As We Go Global, We Lose Human Diversity

By Dr. Robert Thorson

Two media buzzwords, “diversity” and “globalization,” are often conflated. This muddles our thinking about important issues such as nationalism, immigration, global trade, war and human rights.

“History is moving relentlessly toward unity,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” an international best-seller on the reading lists of many cultural luminaries. Though flawed by oversimplification, exaggeration, a bias against liberal culture and assumptions about happiness, Harari’s fascinating synthesis has piqued my interest about the relationship between globalization and human diversity.

When we went global as a species (Homo sapiens) about 70,000 years ago, the result was a precipitous drop in human diversity. In Africa, at least two other ways of being human (Homo ergaster and Homo rudolfensis) went extinct. As we globalized beyond Africa, diversity dropped like dominoes in Europe (Homo neanderthalensis), Siberia (Homo denisova), east Asia (Homo erectus), and the Indonesian islands of Java (Homo soloensis) and Flores (Homo floresiensis). One result of this globalization was the incorporation of that pre-existing diversity into my genome. My genes are from at least two human species and groups from several continents.

By the beginning of the agricultural revolution 11,000 years ago, there were thousands of independent human cultures living and foraging within isolated territories as if on separate planets. Today, humans everywhere on Earth are much more diverse at the local level, but far less diverse at the global level. Teenagers everywhere are glued to hand-held devices generally designed in the U.S., manufactured in Asia, and distributed to far corners of the world. Initially, each isolated culture had only its own language. Now, the global standard -erroneously called English – is an amalgam of multiple mother tongues.

At every subsequent step – the scientific revolution about 500 years ago, the industrial revolution about 250 years ago, the information revolution about 50 years ago, and the biotech revolution that is still emerging – the original diversity of isolated populations has fallen while the overall diversity of the whole has risen into a wonderful blend.

New York City provides a perfect example. Founded four centuries ago by the Dutch for the purposes of international colonization, it’s been getting more diverse every year.

Globalization isn’t just about demography and politics. It’s about everything, from climate change, Brexit, election hacking and the theory of island biogeography. Consider these three recent papers published in Science that were virtually ignored by mainstream media.

The Sept. 29 issue describes the biological effects of the large tsunami caused by the magnitude 9 Tohoku earthquake that struck the Japanese coast in 2011. Floating objects dragged offshore carried at least 278 new marine species to the Oregon shore. Though the local diversity there was temporarily increased, global diversity will likely decline as the now-blended species compete to the point of local extinctions.

The Oct. 6 Science reports that honey around the world is contaminated by the development and sale of nicotine-like nerve agents known as neonicotinoids. International chemical corporations developed these pesticides in the 1980s. Since then, they’ve contributed to global honeybee colony collapses, and a consequent loss of biodiversity.

The Sept. 15 Science describes the “substantial alteration” of the world’s “microbial biogeography” within the last century due to “waste disposal, tourism, and global transport and by modifying selection pressure.” In short, germs are spreading, and dominant microbes are taking over in new places. This will “change ecosystem services and biogeochemistry in unpredictable ways.”

Where I teach, there’s an Office of Diversity & Inclusion that “promotes and nurtures perspectives” associated with “differences in culture, experience, and values.” Simultaneously, there’s an office of Global Affairs that supports a variety of initiatives designed to more effectively navigate an increasingly globalized world.

I strongly support both initiatives. As the world globalizes, changes to the world’s human diversity cannot be avoided. Instead, every household must learn to appreciate and accommodate different ways of being and thinking.