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Territorialism – the key to cultural diversity

6 May 20140 comments

Ground-breaking new anthropological research has shed light on what has driven humanity’s amazing cultural diversity.

Genetically, humans are the most homogenous species on the planet, yet we have different religions, marriage systems, languages, and dances.

“Humans are a very young species with very little genetic diversity, yet we’ve got enormous cultural diversity that other species really don’t have,” says Mark Pagel, a professor of evolutionary biology in the School of Animal and Microbial Sciences at the University of Reading in England.

In an article in the latest issue of the science journal Nature, Professor Pagel and co-author Ruth Mace, an anthropologist at the University College London, argue that our cultural evolution is driven in large part by a desire to control resources.

“Humans have a proclivity for drawing a ring around themselves and saying ‘this is my territory and I’m going to exclude others from occupying it’,” Professor Pagel said.

“That leads to different cultures arising through the usual processes of diversification and drifting apart when they’re isolated from each other.”

The research is salient at a time when there is much debate about cultural homogenisation sweeping the world.

From Manila to Miami, people seem to eat the same foods, watch the same films, and drive the same cars. Languages are being lost at a rate of one per day.

Professor Pagel says a cultural erosion is taking place but he says it has happened far less than it appears. He says that, unless they’re tempted financially to move and assimilate into a new culture, most people prefer to stay where they are and continue doing what they have always done.

“What’s remarkable is how little movement we have seen in people, given the ability we have to move people,” Professor Pagel said. “It’s the natural tendency for cultures to be quite cohesive and exclusive that we want to draw attention to,” he said

The study found that human cultures distribute themselves around the world in patterns similar to animal species. In animals, a trend known as ‘Rapaport’s Rule’ holds that the density of species is highest in the equatorial regions and declines steadily toward the poles.

Different languages – the standard by which the study differentiates cultures – are spoken every few square miles in some equatorial areas, while less climatologically hospitable regions have few languages.

“When resources are abundant, it is possible for a small group of humans to survive, while in areas where resources are not very abundant people have to range over large areas to meet their daily needs, and that seems to homogenise cultures, because they’re constantly coming into contact with other people,” Professor Pagel said.

Although our cultural diversity is still strong, it is only a fraction of what it was 10,000 years ago, when agriculturists moved out of Mesopotamia and replaced hunter-gatherer cultures in Europe and elsewhere, wiping out languages in the process.

“There are only about 50 languages spoken in Europe today. If it hadn’t been for the advance of the agriculturists, we would probably have greater linguistic diversity in Europe, and probably greater cultural diversity too,” Professor Pagel said.

We may be in another state of transition now with some experts suggesting that mass migrations of people moving from poor regions to rich areas will further reduce our cultural diversity.

“Whether things will change in the next hundred years and we’ll have one big homogenous world, we can’t really say. But we can say that, despite the potential for movement, really very little has happened so far,” Professor Pagel said.

“After all, you can walk down a street in Manhattan and find three generations of Italian speakers. Walk a few blocks more, and people are speaking Chinese. The cultural differences in Manhattan still remain,” he said.