LINGUIST List 12.2585

Wed Oct 17 2001

Review: Maffi, On Biocultural Diversity

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  1. Laura Alonso i Alemany, review of Maffi, On Biocultural Diversity

Message 1: review of Maffi, On Biocultural Diversity

Date: Sat, 13 Oct 2001 19:40:07 +0200 (MET DST)
From: Laura Alonso i Alemany <>
Subject: review of Maffi, On Biocultural Diversity

Maffi, Luisa, ed. (2001) On Biocultural Diversity: Linking
Language, Knowledge, and the Environment. Smithsonian Institution
Press, hardback ISBN: 1-56098-905-X, xxi+578pp.

Veronica Fernandez and Laura Alonso, University of Barcelona

This book is a collection of papers resulting from the working
conference 'Endangered Languages, Endangered Knowledge,
Endangered Environments, held in Berkeley, California, in October
1996. Topics such as linguistics, ethnology or biology are
addressed from an integrating perspective. This enriching
perspective contributes to achieve a deeper understanding of each
particular area of science and, at the same time, of the whole
relationship between humans and their natural and social
environment. Each author takes a different approach to the topic:
some adopt a linguistic perspective (Corbett, Hill, Pawley and
others) some are more biologically oriented (Mishler, Nabhan,
Carlson and others) and some have an ethnological background
(Atran, Zent and others). Biocultural diversity constitutes the
meeting point for all of them.

Main aims of this book are to give account of the interrelations
between these different aspects of life and to raise concern
about the consequences of losing this diversity. It presents and
clearly defines the state of the art in the field, setting clear
milestones and drawing quite a comprehensive roadmap. In contrast
to other works in this area, the editor tries to make an explicit
distinction between strictly scientifically and more
ideologically oriented contributions. So, we find some good
examples of how to develop and successfully apply a
scientifically valid methodology to an emerging field, where a
leading paradigm is still missing (Zent, Wolff & Medin,
Lizarralde). Yet, some of the articles cannot get rid of a
certain ideological bias that constitutes a burden to scientific

The book is divided in four parts. The first one has three
articles dealing with the basic concepts of the field, and
putting a special emphasis on how a global, dynamic and merging
approach is more appropriate than classical, static ones. A
generalist (but not simplifying) approach to the main concepts of
the area is provided. The main contribution of this part of the
book is the integrating approach to the subject, establishing
links between isolated phenomena that result in a rather complex
and complete picture of human environment. Mishler and Corbett
deal with the basics of the notions of diversity, from a biologic
and linguistic perspective respectively. Mhlhuser's article is
especially remarkable for its conception of ecolingistics,
viewing language as ecologically embedded. Nabhan's paper points
out the importance of indigenous people's ethnoecological
knowledge, and Zent makes an inestimable contribution to setting
a sound research methodology for the empirical study of
traditional knowledge change, which is missing in most of the
work in the area.

In the second part of the book, a number of case studies are
presented which illustrate the situation pictured in the first
part. While interesting to the scholar, these articles are
conveniently separated from the more generalist ones in the first
part, so that both experts and non-experts find their way easily
through the book. The third and fourth parts deal with the future
of diversity, and they are more ideologically biased: the third
part presents the consequences of diversity loss and some
proposed actions to prevent it, the fourth constitutes a plea to
preserve the richness of the whole biosphere.

The third part is twofold: the negative consequences of diversity
loss at every level are presented, and, at the same time, some
scientifically grounded actions are proposed to prevent them. The
proposed actions range from international rights declarations to
concrete projects for language and knowledge documentation and
protection. The book ends with a final plea to achieve "genuine
biocooperation" on a global scale.

What follows is a short overview of some particular papers in the
book. For space economy, we have included the most general,
grounding or representative ones.


