Ethnodiversity

Steven - St. Paul, Minnesota
Entered on June 25, 2008

I believe in something which doesn’t have a common name.

I believe in the importance of preserving cultures, something I call ethnodiversity.

Many people understand the importance of biodiversity. An ecosystem with a great diversity of life forms is adaptable to changing conditions. If a virus sweeps through and removes one type of tree, for example, a diverse ecosystem can rebalance itself – some other species will usually change, in time, to fill that niche. In biology, genes control the traits of species, and slowly, variations in the genetic makeup of a community allow for adaptation. If a species cannot adapt to change, it will not survive. The same is true of an ecosystem. A diverse ecosystem can lose a few members and still retain the ability to adapt. In a famous analogy, an airplane can lose a few rivets and still fly – but if you keep losing rivets you are courting disaster. An ecosystem with too little biodiversity can no longer adapt to changing conditions, and is susceptible to total collapse. That’s why we have environmental regulations that seek to preserve endangered species and habitats – it is in our own long term interest. Preserving biodiversity has more immediate benefits, too. For example, there are bacteria in certain hot springs in Yellowstone National Park. They have the genes to deal with problems that we do not face, and so they may harbor the basis for new drugs. It is important that we protect all members of an ecosystem.

How does this apply to cultures? Just as an ecosystem is composed of many species, humanity is composed of many cultures. Each species in the biological realm fits a niche and provides something for the survival of other species, and similarly every culture today fits a cultural niche. Every culture that exists has survived because it provides a solution to the challenge of survival in our world today. They fit the context in which they find themselves.

But the world is changing, through technological and scientific advances, through climate change, through the forced contact of cultures in a crowded world, through the gradual evolution of culture itself. Cultures need to respond to those changes or they may cease to exist. How is it that cultures respond? If we see the rise of crimes involving handguns in our culture, we look at related cultures and see what their crime rates are, and see if they have a different way of dealing with handguns. If they are successful we can try out variations of their idea in our own culture. These ideas are the cultural analog of genes. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, has coined the term “meme” to represent a cultural idea. So cultures can take memes from other cultures to find solutions to their own challenges and continue to survive in the face of changing circumstances.

What if there were only a few cultures in the world? There would be only a few sources to look at when dealing with challenges. Cultures do come up with new ideas on their own, but each culture is predisposed to move in certain directions. Some ideas may never occur to some cultures. To increase our own odds of survival, we should do everything we can to preserve other cultures. We need to preserve the ethnodiversity of the planet.

What does this mean we should do? How should we act in the world?

For one, just as we require corporations to consider their impact on the environment when they propose cutting down a forest for a corporate campus, we need to consider the impact on other cultures when a corporation wishes to expand around the world. What does a McDonald’s franchise do to the culture of a country that has never seen one before? We may be unwittingly undermining other cultures.

Second, our foreign policy should reflect the importance of other cultures, and not try to force them to imitate our culture. This doesn’t mean we should leave other cultures totally alone – it is through our interactions that civilization as a whole moves forward. But the existence of other cultures is essential for our own long-term survival.

In addition, sub-cultures often develop on their own within a society. We should rejoice in the new life they represent, the new contributions to society. We should examine them to see what they say about our society as a whole. We can learn from them, too.

We need to do more than “just get along.” We need to not just tolerate other cultures – we need to value them. For the survival of everyone, we need to promote a diversity of cultures in the world. We need to promote ethnodiversity.

This I believe.