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Connecting Evolution with Cultural and Linguistic Diversity

For my students who are also interested in biological anthropology, check out this story from MSNBC. Titled Human Evolution at the Crossroads, science editor Alan Boyle retreats from descriptions of past human evolution to speculate on where human evolution might be going in the future. There’s discussion of super humans (read: Barry Bonds) and human-machine hybrids. It’s fascinating reading.

Boyle gets into the debate surrounding the disappearance (death, if you will) of languages and its implications for human genetic diversity. Quoting Stewart Pimm, an evolutionary biologist from Duke University, Boyle wonders about the decreasing genetic variation in humans:

“The big thing that people overlook when speculating about human evolution is that the raw matter for evolution is variation,” [Pimm] said. “We are going to lose that variability very quickly, and the reason is not quite a genetic argument, but it’s close. At the moment we humans speak something on the order of 6,500 languages. If we look at the number of languages we will likely pass on to our children, that number is 600.”

Cultural diversity, as measured by linguistic diversity, is fading as human society becomes more interconnected globally, Pimm argued. “I do think that we are going to become much more homogeneous,” he said.

Ken Miller, an evolutionary biologist at Brown University, agreed: “We have become a kind of animal monoculture.”

Putting aside for a moment the value or importance of linguistic diversity, is the suggestion that one language = one culture? Taken to an extreme, if there was only one language in use on Earth, would there be only one culture?

Perhaps the better questions include asking what evolutionary biologists think ‘culture’ is and wondering how one goes about counting cultures or, indeed, languages. What counts? Who is a member of a culture, or, how do you identify the speaker of a language?

And, this takes us back to the debates from last week’s Introduction to Cultural Anthropology classes where we wondered aloud what makes anthropology different from other biological and social sciences.

There’s all sorts of good stuff in this piece and in the other articles in the series.

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