2. On the Meaning and Moral Imperative of Diversity, by David
Harmon (pp. 53-70)

In this rather propadeutic paper, Harmon tries to set the central
subject of the area of knowledge the book is dealing with:
diversity, and he does it by appealing to well-known, settled
theories. He presents William James's psychological and
philosophical idea that the structure of the human mind is a
direct reflection of real-world diversity. Thus, human nature
would be much more closely related to diversity than it is
commonly assumed. However, he also points out the higher-order
difficulty of analyzing diversity, and how the classical "family
resemblance" phylogenetic procedure is not equally adequate to
account for all the kinds of diversity human life is concerned
with: biological, linguistic, religious, ethnic, cultural, etc.
After that, he makes a revision of how these different
diversities have evolved in time, to finally issue a warning that
"burgeoning global consumer culture" seems to be truncating
genuine cultural diversity.

3. Biodiversity and the loss of lineages, by Brent D. Mishler
(pp. 71-81)

Interesting for its purpose of defining a global concept of
biodiversity, specially from a biological point of view. Mishler
focuses on phylogeny, and defends a new approach to save
biodiversity based on systematics, adding to the current
ecological approach based on certain unique and unusual
communities. The author discusses the values of biodiversity in
diverse fields, and also hints at analogies and nonanalogies
between linguistic and cultural evolution, on the one hand, and
biological evolution, on the other. He concludes that all the
ways of diversity evolve in the same direction, but linguistic
and cultural evolution tend to accelerate.

4. Why Linguists Need Languages, by Greville G. Corbett (pp. 82-

This paper tires to call attention to the loss of data that are
crucial for research in linguistics that that language extinction
implies. A quote from Krauss (1992:10) illustrates the gravity of
the situation: "Obviously we must do some serious rethinking of
our priorities, lest linguistics go down in history as the only
science that presided obliviously over the disappearance of 90%
of the very field to which it is dedicated." The article presents
strong evidence to support the claim that language diversity
provides the necessary data to achieve a better and deeper
understanding of what a "possible human language" might be.

5. On the Coevolution of Cultural, Linguistic and Biological
Diversity, by Eric A. Smith (pp. 95-117)
6. Prospects for the Persistence of "Endemic" Cultural Systems of
Traditional Environmental Knowledge: A Zapotec Example, by Eugene
S. Hunn (pp. 118-132)

Both Smith and Hunn remark the necessity of scientifically valid
measures of diversity applicable to each of the perspectives they
deal with from which to draw scientifically valid conclusions.
Smith tries to prove the hypothesis that cultural, linguistic and
biological diversity coevolve. In actual field work, the adequacy
of some prevailing approaches is questioned, such as phylogenetic
analysis of cultural variation. He points out that the lack of
sharp, clear boundaries could lead to the reification of
"constructed" entities to correlate studies on culture to
linguistic and genetic phylogeny. To prevent that, he identifies
objective measures of linguistic, cultural and biological
diversity: respectively, the number of languages, the number of
ethnolinguistic groups and species richness in a given culture
area. After studying those, he comes to the conclusion that
biological, cultural and linguistic diversity are fostered and
co-evolve in small-scale, culturally diverse societies, whereas
large-scale, centralized cultural systems obliterate them.
Hunn states that diversity is a measure of "density of
difference". However, this definition highlights the difficulties
of making meaningful comparisons with objects of fundamental
organizational differences, such as ecosystems, where units of
difference are clearly defined, and cultural systems, where such
a unit cannot be clearly established. However, analogies still
seem to enhance the knowledge of both fields, since biological,
linguistic and cultural phenomena have much in common as
information systems generative of behavior. Thus, endemic
cultures can be enrichingly compared to endemic species in that
they constitute adaptations to highly localized environments,
examples of alternative ways of living.

7. Ecolinguistics, linguistic, diversity, ecological diversity,
by Peter Mlhusler (pp. 133-144)

Mlhusler introduces and explores the complex (and sometimes
confusing) concept of ecolinguistics to explain the diversity of
languages and the relationship between humans and their
ecosystem. Language is not considered as an independent system
but as a part of an ecosystem which includes natural and social
interactions: under this light, new languages emerge and evolve
depending on human adaptation and survival skills in certain
environments, as a large repertory of accumulated human
knowledge. In consequence, when the language link between humans
and ecosystems is lost, all the experience accumulated behind the
language diversity evolution process cant be recovered.
Moreover, ecolinguistics gives more importance to the idea of
horizontal evolution in language diversity by intergroup
communication than to vertical evolution in the biological-
phylogenic conception. In order to illustrate the idea of
ecolinguistics specifically, the author examines two cases: the
relative recent colonization of Pitcairn and Norfolk islands in
the Pacific Ocean, comparing them with the longer history of
Marquesas islands and Papua Nova Guinea (Enga language).

