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On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment.

On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment. Edited by Luisa Maffi. (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. Pp. xxi + 578, introduction, notes, bibliography, index, illustrations.)

On Biocultural Diversity approaches the dilemma of language loss, the deficit of knowledge, and the devastation of the environment on a global scale. Part of the problem is neatly summed up by D. Michael Warren: "The relationship between the viability of a language and the knowledge that has been created, preserved and maintained through that language is inextricable" (453). Biological loss is well recognized, but the loss of cultures, languages, and the knowledge contained within these human environments is ignored to a remarkable degree. The crisis now experienced by Indigenous peoples is far-reaching, possibly more so than many of these authors claim, and more so than what has been experienced ecologically.

The thirty-nine contributions in this volume treat this crisis in Papua New Guinea, Botswana, Amazonia, Indonesia, the Mayan lowlands, and the Sonoran Desert. The reader is exposed to topics including issues of globalization, the effects of ecotourism, human rights, language and politics, biological and ecological prospecting, intellectual property rights, and the domino effect of language death. The broader disciplines of the humanities, science, and law merge into an integrated approach to the growth of uniformity and the loss of diversity taking place worldwide.

These essays are predominantly Euro-western in perspective, but they are an excellent collection of strong composition by respected scholars. This one volume makes significant additions to our base of knowledge. Among the contributors are anthropologists, linguists, sociologists, indigenous scholars, biologists, psychologists, agriculturists, resource economists, botanists, environmental researchers, and conservationists. The diversity located in the interrelationships between the human environments of languages, cultures, and knowledge within ecological environments is treated here as an essential aspect of our very existence.

Both a utilitarian imperative and an ethical imperative are enlisted here by a number of authors. In "Biodiversity and the Loss of Lineages," Brent D. Mishler states that we as a species have no moral right to despoil a four-billion-year history of ecological development. Within the utilitarian framework, biological losses are economic losses. He points to the evolutionary needs for maximal genetic diversity. As this line of reasoning relates to the human species, Mishler finds that we are witnessing the destruction of the "cultural species," moving towards an intellectual monoculture and depleting our human resources for sustainability.

However, David Harmon asserts the existence of what he calls a "species problem" in our notions of culture in "On the Meaning and Moral Imperative of Diversity" (58). The notion of human cultures as "species" is not conceptually available. Therefore, alarm at the prospect of "cultural homogenization" is unwarranted. As Harmon notes, the "biological extinctions and cultural homogenization" are driven by "practical forces" (61). My question is, what are these practical forces? The forces that have that have led to the loss of language, culture, knowledge, and the unprecedented loss of biological species can be attributed directly to colonialism of past and present. What Harmon spells out clearly is that the logism biodiversity now "carries an explicit, unprecedented sense of urgency, of impending catastrophe" (62).

Along these same lines, Eric Smith looks to the essential points of connection between biological, cultural, and linguistic fields of study in his "On the Co-evolution of Culture, Linguistic, and Biological Diversity." For Smith, the imperative is that we must maintain and foster an environment that enables the natural growth and expansion or decline of diversity. Eugene Hunn makes the connection among linguistic, cultural, and biological species, and then brings us E.O. Wilson's words: "species extinction equates to the burning of a library" (120). How do we know what knowledge has been sacrificed due to the extinction of languages, cultures, and their environments? Gary Nabhan's subject in "Cultural Perceptions of Ecological Interactions" is "traditional ecological knowledge of plant-animal interactions" among the world's Indigenous populations (146). This knowledge is being lost to the Western consortium of world knowledge. Nabhan demonstrates the seriousness of this loss using a Western system of value, showing that Indigenous knowledge does give insights to "ecological and evolutionary theory" (148). From my perspective, Euro-western science is invoked here only to prompt an attitude of respect and legitimacy for Indigenous knowledge. We are faced, if we do not heed Nabhan's words and the words of others in this volume, with what Nabhan identifies as the "extinction of experience" (153), the results of which would be a loss of knowledge to all peoples, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Jane Hill calls upon the reader in her contribution, "Dimensions of Attrition in Language Death," to see how the Euro-West is victimized by its notions of race and class, a cultural and linguistic positioning that she calls "ideological noise" (177). The "noise" of ethnocentrism interferes with the ability to look objectively at non-western cultures. This positioning results in a loss of languages, and that reduction leads directly to the irretrievable loss of knowledge. As Western notions of superiority are forced upon non- Western peoples, the damage occurs to the human species as a whole. Phillip Wolff and Douglas Medin regard this process as "devolution," and they present a hypothesis based within the Western historical present in their essay, "Measuring the Evolution and Devolution of Folk-Biological Knowledge."

What is knowledge? Andrew Pauley contends that it is "a subjective thing, encompassing 'perceptions,' 'beliefs,' and 'understandings'" (228). He calls to linguists to inform all disciplines by representing the knowledge held within a language community. Pawley suggests the illumination of a cosmology of knowledge within the documentation process by what he terms "a subject matters language" (235). Grammars produce a list of words, while subject matters language seeks the contextualization of language in a culturally relevant process.

Jeffrey Wollock demonstrates patois eloquence with his contribution when he writes, "Language is a motion of the soul" (257). He then takes the necessary step towards opening the discussion of colonization as "mono-mentality" (251). As imperialism and monoculture are "imported and imposed, extrapolation occurs, societies destabilize" (252). Societies become disconnected from land, and "cultures homogenize and no longer uphold biodiversity" (252). According to Wollock, "The real cause of the environmental crisis is a particular way of thinking" (248). The symptom of this can be seen in the rapid decline we are witnessing in linguistic and biological diversity worldwide. Bioprospecting has claimed that its endeavors to preserve the knowledge of an Indigenous populace amount to a form of reparation. From my position, it is more akin to assault, as multinational corporations strive to lay claim to traditional Indigenous knowledge in the form of patents. What is experienced next by many Indigenous peoples is cultural death, language death, and physical death.

The protection of Indigenous peoples' knowledge base--language, political systems, ecological and biological analysis, law, i.e., culture--has been approached within the sphere of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). IPR is addressed in this volume by Darrel Posey, Luisa Maffi, and Stephen Brush. The continued existence and protection of intellectual property is understood to be an integrated defense of culture(s) as a human rights issue, determined by international bodies (WIPO, UNESCO, WCCD, WGIP) and are inclusive of "traditional obligations" (416) as established by Indigenous norms.

All of these pieces have been written from the etic position. The salient issue for me is the threat to Indigenous epistemology. For an Indigenous perspective on the historical and current consequences of Euro-western ideology and the exigency of retention, look to L. Frank Manriquez's contribution to this volume: "Silent No More: California Indians Reclaim Their Culture--And They Invite You to Listen." All the contributors here have attempted to view the interconnectedness of separate and seemingly disparate disciplines. Finally, Western minds find their way to an Indigenous perception of equilibrium.

Sheri J. Tatsch

University of California, Davis
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Author:Tatsch, Sheri J.
Publication:Cultural Analysis
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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