Thursday, 3 April 2008

UNESCO at 60 by Claude Lévi-Strauss

A rather surprising endorsement of the basic claims of race-realists and nationalists:

From UNESCO at 60 by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Diogenes Vol. 54, No. 3, 5-10 (2007)


In the wake of the Second World War, what with the horror caused by racist doctrines and their pursuance through the massacre of entire populations and the extermination camps, it was only to be expected that Unesco would regard as its most urgent task the scientific criticism and moral censure of the notion of race. Hence the two successive declarations on race, in 1951 and 1952 respectively. Why two? This was because the first, sociologically inspired one was seen by biologists as too simplistic. After the second declaration, it seemed, Unesco was able to consider the problem to have been settled once and for all.

Around 1950, however, population genetics had not really come into its own. It nowadays prompts us to recognize that the oneness of the human person, which it does not question, is of greater complexity. Behind this oneness, it discerns what it calls fuzzy sets of genetic variants that cross and intersect, become isolated, disperse or run together in the course of time, and whose identification can be genuinely useful in medicine. While continuing to proclaim the oneness of the human person, we have to keep abreast of scientific research and make adjustments as necessary, which is what Unesco did in two subsequent declarations in 1964 and 1967. This is a particularly necessary task in view of some disquieting recent publications by biologists attempting to rehabilitate the notion of race, if only in acceptations differing from those it may have had in the past, but which nevertheless remain sensitive.

Recognition of cultural diversity and the protection of cultural identities under threat form the second segment of this mission of Unesco in which anthropology also sees its place. Unesco first conceived it from the angle of the world’s heritage, where such diversity is to be seen spread over time, as it were. It more recently undertook to envisage it also in space, including therein all its modalities throughout the world and which, being intangible and so devoid of tangible reality, are liable to disappear without trace.


Unesco has become convinced that languages are a treasure, in themselves for a start and because their disappearance entails that of beliefs, skills, usages, arts and traditions that are all irreplaceable items of the heritage of humanity.

As Unesco emphasizes throughout its material, these fears are unfortunately all too justified by the accelerated impoverishment of cultural diversity caused by this fearsome conjunction of phenomena called globalization.


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. Hence, in his Proposals for 2006–7, the Director-General emphasizes the existence of a ‘cultural diversity-biodiversity nexus’. It indeed seems to me that, to develop differences, for the thresholds making a culture distinguishable from its neighbours to become sufficiently clear-cut, the conditions are roughly the same as those fostering biological differentiation: relative isolation for a long period; and only limited exchanges, whether cultural or genetic. Cultural barriers are of much the same nature as biological barriers; the latter prefigure them all the more closely in that all cultures impress their mark on the body through styles of costume, headgear and ornament, through bodily mutilations and through body-language patterns; and they mirror differences comparable to those recognized between varieties within one and the same species.

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