8. Cultural perceptions of ecological interactions: an
"Endangered People's" Contribution to the Conservation of
Biological and Linguistic Diversity, by Gary P. Nabhan (pp. 145-

In this paper, Nabhan stresses the value of ethnoecological and
ethnopharmacological knowledge for biodiversity, which is a
contribution to both biological and linguistic diversity. The
coevolutionary relationships between biodiversity and cultural
diversity are remarked, and biology conservation and language
preservation show to have much in common: specialists in both
disciplines fail to study interactions between species or
languages, but they focus on seeing how many species or languages
become extinct instead. Indigenous cultures have a wide
linguistically encoded knowledge about ecological relationships
among plants and animals based on observations of interspecific
interactions, which hasn't been properly valued by Western
science. Nabhan, like Mlhusler, also points out how vulnerable
this knowledge is to external processes that could cause the
"extinction of experience". The author makes reference to his
research on the Seri of the Sonoran Desert of the U.S. - Mexican
border, and makes clear how indigenous communities are reservoirs
of knowledge that can help in the identification, management,
protection, or recovery of habitats for species.

10. Dimensions of Attrition in Language Death, by Jane H. Hill
(pp. 175-189)

In this chapter, Hill presents language death as the end of a
process which is characterized in various linguistic levels:
functional domains are reduced, speakers reduce the inventory of
discursive strategies and syntactical structures they use,
morphological flexibility is lost and the lexicon becomes poorer.
Any of these factors in isolation does not cause or signal
language death, since structural reduction is common in language
change, but being counterbalanced by development in some other
domain. In language decay, however, the lack of counterbalancing
makes the language unapt for human communication.

11. Acculturation and ethnobotanical knowledge loss among the
Piaroa of Venezuela: demonstration of a quantitative method for
the empirical study of traditional ecological knowledge change,
by Stanford Zent (pp. 190 - 211)

Zents chapter is focused on ethnobiological loss by using an
interesting approach: a quantitative method for the empirical
study of the factors which cause the loss of traditional
environmental knowledge (TEK). The author points out that
linguistic and cognitive studies have shown how synchronic
variability of cultural knowledge can be considered as an
indicator of diachronic change. Unluckily, there is a lack of
diachronic data about ethnobiological knowledge. He develops a
descriptively and analytically adequate approach to the subject
so as to propose a coherent research strategy for the
quantitative description and explanation of ethnobotanical
knowledge change, consisting of four basic research methods:
ethnobotanical plot survey, structured interview, informant
consensus analysis and linear regression analysis. The studies
are focused on the Piaroa, an indigenous ethnic group living in
southern Venezuela that suffered a geographic transition which
led to a number of significant sociocultural as well as
ecological changes. Zent finds that ethnobotanical knowledge is
in fact being lost in the accultured habitat, and that the impact
of age on ethnobotanical knowledge is a direct reflection of the
prevailing process of culture change among the Piaroa. This paper
can be a bit too specialized for non-experts, mostly because of
the statistical data and regressions.

12. Measuring the evolution and devolution of folk-biological
knowledge, by Phillip Wolff and Douglas L. Medin (pp. 212-227)

Wolff and Medin focus their research on historical dictionary
quotations (from the Oxford English Dictionary, OED) and study
the loss of knowledge about living kinds in technologically
oriented cultures, setting the "devolution hypothesis". They base
their work in looking for the life form "tree" at different
levels, in a process having three main phases: abstracting
entries containing quotations, coding the entries and correcting
for uneven sampling in the OED. Results seem to support the claim
that knowledge about trees evolved during the sixteenth to
nineteenth centuries and devolved during the twentieth century.
The start of the decline corresponds closely with the start of
the Industrial Revolution, when population massively moved to
urban areas. An alternative hypothesis, however, the "shift-in-
knowledge hypothesis", points out that the drop might reflect a
tendency to use terms not covered in the searches or the shift
toward the use of more specific terms that do refer to trees.

