Thursday, 26 February 2009

Speaking of human evolution and cultural diversity...

Canterbury, United Kingdom

After participating in research cluster meetings at the University of Kent on ‘governance and conservation’ and ‘biocultural diversity’ I had the opportunity to listen to stimulating seminars from two very different colleagues. In the late afternoon Stephen Jones delivered the Darwin lecture on “Is Human Evolution Over?”. His message was quite similar to that of a dialogue at UNESCO in 1999 on “What Future for the Human Species” that featured the late Harvard University palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and the French Sociologist Edgar Morin. They agreed that the physical evolution of humans would not change greatly, but that our cultural development was far from finished. Jones described how the analysis of the trio of evolutionary factors – mutation, natural selection and geographical isolation – reveals that people will not change physically to a great degree, contrary to popular conceptions and depictions in science fiction movies.

Our great cultural development, in the recent past and into the future, was evoked in an earlier Anthropology Department seminar given by Dario Novellino, an Italian anthropologist and ethnobiologist. In a lecture on “Stories of Plants, Politics and Social Life: from the Tropics to the Mediterranean’, Dario spoke of the indigenous people in Palawan, Philippines where he lived for many years, and of local shepards in Maranolo, a community in southern Italy near his native Naples. Under the pressure of various global processes that affect their lifestyles, these distinct communities are struggling to maintain knowledge and practices related to the environment. Even if our physical evolution is static, our cultural development remains dynamic.

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