Preserving diversity—in the natural world and human culture—lets us delight in an abundant world
IMAGINE cupping an Ansault pear in your palm, polishing its golden-green belly on your shirtsleeve. Imagine raising it to your lips and biting, the crisp snap as a wafer of buttery flesh falls on your tongue. Imagine the juice shooting out—you bend at the waist and scoot your feet back to prevent the drips from falling on your sneakers. . . .
Imagine it all you can, for it’s all you can do. You’ll never eat an Ansault pear. They are extinct, and have been for decades: dead as dodo birds. How could this happen to a pear variety that agriculturist U.P. Hetrick described in l921 as "better than any other pear," with a "rich sweet flavor, and distinct but delicate perfume"? The dismaying truth is that you can apply that question to thousands of fruits and vegetables. In the past few decades we’ve lost varieties of almost every crop species. Where American farmers once chose from among 7,000 apple varieties, they now choose from 1,000. Beans, beets, millet, peanuts, peas, sweet potatoes, and rice all have suffered a large reduction in varieties. In fact, over 90 percent of crops that were grown in 1900 are gone.
Of course, a bumper sticker reading "Save the White Wonder Cucumbers" sounds a bit silly. And as long as we haven’t lost pears altogether, the loss of a particular variety, no matter how good, isn’t cataclysmic. We have a lot of other worries. How many years of clean air do we have left? How much clean water? But when we lose a variety of pear or cucumber, even one we’re not likely to taste, or, in an analogous situation, when we lose a language, even one we’re not likely to hear, we’re losing a lot more than we think. We’re losing sources of information that could help us solve our big questions, like who we are and what we’re doing here on earth.
FARMERS have always manipulated crops to meet human desires, but up until the past several decades these manipulations increased crop diversity instead of limiting it. Long before pioneer geneticist Gregor Mendel first began decoding the laws of heredity in the 19th century, our ancestors were selectively breeding both animals and plants. Early Peruvian farmers, for example, noticed color mutations among their cotton fibers and bred the plants to produce those colors for their vibrant cloth. When early farmers moved, they took their seed with them, and varied growing conditions increased crop diversity as the varieties reacted to new environments or evolved new defenses for pests or blights. Humans farmed this way for about 10,000 years. Even at the turn of the 20th century, small farms tended to grow many crops and sometimes several varieties of a particular crop. If a blight attacked one corn variety on a farm, it was likely that the farmer, or another farmer nearby, would be growing a resistant They are dependent upon intensive use of fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides. They reach the market only if they can withstand mechanical harvesting and the rigors of shipping to distant markets, and these packing considerations shape our diet in startling ways, as anyone who’s followed the quest for the square tomato can tell you. Some biotech companies have taken the human manipulation of crops to a profitable—if seemingly unnatural—extreme. In 1997, biotech giant Monsanto, which began as a chemical company, filed for a patent for a seed whose survival depends not on being exposed to a rise in temperature or an inch of rainfall, but on being exposed to a certain chemical.
And now, according to the International Food Information Council, we have scientists crossing two potato varieties to make a hybrid that will be higher in starch and need less oil for frying, resulting in lower-fat fries. But genetic engineers no longer stop with crossing two varieties of the same plant species. They’re as likely to consider adding genes from another species or even animals if the changes seem likely to increase a crop’s profitability. Recently, genetic engineers modified strawberries with a gene from a fish, the flounder, to make the fruit resistant to cold. In this way, millions of years of nature’s "decisions"—which crops should fail, which thrive, which qualities are passed on through evolution—are reversed almost overnight. The Union of Concerned Scientists is, well, concerned. Poet W.S. Merwin likens our position in history now to the start of the nuclear age: We are rushing to embrace technology that will change us in unalterable, unforeseeable ways.
A problem with miracles is that sometimes they don’t last. A miracle-yield hybrid’s defenses against disease or natural enemies are often based on a single gene, an easy thing for continuously evolving pests to overcome.
The first crop to be nearly wiped out as a result of a lack of genetic diversity was the humble spud, which the Europeans brought home with them after "discovering" the New World.
In Ireland, the potato became the staple crop; by the 1840s a third of the Irish were dependent on it for nourishment. But since all the potatoes grown in Europe were the descendants of that original handful of potatoes brought over from the Andes, the crop had a narrow gene pool. When Phytophthora infestans, the fungus that causes potato blight, struck in 1845, the potato lacked the resistance to combat it. The five-year famine that followed slashed the population of Ireland by about 20 percent, killing between one and two million people and forcing more than a million others to emigrate. The potato was saved only when more diverse varieties growing in the Andes and Mexico were found to be resistant to the blight. Without that resistance, it’s unlikely the potato would be around today as a major crop.