13. Some Problems with Describing Linguistic and Ecological
Knowledge, by Andrew Pawley (pp. 228-247)
14. Linguistic Diversity and Biodiversity: Some Implications for
the Language Sciences, by Jeffery Wollock (pp. 248-262)

These two papers raise the question why language sciences have
traditionally not dealt with the relationship between language
and the environment. Pawley argues that the prevailing approach
to language, "grammar-based" ones, conceive languages as
autonomous systems. Conversely, the more humanistic "subject
matters model" focuses on how reality is expressed by language,
thus adequately accounting for the relations between environment,
culture and the whole linguistic system. On the other hand,
Wollock takes a philosophical perspective to expose how the
history of Western thought has traditionally treated universal
concepts, such as "nature" and "community", as social constructs
with no relation to the real world. This conception leaves no
room for relationships between language and environment, which he
presents as the only way to understand our world and achieve a
sustainable future.


15. Biodiversity and loss of indigenous languages and knowledge
in South America, by Manuel Lizarralde (pp. 265-281)

In order to drive attention to endangered indigenous people
culture and knowledge, Lizarralde exposes his statistical studies
on the dramatic situation of the Bari of Venezuela. He remarks
the loss of knowledge ("extinction of experience", see Nabhan in
this volume) due to diverse factors such as the destruction of
natural habitats, the introduction of the Western educational
system and change in subsistence practice. The author specially
points out the loss of ethnobotanical knowledge from one
generation to the other, as well as the extinction of their large
rage of rich languages.

16. Aspects and implications of ecological diversity in forest
societies of the Brazilian Amazon, by Katherine Milton (pp. 282-

Milton's research is also based on studies on forest indigenous
societies, focusing on four small groups in Brazil: the Arewet,
Parakan, Mayoruna and the Matis. She presents comparative data
on some aspects of the societies discussed: diet, ecology and
diversity, hunting habits, culture and ethnobotanical and
ethnomedicinal practices. The author finds remarkable differences
between the groups, the general loss of cultural diversity and
biological richness, and she strongly hypothesizes a rich
ethnopharmacological knowledge due to outside influences.

20. On the value of ecological knowledge to the Kalam of Papua
New Guinea, by Ian Saem with Andrew Pawley (pp. 343-357)

This chapter reflects the daily-life and customs of indigenous
societies from an insider's point of view. Saem explains the
situation of his people concerning the rich ecosystem, diet,
hunting, culture, and he also remembers his own relationship with
the social anthropologist Ralph Bulmer. Last but not least, he
points out the need of saving the indigenous and native cultures,
specially by encouraging the new generations.


23. Biological and Cultural Diversity: the Inextricable, linked
by Language and Politics, by Darrell A. Posey (pp. 379-396)
24. Linguistic Human Rights in Education for Language
Maintenance, by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (pp. 397-411)
25. Language, Knowledge, and Indigenous Heritage Rights, by Luisa
Maffi (pp. 412-432)

These three chapters remark the need of protection for endangered
ecolinguistic systems, and how this issue is being addressed by
international organizations. In the first place, Posey highlights
the link between biological and cultural diversity, as stated in
the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. He argues that
indigenous peoples and local communities can play a major role in
the conservation of biodiversity, since they hold traditional
ecological knowledge that guarantees sustainability.
On the other hand, Skutnabb-Kangas analyzes the 1996 Draft
Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, together with other
related Declarations, but at the same time presents how these
linguistic rights are amply overridden in the case of indigenous
and minority languages, mostly due to some state's ideology of
"monolingual reductionism", a way of ensuring the state's
sovereignty by imposing the state language to any unassimilated
group. This is obviously reflected in a lack of education in
minority languages, which are thus led to attrition and
extinction. Finally, Maffi argues that a cross-fertilization
among heterogeneous legal frameworks such as those presented in
the two previous chapters might favor a holistic system for the
protection of indigenous people's heritage, which seems a far
more adequate approach to the complex ecolinguistic and cultural
systems than partial and mutually ignoring solutions.

