Cultures vary north to south, not east to west

Recent studies provide more evidence that the fortunes of history turn around geographical axes, as first proposed by Jared Diamond. Ola Jachtorowicz reports.

Is geography the determining factor in comparative development?

In 1997, physiologist, ecologist and environmental historian Jared Diamond, currently at University of California, Los Angeles, published his groundbreaking popular science book Gun, Germs, and Steel.

Tangible support for Jared Diamond’s hypothesis that geographic differences generate cultural differences allows researchers to look at the roots of diversity, not only the effects, and may help create more peaceful and more integrated communities.

Political researcher David Laitin at Stanford University in California, who headed a recent study into the very phenomenon said, “for years, political scientists believed that ethnic attachments were unchanging and therefore levels of diversity were like mountains, part of the landscape that was just there. However, once we learned that cultural identities were subject to change due to economic, political and social conditions, it became important to figure out why some places became (or remained) more diverse than others.”

The crux of Diamond’s argument started with a very basic observation: following along with him on a world map, he pointed out “you’ll be struck by an obvious difference. The Americas span a much greater distance North-South (9,000 miles) than east-west; only 3,000 miles at the widest, narrowing to a mere 40 miles at the Isthmus of Panama… In contrast, the major axis of Eurasia is east-west.”

While this may seem trivial at first, Diamond went on to examine how the spread of agricultural innovation, and with it the development of sophisticated technologies such as writing and gunpowder, was more easily facilitated by an east-westerly orientation. The grains and animals first domesticated were adapted to specific temperature and seasonal ranges that stayed constant east to west, but changed rapidly when moving up and down latitudes, effectively preventing diffusion and preserving diversity on a north-south axis.

Laitin, whose own research centres on states and how they are constructed, was intrigued by Diamond’s ideas, calling his book “a tour de force intellectually.”

However, since there are only a couple continents on our planet to examine, he found “Diamond’s data were insufficient to demonstrate his thesis. I therefore thought for several years on how it might be put to test.”

How did he finally do it? Laitin and his team decided to use modern states, instead of continents, as the unit of analysis, and chose linguistic diversity as an indicator for cultural diversity, utilizing the online linguistic database Ethnologue, a catalogue of almost 7,000 known languages.

Comparing the ratio of north-south versus east-west orientation of over 140 existing states (as well as artificial geographic entities created from bordering states) with the ratio of self-sustaining language communities out of historically indigenous languages, Laitin found that Diamond’s prediction held true, with a positive relationship between the two ratios – the more a country sprawled north to south instead of east to west, the more indigenous languages were being perpetuated by living native speakers.

Using linguistic diversity was key as it was “observable and measurable,” said Laitin, “in my work, I have used measures of religious diversity, and diversity in connections to popular culture. But these are harder to measure reliably over a long historical period.”

Cultural identity, language maintenance and globalisation researcher Giancarlo Chiro at the University of South Australia, who was not involved in the study, urged caution in overstating the role of axes as significant predictors of cultural diversity.

Chiro praised the thorough research methods of the team, but emphasised the importance of other socio-historical variables, suggesting that “national/regional historical trajectory would be equally if not more important to cultural diversity, especially in countries which have experienced colonisation.”

From his own sociological orientation, Chiro recommended that an “analysis of the language values of the coloniser, or the national language policies of postcolonial societies which relate to minority language maintenance, may be of equal or greater significance to cultural persistence than the axial distribution of the country.”

Although Laitin’s paper recalled previous research that increased cultural diversity is often accompanied by lower economic growth, higher rates of distrust and violence and failure of governments to provide public goods, Laitin’s own views are more optimistic.

“My normative stance is that there are great upsides to diversity – it makes life far more interesting to experience different cultural environments – and that globalisation will increase diversity,” said Laitin, “therefore we need to think how best to take advantage of diversity without suffering from its negative implications.”

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