taking time off on a weekday, and the people who do show up can't get much done with so many unplanned absences. Meetings are cancelled, etc. If the weather was not a factor, people could schedule their fun time more efficiently (i.e. weekends, slow periods at work, etc.)
This is entirely wrong. The bleak winter season doesn't make people more likely to work, it makes them more likely to want to curl up inside and eat. Basically Seasonal Affective Disorder seems to be an adaptation, encouraging people toward lethargy and energy conservation during winter.
It's not like the torrid summer season makes people more likely to work, either. (And the range of temperatures at which it's neither too cold nor too hot to work probably varies a lot from person to person.)
This misses the point, since most tropical places don't have terribly hot summers either. The main feature of tropical climate is low variation and year long warmth. For example São Paulo's warmest month is February, with an average high of 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Minneapolis, North America's coldest big city, has a July average high of 83. The interseason spread is about 60 degrees for Minneapolis and 11 degrees for Sao Paulo. So summertime heat in the tropics is not at all comparable.
Shouldn't this be testable (with controls for most confounds) just by examining seasonal differences in productivity?
Yes. As far as I know, there's not much effect once you account for things like holidays or vacations (don't expect America to be getting much done in winter ie. December with Christmas, or France to get much done in late summer ie. July/August).
As it happens, I recently finished looking at my own personal data: I found no real* correlation of my self-rated mood/productivity with colder temperatures.
* The coefficients for the various variables are non-zero, of course, so one could argue that I found some small effects; but they didn't survive a complexity penalty and the estimates seem inconsistent to me: eg. there's a positive correlation between maximum daily temperature and minimum - but a negative correlation with mean daily temperature!
"Centuries of exploration by Europe and US"
Did you mean exploitation?
Probably, but it wouldn't make a very good explanation since the most exploited countries are more developed, not less.
There are some articles claiming to find that economic productivity improves somewhat when air conditioning is introduced to hot regions, and during colder years in hot regions with low penetration of air conditioning. The effects may be exaggerated for the usual publication and other biases, but the sign makes sense: if you spend even a few minutes a day fanning yourself, drinking water, or feeling overheated you will have less time to work. And the burden of distracting heat certainly feels like an impairment to intellectual work.
Yeah, I think anyone who's been to Rio, or Jeddah, on a sunny summer day knows that the heat impairs a lot as well.
How long do people in the cold spend shoving snow, drinking hot tea and changing clothes is also a factor.
It is impossible to work at freezing, and impossible to work at 45 celsius.
The average high of the hottest month in Rio is only slightly warmer than the average high of the hottest month in Boston. So it seems that summer heat should not be much more of a problem in typical tropical climates than in temperate high-latitude cities like Boston.
Overall the net effect of high-latitude environment (minus tropical disease protection) is probably very negative, with substantial efficiency losses relative to tropical type climates. The benefits of avoiding tropical disease would more than compensate, however.
If it's a weather thing, would we expect the southern hemisphere to do as well as the northern? Does it?
No, we would not. The Southern hemisphere is just generally warmer (at least on land).
I suppose I should have said "reasonably inhabited land".
I've always just thought it was a matter of cold climates requiring more technology for people to survive and prosper, so you end up with comparatively technical populations in these cold climates.
That is a good explanation for why eskimos have a more intricate canoe-building culture, while Brazilian indians have more cognitive resources dedicated to humor, spirits and other stuff that fills the cognitive niche, but doesn't change your technical capacity that much. Anthropologists used to call indigenous rain forest cultures "cultures of abundance".
It is not a very good explanation for why current day, urban populations are different. One thing that is related and interesting though is that the cost of usable space is higher in the cold, because 8 months a year you can only use the space that is indoors, which I have no idea, but I'll guess is about 5-15% of urban land? In Peru or Syria you can pay a dollar for nice coffee and go sit in an open public space to chat with your coworker. In Alaska you'll have no qualms about paying four or five times more for the same thing, as long as they give you an indoor chair to sit while drinking.
Another big thing in Alaska is the cost of heating oil.
I'm rather suspicious of the "people aren't happier in warmer climates" evidence, too, because everything I've been able to dig up on that study doesn't seem to say how happiness is measured. And based on my own experience, I would guess that by some measures (e.g., asking people how happy they are in general) it wouldn't make a difference, but by others (like Kahneman's Day Reconstruction Method for analyzing day to day happiness) it would.
Three types of evidence, I'm not sure which claim what anymore.
"How do you feel generally" "Rebuild your yesterday experience?" "We will be beeping you at random times during the day, please say your satisfaction level at the moment the beep beeped and what you were doing"
I don't know which were used in those studies, maybe Tim Czech who recently summarized all happiness hacks might
Okay, I actually dug up the paper. Last time I tried to find out about this I just used Google instead of my university's research venue. Duh. Guess this is one of those instances where trivial amounts of effort/thought make a difference.
It turns out they just asked about overall life satisfaction, and then how they rated their satisfaction with various aspects of their life (job opportunities, academic prospects, social life, winter weather, summer weather). So I am indeed still somewhat skeptical of this result and would be more swayed by a DRM-style experiment...
If you haven't read Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow", I highly recommend it for the sections on different types of happiness. He is the one who did a lot of the original research on this, and the book explains it very well. (Doesn't note the methodology used in the California study, though.)
My experience living in Texas (very warm) versus Michigan (seasonally warm):
People in Michigan enjoy warm weather a hell of a lot more than people in Texas do. I think the scarcity of good weather days make people take better advantage of them.
[ETA: Contrarily, I enjoy the winter here a lot more than most other people do. I -like- cold weather. I'm the crazy guy wearing shorts in the snow.]
That might be true.
Julia Galef's argument that people who grew up in colder climates and then move to warmer ones will actually be made significantly happier is also compelling; maybe I will be happier if I move to California! (I sure as hell spend a lot of my time during the winter thinking "I hate this place, I'm moving to California.")
s/warmer/milder/. Running from one air-conditioned place to another is no fun, either.
A few points:
If your thesis were true, there would be a clear drop in productivity in the summer, when you have up to 20hrs of sunlight and temperatures go up to 40ºC. And I believe this is not the case.