26. A Tape Documentation Project for Native Brazilian Languages,
by Denny Moore (pp. 433-445)
27. The Role of the Global Network of Indigenous Knowledge
Resource Centers in the Conservation of Cultural and Biological
Diversity, by D. Michael Warren (pp. 446-461)

These are two examples of the intensive documentation effort of
indigenous languages and cultural knowledge that is being carried
out, mostly focusing in traditional ecological knowledge. Moore
presents a large-scale project to document all 180 languages
spoken in Brazil. The outcome of this project will provide
invaluable material not only for linguists, but also for speech
communities themselves, whose languages' viability is seriously
threatened for the most part. In a similar line, Warren describes
an international effort to create worldwide network of resource
centers designed to document indigenous knowledge and foster
sustainable development.

29. Biocultural diversity and local power in Mexico, by Victor M.
Toledo (472-488)

>From a rather moral point of view, Toledo studies the mechanisms
of globalization by analyzing Mexico. He identifies three main
mechanisms of destruction due to globalization: dependency,
specialization and centralization, pointing out the local
organization as way of fighting against global forces: diversity,
self- sufficiency, grassroots democracy, equity and
decentralization of power. The author also presents new
strategies for sustainable indigenous community development and
claims for indigenous societies resistance against "perverse"

30. Language, Ethnobotanical Knowledge, and Tropical Public
Health, by Thomas J. Carlson (489-502)

This chapter remarks the importance of traditional botanical
medicine, as a low-cost or free form of medical care for tropical
rural communities and also as a possible source of new drugs for
Western countries. Carlson notes the strong interrelationship
between botanical resources, language, and ethnobiological
knowledge of medicinal plants, and he interestingly points that
the loss of languages means a consequent risk of extinction of
the valuable oral transmission of ethnobotanical information from
generation to generation. He also proposes to form
multidisciplinary teams to keep the knowledge of traditional

31. Indigenous Peoples and the Uses and Abuses of Ecotourism, by
Ben G. Blount (pp. 503-516)
32. Protectors, Prospectors, and Pirates of Biological Resources,
by Stephen B. Brush (pp. 517-530)

Blount and Brush are concerned with the exploitation of natural
resources belonging to humanity that had traditionally been
enjoyed by local communities, such as landscape or crop genetic
resources. Blount argues that local people, usually left aside in
decision-making, must be equally involved in ecotourism plans
that will affect their livelihoods, and that this will guarantee
respect an sustainability of the traditional ecosystem. Brush
analyzes the problem of "biopiracy", the uncontrolled
exploitation of traditional knowledge and resources, and presents
"biocooperation" as an ethic solution to keep knowledge and
resources in the public domain while recognizing their
traditional holders.

PART 4: A Vision for the Future, and a Plea

33. Possibilities after Progress, by Richard B. Norgaard (pp.
34. Silent No More: California Indians Reclaim their Culture -
and they Invite You to Listen, by L. Frank Manriquez (pp. 540-

The last part of the book tries to answer the question if global
biocultural cooperation can be achieved in light of the current
globalization trends. Norgaard optimistically points out that, in
this latest phase of Western history, the prevailing idea of
progress is being questioned, and the process of cultural
homogenization is being resisted by alternative processes of
reculturalization. In this context, new forms of organization are
emerging that are capable and willing to deal with a
coevolutionary social and ecological framework, with
sustainability as their final goal. The final chapter "voices a
plea for Western ears to open up to the kind of intent listening
to indigenous [...] peoples that alone can bring about genuine
mutual understanding and true collaboration in facing the common
threats to the world's linguistic, cultural and biological

Veronica Fernandez i Pascual is a biology undergraduate student
at the University of Barcelona. Her research interests are
focused on cellular biology in the field of cytotoxicity and
intracellular transport, but she is also interested in history
and philosophy of science and biology evolution from the genetic
point of view.

Laura Alonso i Alemany is a computational linguistics doctorate
student at the CLiC (Centre de Llenguatge i Computaci) at the
University of Barcelona. Her research focuses on text
summarization from a linguistic perspective. Other areas of
interest include discourse and natural language processing.
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