All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.
As Americans—indeed, as citizens of any liberal democracy—we profess to value our freedom. Each citizen may do as he pleases, within boundaries: he may wear what he chooses, believe what he chooses, act as he chooses, take a job that appeals to him, marry a person he finds attractive. In these and many other activities, we enjoy the kind of freedom of movement that few people in history have experienced. Yet to sustain these freedoms, we willingly submit ourselves to constraining laws, voluntarily giving up certain other freedoms to maintain others. Why have we accepted this system? What has freedom of choice to offer that we forgo certain other desires—to take anything we wish, to drive as fast as we wish, etc.? Why do we so value freedom of choice (in many things)?
I submit that our freedom-within-limits provides us with some of the greatest goods we can experience. We live without fear for our lives, going about our daily lives with impunity. We can express ourselves confidently. More importantly, we respect one another, and our differences, even when those differences are irreconcilable. This respectful behavior is integral to the functioning of society as we know it, for several reasons. First, respecting other beliefs and other cultures provides the groundwork for a peaceful society. By accepting differences, we can remain “the great mixing pot,” without killing one another over beliefs. Second, respecting one another allows a continuance of cultural diversity that keeps society healthy. Let me explain by using an example from my field of expertise, biology.
In a biological system, species diversity plays a key role in the health of that system. Increased diversity means increased productivity, greater resistance to endangering disturbances, and swifter recovery after disturbances. A diverse ecosystem will be able to respond to a wide variety of changes by emphasizing species best suited to that new situation. Similarly, within a species, genetic diversity allows that species to survive disease outbreaks, climate change, new predators, and to adapt to new situations. The species’ overall fitness increases with genetic diversity. This adaptive ability ensures the species’ continuance, enabling the species to shift its survival techniques to suit various situations. Without genetic diversity, a species will succumb swiftly to what’s known as inbreeding depression, in which increasingly harmful recessive negative traits emerge as related organisms interbreed. Even a large but low-diversity population is at risk of extinction if a particular disease emerges that few of the individuals have a resistance for.
For example, O’Brien documents that cheetahs experienced a population bottleneck about 10,000 years ago (during the last ice age; before that, they roamed North America and Asia as well as Africa). The species nearly went extinct. Although cheetahs survived, they became “monomorphic” in a specific disease-resistance gene, meaning the entire population has only one gene type for that resistance. When a captive cheetah population caught a disease that normally kills about 5% of domestic cats, 60% of the captive cheetah population died as a result. They lacked the genetic diversity to allow individuals to survive the disease’s effects.
I suggest that cultural diversity within society functions in the same way as genetic does within a population or species diversity does within an ecosystem. Cultural diversity allows us to maintain a healthy, functional society. When challenges arise, a stagnant society cannot respond as adaptively as a multicultural society. I would like to point to some example of a monocultural society that suffered as a result of its situation, but I cannot think of any examples. Perhaps we can consider the Nazi regime: What did they lose by propagating racial and cultural uniformity? They lost the creativity of Albert Einstein, Wernher Von Braun, Niels Bohr, Arthur Rubinstein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and numerous others. We cannot guess how they might have fared should they have kept these and other brilliant minds, but it is clear that many of the scientists who fled Germany helped the United States develop the weapons that ultimately defeated Nazi Germany. I cannot make a strong case that lack of diversity lost them the war (it may have had something to do with the whole “two fronts” thing), but it cannot have helped.
However, I still hypothesize that the flexibility engendered by the presences of many different ways of thinking, by the different approaches to problem-solving, by the different viewpoints and beliefs, should allow a society to respond more creatively to problems. Instead of homogeneity of belief locking a society into one viewpoint, heterogeneity provides the opportunity to produce a wide variety of possible responses to problems. These responses could allow society to successfully weather great disturbances—both military and non—that might otherwise destroy it. Is it possible that the openness and resulting cultural diversity we value could one day allow us to recover from what otherwise might be a death-knell? That aside from the inherent value of cultural diversity, such variety would allow us to propagate societal fitness and maintain a healthy, vibrant culture in the face of serious disturbances? If so, the freedom we cherish so much that enables this diversity to exist could very well ensure our society’s lasting survival.
O’Brien, S.J. (1994). A role for molecular genetics in biological conservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 95(13): 5748-5755.