THE POTATO famine may seem like dusty history; but variety. But as the century wore on, agribusiness was born. Now, giant agricultural agencies develop fruits and vegetables specifically for giant farms, which concentrate on a single variety of a single crop, designed for high-yield growth. These new crops aren’t self-reliant—many hybrids can’t even produce offspring, putting an end to the age-old tradition of gathering seeds from the current harvest for next year’s crop. the southern corn leaf blight that swept the U.S. in 1970 proves we haven’t done enough to stop history from repeating itself. By the late 1960s, as much as 85 percent of the nation’s corn crop had been bred to produce sterile pollen, a practice that lowered the cost of raising hybrids. Unfortunately, the gene for "sterile male cytoplasm" also left the plants extremely vulnerable to a newly emerged strain of the southern corn leaf blight fungus. In Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, environmentalists Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney describe the affected hybrids as "sitting ducks." The resulting epidemic destroyed 15 percent of the nation’s corn harvest and cost farmers about a billion dollars. Even today, many say several other crops are dangerously susceptible to such failure, including—gulp—coffee and chocolate.
IMAGINE hiking high into the Sierra Nevadas and coming across a people known as the Northern Pomos. Imagine being able to converse with them in their language. Imagine clicking your tongue against the back of your teeth to say "sunset," aspirating in your throat to say "waterfall." Imagine it all you want, but Northern Pomo, spoken for millennia in Northern California, could soon go the way of the Ansault pear. Though scattered individuals are trying to resuscitate the language, it’s on the verge of disappearing.
Edward G. Gray, in New World Babel, estimates that, when Europeans first reached the New World, there were between 1,000 and 2,000 distinct tongues in the Americas, nearly half of which are now extinct. A graphic way to understand this is to peruse the maps in Atlas of the World’s Languages, edited by C. Moseley and R.E. Asher. The maps showing pockets of language before the colonizers arrived in America are many-colored, many-patterned quilts; each subsequent map is increasingly bleached, increasingly pattern-free.
Languages don’t die because they are in any way inferior or deficient, as has been sometimes supposed in the past. They die because of pressures on minority communities to speak the majority language. Sometimes this pressure is economic, as in the case of the Waimiri-Atroari, a tribe of 500 people in the Brazilian Amazon, whose tongue is listed in the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages. The Waimiri-Atroari are mostly monolingual, but their contact with the Portuguese-speaking majority has been increasing as they pursue expanded trade opportunities. As the tribe grows more bilingual, its members might begin speaking Portuguese to each other, thus eroding the motivation for children to learn the native language. Its death will most likely follow.
The pressure for a minority community to speak the majority language can also be political, as has been the case with Native American languages in the United States. Since some Native American languages were found to lack abstract concepts—like salvation, God, and redemption—the settlers presumed its speakers couldn’t grasp these concepts. It seemed to follow that Native Americans’ salvation could only be achieved by "liberating" them from their restrictive native tongues. There were those who defended America’s original languages—Thomas Jefferson, for one, compiled vocabulary lists of Native American words throughout his lifetime. But even today we don’t have a national policy of language preservation. In fact, between 1981 and 1990, 15 states enacted "Official English" laws to guarantee English as the language of the U.S. government.
As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, "the majority lays down the law about language as about all else."
In Robert Robins and Eugenius Uhlenbeck’s Endangered Languages, languages are termed "moribund" if they are spoken only by a small group of older people and are not being learned by children. In contrast, a "safe" language has, at a minimum, "a community of 100,000 speakers" and the "official support of a nation-state." These numbers don’t necessarily represent a swelling, robust population—Gaelic, spoken in pockets throughout Ireland, Isle of Man, and Scotland, for example, is among the safe languages—but 80 percent of the languages spoken in North America fail to meet even those standards. In Australia, 90 percent of the languages are moribund. As I write this, 67 languages in Africa are being spoken for what may be the last few years. Some are being documented by linguists, who spend much of their professional lives rushing to record languages before they die. When a language is near death, they find themselves in the rather lonely position of University of California linguist Bill Shipley, who with three Indian women in their 90s are the only human beings on earth who can speak Maidu, a language of northern California mountain Indians.
In my girlhood I thought that each word in English had its exact equivalent in every other language, and language study was the memorization of these codes. I later learned that each language is a unique repository of the accumulated thoughts and experiences of a community. What do we learn about a culture by examining its language? The Zuni speak reverently of pena tashana, a "long talk prayer" so potent it can only be recited once every four years. The Delaware Indians have a term of affection, wulamalessohalian, or "thou who makest me happy." The Papago of the Sonoran Desert say Sbanow as the superlative of "one whose breath stinks like a coyote."
During this century, 87 languages spoken in the Amazon basin of South America have become extinct because their native speakers were dispersed from their lands or killed. When these languages died, they took with them not only the specialized knowledge that the tribes had gained from thousands of years of natural healing and conservation, but also ways of living from which we might have learned something. In the absence of these examples, as John Adams wrote, "we are left to grope in the dark and puzzle ourselves to explain a thousand things which would have appeared very simple if we had . . . the pure light of antiquity."
