Cultural Diversity Highest in Resource-Rich Areas, Study Says

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 17, 2004

We may rightfully beat our drums and toot our horns: No species come close to the wealth of culture that humans boast. 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," said Mark Pagel, a professor of evolutionary biology in the School of Animal and Microbial Sciences at the University of Reading in England.

But what explains our extreme cultural diversity?

In an article in this week's issue of the science journal Nature, Pagel and 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 say[ing], 'This is my territory and I'm going to exclude others from occupying it, '" Pagel said. "That leads to different cultures arising through the usual processes of diversification and drifting apart when they're isolated from each other."

Cultural Erosion?

It may seem strange to talk about our great cultural diversity at a time when many of us fear that a cultural homogenization is 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.

Pagel doesn't deny that a cultural erosion is taking place. But, he says, it's happened far less than it appears. In fact, 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," he said. "It's the natural tendency for cultures to be quite cohesive and exclusive that we want to draw attention to."

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.

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