Exploring Cultural Diversity Through Study of Biogeography

Alexander Harcourt

When Dr. Alexander Harcourt approached zoologist Dian Fossey after a lecture at the University of Cambridge in 1971, where he was studying, he had no way of knowing the encounter would lead to a 35-year-long career as a zoologist and anthropologist.

“I was looking for something to do during the summer vacation, looking for some relevant zoological work,” Harcourt said. “And I asked her if she needed any help, and she did.”

Harcourt, who was born in Kenya, traveled to Rwanda with Fossey for three months to study gorillas in Virunga Volcanoes National Park. Part of the scientific reason to study monkeys and apes, he said, is to get to know humans better.

“What I always do is quote a bit of Rudyard Kipling,” Harcourt said. “And his phrase is, ‘Who can England know if only England knows?’ If we know only about humans we’ve got nothing to compare ourselves with. We don’t know what’s special about us. So that’s why I was interested in getting information on our closest relatives.”

Recently, Harcourt, who is currently a professor in the Anthropology Department at University of California, Davis, shifted his focus away from primates. Leaving the fieldwork of Africa behind, he has pursued a newfound interest in the biogeography of humans. Biogeography explores the relationship between the biology of living things and their distribution around the world.

By synthesizing data from several old anthropological studies of traditional societies and Ethnologue, a language database, Harcourt is attempting to piece together how and why cultures are distributed the way they are.

“So it’s trying to get at biological explanations for why people in different parts of the world look and behave differently,” said Harcourt, who will give a lecture, sponsored by The Leakey Foundation, at The Field Museum on November 17.

In his research, Harcourt has been examining tropical biodiversity, which scientists have been studying for some time. It is known that plants and animals are more biologically diverse in tropical regions. For example, there are more species of frogs in South America than in North America.

Humans, on the other hand, are genetically quite similar to one another the world over because we are so recently evolved, Harcourt said. But, humans are more culturally diverse in the tropics, mimicking what plants and animals do on a biological level. There are more human languages in tropical regions, for example.

“How on earth can culture, which seems to be so associated with our human brain, really not associated with biology at all, be doing the same thing as animals and plants?” he asked, posing a question he will answer at his upcoming lecture.

And though we now have the ability to travel vast distances, we still ultimately stick to our own kind, Harcourt added. This fear of the strange, even the slightly strange, is universal.

“Animals stick with their own species. People stick with their own cultures,” he said. “It makes it really interesting, but in some sense it’s sad that the different cultures keep to themselves.”

The study of biogeography has practical applications from medicine to nutrition.

Environment affects how people react to food, Harcourt said, citing a case where famine relief organizations handed out milk powder in impoverished regions where most adults are lactose intolerant. Similarly, people from different parts of the world react differently to different drugs and diseases, he said.

“A tiny little gene that makes you a little more resistant to malaria will help you in Africa, it won’t help you here [in the U.S.],” Harcourt said.

Harcourt, whose book “Human Biogeography” came out in April, is working on an abridged version for a lay audience. He said he hopes that non-scientists can get access to the work of anthropologists and biologists.

“I really do think it’s terribly important that we know that we are not special,” Harcourt said. “I don’t think we should go around thinking that we’re more important than all other beings on earth. I think the more that people realize they’re doing the same thing as animals and even plants, maybe the more humble we might be.”

Update 4/18/13

Listen to Dr. Harcourt’s full lecture on SoundCloud via WBEZ’s Chicago Amplified:


Originally published in HELIX Magazine Nov 12, 2012
Photo courtesy of The Leakey Foundation