Biological Diversity and Cultural Pluralism

Biological Diversity and Cultural Pluralism: The Changing Valuation of Complexity in Nature and Culture in Germany and the United States

Stefan Bargheer

This project investigated the changing valuation of complexity in nature and culture in Germany and the United States throughout the twentieth century. It analyzed the conjunction of the two logics of valuation until the middle of the century and their eventual disjunction in the decades thereafter, with particular emphasis on the time from the 1920s to 1980s. The central research focus was on the practices of collecting data in the field and on the institutional forms for their representation. Studied from the point of view of these practices and institutions, the project assessed the nexus between the life sciences and the social sciences. and compared how biologists and anthropologists in the United States and in Germany engage in the study of complexity, and analyzed the emergence of separation between the two fields of inquiry.  

At the beginning of the twentieth century the then-dominant theory of evolution advanced a holistic notion of the relation between nature and culture that associated “primitive” people with nature (Naturvölker) and “civilized” people with culture (Kulturvölker). The diversity of primitive people was assumed to be related to the diversity of their natural environments, while civilized cultures were held to create their own built environments. Both biology and anthropology facilitated this evolutionist view. The study of the diversity in nature and culture took separate paths throughout the twentieth century. Cultural phenomena became considered to be independent from their environments, whether built or found. This decoupling was to large extents an anti-racist reaction to evolutionism facilitated by the experience of the holocaust and the post-war process of decolonization. The project looked at this development in the United States and Germany as two countries with very pronounced yet fundamentally different histories of experience and involvement with racism and colonialism.

A key aspect of the investigation was the identification of a cultural logic of collecting as a primary meaning producing principle behind the process. The project traces the dominant practices and institutions of both “in-situ” collecting (e.g. nature reserves, historical sites, monuments, etc.) and “ex-situ” collecting (e.g., museums, libraries, catalogs, registers, etc.) in the two countries. Far from being a neutral tool, the practices and institutions of collecting can be shown to give meaning to certain aspects of nature and culture at the expense of others. Under the purview of collecting, objects, people, or actions are valued for their diversity and rarity and deemed irrelevant the more common and abundant they are assumed to be. What constitutes diversity and rarity varies with the geographical frame of reference. The project analyzed how, by moving from an initially local to an increasingly global frame of reference, objects of nature and culture that are “typical” (i.e., abundant at a certain place) and hence of marginal interest in a local context, become “typical” (i.e., representative for a certain place) in an international context and hence gain major importance. A central aspect of the project was the international organizational context involved in the valuation of complexity, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List that reflects the world’s cultural and natural diversity considered of outstanding value.