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Cultural diversity:
the common heritage of humanity


Culture takes diverse forms across time and space. This diversity is embodied in the uniqueness and plurality of the identities of the groups and societies making up humankind. As a source of exchange, innovation and creativity, cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature.

In this sense, it is the common heritage of humanity and should be recognized and affirmed for the benefit of present and future generations.

Claude Lévi-Strauss - Bio

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) was a French anthropologist and ethnologist and one of the central figures in the structuralist school of thought. He held the chair of social anthropology at the Collège de France from 1959 to 1982. Elected member of the Académie Française in 1973, he was a key figure in the human sciences in the second half of the twentieth century. He was also a foreign member of the academies of the United States of America, United Kingdom, Netherlands and Norway, and received honorary doctorates from 15 universities worldwide, as well as many national and international awards for his research.

Ethnology - or anthropology, as it now tends to be called - takes the human being as its object of study, but differs from the other human sciences in that it seeks to apprehend its object in its most varied manifestations. Hence, the notion of human condition remains marked for it by a degree of ambiguity. With its general nature, the term seems to reduce differences that ethnology essentially seeks to identify and isolate, not without postulating an implicit criterion - that of the human condition itself - which may alone enable it to circumscribe its object.

All intellectual traditions - including ours- have been up against this difficulty.

From its beginnings until the first half of the 20th century, ethnological reflection was extensively concerned with discovering how to reconcile the postulated unity of its object with the diversity and often incomparability of its particular manifestations. To do so, the notion of civilization, connoting a set of general, universal and transmissible capacities, had to make room for that of culture in a new accepted sense, for it denotes as many specific and non-transmissible lifestyles perceptible in the form of tangible embodiments - techniques, mores, customs, institutions and beliefs - rather than virtual capacities, and corresponding to observable values instead of truths or supposed truths.

Now the notion of culture immediately presents problems that are, if I may say so, those of its use in the singular and in the plural. If culture - in the singular and, if need be with a capital C - is the distinguishing attribute of the human condition, what universal traits does it include and how is its nature to be defined? But if culture is reflected only in prodigiously diverse forms illustrated, each in its own manner, by the thousands of societies that exist or have existed on earth, are all these forms equivalent or are they open to value judgements, which, in the affirmative, will inevitably affect the meaning of the notion itself?

The essential task taken on by anthropology is to overcome the apparent antinomy between the oneness of the human condition and the inexhaustible plurality of the forms in which we apprehend it. This task was present from the outset among Unesco’s concerns and has, in the Organization as well, grown in importance.

For its part, Unesco has always recognized the existence of a link between cultural diversity and biodiversity. The 1972 Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage even then brought the two aspects closer together by associating with the cultural heritage ‘habitats of threatened species of animals and plants’. Unesco has moreover established worldwide some 500 biosphere reserves to safeguard remarkable cases of biodiversity.

Over the years, it gave this link ever greater importance in seeking to understand its reasons.

Cultural diversity and biodiversity are, therefore, not just phenomena of the same type. They are intrinsically linked, and we are made constantly more aware that, on a human scale, the problem of cultural diversity reflects a much broader problem whose solution is still more urgent, that of the relations between humans and other living species; and we realize that it would be no use seeking to overcome it in the first instance without also addressing it in the other, given that the respect we wish to obtain from individual human beings towards cultures different from theirs is but one particular case of the respect they should feel for all forms of life.