Thursday, September 15, 2005

Michael: Cultural Diversity is not 'PC'

When a species encounters a new ecological niche, it may adapt to its new environment by evolving into one or more new species. Biologists call this process radiation. Why do species radiate and thus diversify? It’s a hard question to answer briefly, but the facile answer is that diversification is life insurance. By varying the means of getting a living, relating to the local environment, and reproducing (the inability to interbreed being the sine qua non of speciation), the creatures making up the total diversified population increase their survivability above that which they could achieve as a single species. By increasing diversity, evolution, does the work of life, ensuring the continuation of life despite adversity and disaster.

In some ways, human culture fills an evolutionary role similar to speciation by radiation and operates on similar principles. Humans adapt through culture by modifying our behavior, technology, and economies to suit different environments. The plasticity of human behavior is finite, but cultural adaptation has allowed us to adapt to some fairly extreme conditions. We may be the most behaviorally diverse and adaptable multi-cellular organisms on the planet. We are champions in conquering new and challenging environments, rivaled only by our next nearest competitor for environmental adaptation; the ant. And we’ve managed the feat of colonizing an amazing variety of environments in an eye blink of evolutionary time; in comparison, the ant is a plodder. The reason is, of course, the rapid adaptivity of culture. By any measure, human use of culture instead of genetic adaptation to, in effect, radiate into new environments has been a resounding success for humanity.

It very well may be the human ability to make extreme behavioral adaptations rapidly through culture that has spared us from extinction thus far. We know by study of population genetics that humanity passed through at least one population bottleneck in recent evolutionary history. As recently as 50,000 years ago, our entire species could have fit comfortably in one unremarkable town. Likely, one human cultural ‘species’ got very lucky and, for some reason, avoided the fate that engulfed the rest of humanity; cultural diversity may have saved our species.

Thus cultural diversity serves a practical and deadly serious purpose, the preservation of our species. Concern for cultural diversity, a goal too often derided as liberal drivel, is not merely a matter of being inclusive and respecting people’s differences (though those goals are important); it is about preserving the diversity of our species ‘cultural DNA’ that has served us so well for millennia in a harsh world full of surprises.

One vital area of cultural diversity that is under assault is the diversity and resiliency of our agriculture. Our species has fed itself for more than 5000 years with selectively bred food crops and domestic animals. These food stocks are cultural artifacts we have husbanded and modified through millennia of practical experimentation. The thousands of strains preserved by traditional farmers around the world are a giant insurance policy protecting our food supply.

In a modernizing world where even our food is commoditized, and standardization in the name of efficiency lies at the heart of our economy, the agricultural heritage of mankind could be chucked out in favor of the latest high-yield biotech offering. So what? Shouldn’t we favor higher yields? Efficiency isn’t all. Those normally productive strains developed and grown locally over centuries and millennia constitute part of our cultural variability that allows us to adapt to adversity. They may not be the most efficient or highest yielding strains possible, but they’re proven against everything that environment has thrown at them. Our super-crops might be crippled by our relentless design emphasis on production, and fail us after we’ve eaten the last fruits and seeds of our heritage crops. The relentless drive for production at the cost of cultural variation could prove our undoing. The very cultural diversity that preserves the agricultural heritage we might need to make it through the next bottleneck could be shoved aside by the powerful economic logic of corporate monoculture.

The issue doesn’t stop with how we get our daily bread; it extends to language, belief, tradition, and ways of knowing and understanding the world. Any of these could prove every bit as vital to our survival as the painstakingly selected gene lines of our food crops and livestock. Most people who do not live in a state of denial recognize that the way we have structured our economy and our lives cannot continue indefinitely. The possibly of unlimited growth is a seductive mistress, but sooner or later one has to return to one’s spouse, who insists on balancing the checkbook. Where will we learn the cultural values about how to cope with a new reality, where no open frontier awaits us and the mess we’ve created can’t be left behind? From those who have lived within the limits of their environment all along, I suspect.

Promoting and preserving cultural diversity in all forms is not some squishy liberal cause. It is rooted in a strategic concern for preserving the human species’ ability to adapt in crisis. Policy doesn’t get much more hard-core than that.

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