CRM Journal

Book Review

In Light of Our Differences: How Diversity in Nature & Culture Makes Us Human

By David Harmon. Washington, DC, and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002; 224 pp., tables, graphs, notes, references, index; cloth $38.00.


Great movements on the verge of advances concern themselves with values, philosophies, and reasons why change is needed. The resulting forward leaps tend to produce numerous tasks to be carried out, causing a reorientation from the abstract to the practical. Philosophy prevailed when the tiny historic preservation movement was rallying itself to create the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966—the first major federal historic preservation legislation in a generation. Later, practicality dominated as more than a dozen amendments and other new laws drastically increased the work to be done. Perhaps it is significant that David Harmon's small but powerful book, In Light of Our Differences: How Diversity in Nature & Culture Makes Us Human, returns to philosophy and links history and nature a generation after 1966.

Forty years ago sweeping change was afoot in historic preservation. Outdated practices rooted in the Romantic era venerated historic "shrines." Often these were birthplaces or graves of men (seldom women and almost always white) to whom virtues larger than life were ascribed. This was easily achieved by preserving and interpreting a small number of places of outstanding national significance.

In the meantime, America's cities, towns, and countryside were impacted like never before by federally sponsored dredging, damming, and channeling of rivers; construction of interstate highways and urban expressways; and wholesale demolition of cities for urban renewal. The changes threatened to make every part of the land like every other part. Preservationists began to recognize that our national well-being depends on the full spectrum of our cultural environment, including shrines and everyday places. With the National Historic Preservation Act, significance moved from birthplaces and graves to the meaningful work of individuals and groups, and the purpose of preservation grew to include benefiting from our daily surroundings as well as from contemplation of venerable achievements.

The workload of historic preservation quickly outgrew the number of people available to do the work. State historic preservation offices, federal agency programs, tribal programs, certified local governments, and private firms began to carry the burden. The movement began to focus more on how to do preservation than on why it ought to be done. Predictably, accomplishments began to outpace the philosophical foundations of historic preservation. Soon a very effective network of preservationists covered the entire country, but with little depth. Poor understanding of why we preserve often negatively affects how we preserve.

In the meantime, our colleagues who strive to preserve the natural environment also have struggled under an outdated concept rooted in the Romantic era—the idea that nature is that which is not human. This has made it difficult to rationalize, much less to coordinate, the work of two worlds of preservation—natural and cultural. Governments have wondered whether to highlight cultural resource programs in specialized agencies, to merge them with natural resource programs that protect species and habitats, or to segregate natural resource programs from all influence of the cultural forces that threaten natural resources. The problem is perfectly exemplified in the National Park Service. The bureau's mastery of both natural and cultural resource management will require thought, reflection, and erudition.

In Light of Our Differences takes both kinds of preservationists back to basics. One might expect a unified approach from Harmon, who is cofounder of Terralingua, an international nonprofit supporting the world's linguistic, cultural, and biological diversity, and executive director of the George Wright Society, an organization of natural and cultural resource management specialists. Drawing upon philosophers, biologists, anthropologists, and others who have contributed to developing Western civilization, this book forges a long overdue concept of the relationship of humans to biocultural diversity—the natural and cultural contexts that our species shapes, is shaped by, and depends upon. Natural diversity has affected who we are as a species, and cultural diversity affects who we are as cultural groups. Harmon argues that biocultural diversity affects humans and is affected by humans in parallel ways. The effects are most apparent in the extinction of individual species and in the extinction of characteristics that define individual cultures.

It is easy to agree with Harmon that languages are probably the deepest and most obvious indicators of cultural diversity. When the National Park Service took the initial steps to develop tribal preservation programs, discussions focused more on indigenous languages than on tangible cultural resources. On a global scale, Harmon says, languages now are becoming extinct at the same rate as species. Furthermore, both species and languages are becoming extinct in the same places and from the same causes.

Unlike past great extinctions of species, which resulted from cataclysms such as asteroid collisions with Earth, the extinction now under way is almost certainly due to the actions of just one species: homo sapiens. The wasteful consumption of resources in society that dominates the world today, the desire of the rest of the world to achieve the same level of luxury, and the increased effect of the dominant culture through globalization and other means are among the forces causing natural and cultural extinctions.

Why does philosophy matter? For the past 4,000 years, many humans have believed themselves above nature, exercising divinely granted dominion. Instead we are not only products of nature but are also participants in it. We are who we are because evolutionary systems have had an unlimited array of choices. The free exercise of natural choices has led to what we are as a species. TheĀ  array of cultural choices has led to who we are as cultures. Unfortunately, we are overwhelmingly powerful and dangerous participants in both natural and cultural evolutionary systems. Our power also makes us responsible to ourselves and to the planet for allowing natural and cultural evolutionary systems to continue their ever-unfinished work. That means preserving the diversities of species and cultures that energize the evolutionary systems.

Readers interested in ecosystems, architecture, languages, archeology, species, or natural and cultural resources should take a break from the constant pursuit of ways to improve how you do your work, and follow Harmon through a deeply philosophical review of why the work is important. The why will help you with the how. If we are lucky, perhaps it will also help us progress toward a not-yet-apparent next great advance in the preservation of natural and cultural resources.

Jerry Rogers
New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance
National Park Service (Retired)