Biocultural Diversity: Threatened species, endangered languages

Posted on June, 08 2014

 Both nature and culture are what they are as a result of evolution, and they have evolved in similar ways.
Both nature and culture are what they are as a result of evolution, and they have evolved in similar ways.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definitions (OED Online):

Nature: The phenomena of the physical world collectively; esp. plants, animals, and other features and products of the earth itself, as opposed to humans and human creations.

Culture: The distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life of a particular nation, society, people, or period. Hence: a society or group characterized by such customs, etc.

It is customary to think of nature and culture as being quite different, belonging to entirely separate domains, one contains items such as butterflies, the Amazon rainforest and photosynthesis, while the other contains items such as Beethoven’s piano sonatas, wedding ceremonies or sushi. Yet nature and culture often interpenetrate and overlap. What is wine-making, bee-keeping or gardening: nature or culture? They are undoubtedly human activities, and each has its own culture, but there is a strong element of nature involved. What about varieties of domesticated plants and animals? They are human creations because their genomes have been altered by thousands of generations of selective breeding, and particular breeds may be associated with particular places or peoples, so they are as much a product of culture as of nature. What about landscapes? Is there anywhere left in the world that is entirely natural, untouched by human intervention? The deep sea bed perhaps, and possibly Antarctica; but most landscapes are, to a greater or lesser extent, the product of human culture too. Even the Amazon rainforest is what it is not just because of the natural evolution of its ecosystems, but also because of centuries of human manipulations to those ecosystems. So would it make more sense to think of all the myriad manifestations of nature and culture as expressions of a single concept, a nature-culture nexus?

We can think of nature and culture as being dual aspects of a single entity, biocultural diversity; but not just because the two concepts are blurred at their interface. It is because both nature and culture, as defined above, are what they are as a result of evolution, and they have evolved in similar ways. So similar, in fact, that in this report we will describe culture and cultural evolution in the same terms as nature and natural evolution, using concepts borrowed from genetics, ecology and population biology. We will go on to examine the extinction crisis facing both biological and cultural diversity, and use methods developed in conservation biology to assess and compare the state of biodiversity with the state of cultural diversity, and contrast recent trends in the two.

In order to assess status and trends we need a unit of measure. Biodiversity and cultural diversity are such broad concepts that we need to focus on something specific and measureable, so we have chosen two fundamental units or classifiers of nature and culture: species and languages. Species are the basic units of biodiversity; languages are a useful proxy to stand for the world’s diverse cultures. Other elements of biodiversity such as ecosystems or genes, and other aspects of culture such as religions, arts, or livelihood and subsistence strategies, are much harder to define and very much harder to measure.

There are striking parallels between species and languages (Harmon 2002). A species is a group of similar individual organisms that is capable of interbreeding. The ability to produce fertile offspring is fundamental to the biological definition of a species. Horses and donkeys belong to different species, even though they are closely related, as their offspring, mules, are infertile. Humans all belong to a single species, Homo sapiens. The genetic variation among humans is remarkably small, reflecting the fact that the modern human species is relatively young, only about 200,000 years old, and yet there is a staggering amount of cultural and linguistic variation among the human population (Pagel & Mace 2004). Linguists identify around 7,000 languages spoken worldwide (Lewis et al. 2013). By analogy with the definition of a species, two human individuals can be said to speak the same language if they can understand one another. If they find each other unintelligible, they are speaking different languages.1 Dialects, by this definition, are analogous to subspecies: communication is possible between two individuals, although it may not be as easy. There are several subspecies of tiger, Siberian, Bengal or Sumatran for example, which can interbreed successfully in zoos, but their geographic ranges do not overlap in the wild. Given time, sadly something which is not on the tiger’s side, the geographically isolated subspecies would evolve into reproductively separate species, a process known as speciation. New languages can evolve through a process that is akin to biological speciation, and the formation of dialects is the first step along the path to the evolution of two separate languages, provided that there is limited intercommunication between the two dialect populations.

By using species to stand for all biological diversity and languages to stand for cultural diversity we are taking a narrow view, but making a useful simplification at the same time. Biological diversity is broader than species richness. It spans across scales from genes and proteins at the microscopic level to ecosystems and landscapes at the macroscopic level. Species lie somewhere in the middle, but as the carriers of genes and the components of ecosystems, they can fairly represent all biological diversity. In the same way, languages will stand as a proxy for all of cultural diversity, from the micro level of words, ideas and behaviours to the macro level of peoples and societies.

(View the full WWF report by downloading the document link on this page.)

Biocultural Diversity: Threatened species, endangered languages