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
The project investigates the changing valuation of complexity in nature and culture in Germany and the United States throughout the twentieth century. It analyzes 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 is on the practices of collecting data in the field and on the institutional forms for their representation. Viewed from the point of view of these practices and institutions, the project assesses the nexus between the life sciences and the social sciences. It compares how biologists and anthropologists in the United States and in Germany engage in the study of complexity and analyses 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 de-colonization. The project looks 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 is 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, catalogues, 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 analyses 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 is 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. It is analyzed how the work of this organization reflects a move from an internationalism initially dominated by colonialism and notions of universal progress to an internationalism shaped by a dualism between cultural pluralism on the one hand, and biological diversity on the other. Particular emphasis will be paid to more recent efforts to re-unite the two forms of complexity within the concept of “biocultural diversity” that finds its most pronounced expression in the UNESCO’s program for the conservation of endangered languages. The research focus on almost an entire century allows to further address the question what role the empirical data collected in the past play for the valuation of diversity at the present.