But even beyond this rather romantic notion of the need for language preservation, there are concrete and empirical losses to science when languages become extinct. A wealth of information can be extracted from languages by the use of statistical techniques, and this information can be used not only by linguists, but also by anthropologists, cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, geneticists, and population biologists, among others. Hypotheses about human migration patterns can be tested by seeing whether words have been assimilated into a language from the languages of nearby populations. Hypotheses about neural structures and processes can be tested by analyzing the phonology and syntax of a language. Hypotheses about how our brains generate sentences can be tested against different sentences. What must all infant brains have in common, given that any child can acquire any language? The more data we have, the closer we can come to answering questions such as these. Furthermore, recent studies indicate that language learning causes cognitive and neural changes in an individual. At a recent conference at the Centre for Theories of Language and Learning, Mark Pagel argued that when a child begins to categorize objects through word-learning, some neural connections in the brain are strengthened, while others are weakened or eliminated. Previous learning affects the brain’s way of categorizing new stimuli, and so Pagel concluded that, although it may be true that all humans "think in the same way," one’s native language influences one’s perceptions. When we lose linguistic diversity we suffer a consequent loss in the range of ways of experiencing the world.
The issues involved in diversity are more far-reaching. If language ability, as many theorists hold, is what separates us from animals, then it is the central event of human evolution. If language is a well-engineered biological instinct, as Steven Pinker argues in The Language Instinct, each language that dies takes from us a few crucial parts of nature’s tale, so much of which still eludes us. In fact, each language that dies weakens our most vital challenge—to engage the world in all its complexity and to find meaning there.
I DON'T want my argument for diversity to rest solely on what we need from nature. Plenty of people will say that we have all we need. So, okay, we lose a few varieties of Ethiopian sorghum—varieties once so beloved they were named "Why Bother with Wheat?" and "Milk in My Cheeks." Do we really need 40 kinds? Isn’t four enough? And if we lose a few obscure languages, maybe that’s the price we have to pay for having fewer translators and English as a "universal business language," saving time, frustration, and money.
But each seemingly interchangeable variety of sorghum contains a distinct link of DNA that reveals part of nature’s story. Similarly, each language is a biological phenomenon that might hold clues that will help us understand how our brains are organized. What clues our progeny will need is beyond our power to know. We can’t imagine what will be useful, necessary, what will provide a link, prove or disprove a hypothesis. When plants or languages go extinct, we may be losing pieces to a puzzle we won’t be ready to put together for a thousand years.
Yet beyond the idea of what will be useful to future generations, we, right here, right now, have a need for needless diversity. A world with fewer fruits and vegetables isn’t only a world with an endangered food supply. It’s also a world with less flavor, less aroma, less color. We suffer a diminution of choice. And a world with fewer languages isn’t only a world with more limited means of communication. It’s also a world with fewer stories and folktales, fewer hagiographies, fewer poems, myths, and recipes, fewer remedies, fewer memories. We possess the accumulated vision and wisdom of fewer cultures. We become like hybrid corn: less diverse, with fewer accumulated defenses, susceptible to dangers that our ancestors might have battled and overcome, dangers they could have helped us with, had the record of their culture not vanished from human history.
What I want to say is this. As a poet, I’ve been carrying on a love affair with words and the world for 28 years, and I’ve come to believe that the sheer magnitude of creation blesses us: the gross numbers, the unaccountability of it—as if the world were a grand room full of books and though we might read all we can, we will never, ever outstrip its riches. It’s both an unsettling and a comforting thought. If we are stewards of the world, we are stewards of a charge beyond our comprehension; even now science can tell us less about the number of species we have on earth than about the number of stars in our galaxy. There is something important in the idea of this fecundity, this abundance, this escape hatch for our imaginations. Somehow, despite our savagery, we have been overprovided for, and I believe it is a sign of love.
Poet Wendell Berry urges us to care for "the unseeable animal," even if it means we never see it. So, I would argue, must we care for the untastable vegetable, the unhearable language, which add their link, as we add ours, to nature’s still-unfolding tale. They deepen nature’s mystery even as they provide clues to help us comprehend that mystery. They enrich us not only because they can serve us, not only because they are useful, but also because they are. Their existence contributes to the complexity of the world in which we are, a world we still strive—thankfully, nobly—to understand.
Beth Ann Fennelly is an assistant professor of English at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Her book of poems, Open House, won The Kenyon Review Prize for a First Book and is being published by Zoo Press. From the literary journal Michigan Quarterly Review (Fall, 2000). Subscriptions:$18/yr. (4 issues) from University of Michigan, Room 3032, Rackham Bldg., 915 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109.