Globalisation isn’t new.  As a process it has been running for thousands of years.  People have always travelled the earth, but increasingly they have been able to travel further and further distances.  Communication systems have grown in complexity and spread out to cover the world.  Goods, services and ideas have been transported around the world for a long time.

The Eastern Telegraph Company System – 1899 chart of underwater telegraph cables. 

Up until the 1980’s, globalisation was generally limited by how fast a person (or an item) could travel.  Most of the exchange of goods and people was through transport systems.    Although the telegraph existed its use was generally limited, telegrams (although understood by most people) weren’t a hugely common means of communication.  Eventually, this gave way to the telephone which to begin with generally facilitated better communication across a nation.  However, in the 1980’s, with the development of satellite technology people were able communicate, initially through telephones and later through computers all around the world (although the bulk of the internet was established through a continually improving cable based infrastructure around a lot of the world).  Television’s influence grew wider still due to the development of satellite TV.

These developments meant ideas and information became shared ever more quickly.  Today, internet-based services and virtual collaborations mean businesses and projects form without any geographical boundaries.  Through you-tube and twitter, the scope to ‘go-viral’ and have a single idea or product reach billions in a matter of days, even hours, is a real possibility.  But what does this coming together mean socially? Are we working toward a ‘singular’ global society?  What does the ease of access and spread of global communications mean for the diverse societies found around the world?

Globalisation and society.

Until recently, when globalisation happened more slowly, most societies existed as ‘microcosms’ – diverse small environments where different languages, cultures and ideas dominated.  To help understand this and what it means, consider the following example that every Genetics student learns about the ‘Great lakes’, just to illustrate a bit more about this trend.

The Great Lakes are in Africa and they cover a very large area.  They are home to a species of fish called the ‘Cichlid’.

The great lakes (mainly Lake Malawi, Lake Victoria, and Lake Tanganyika) are home to around 800 and 2100 species of Cichlid.  Nearly all of these species are endemic (this means they evolved in and are confined to a particular place) to the lake they inhabit.  This is why the Cichlid species is used often in Genetics research because it is known to both adapt and evolve quickly.  This is explains why there are so many diverse cichlid species across the Great Lakes.  Each species has adapted to its own niche, so much so that it will now only mate with its own ‘kind’.  And its own kind might be a blue fish, or it could be more subtle, it could be that it only mates with a fish that does a particular kind of swimming motion.  When such diversification abounds the differential between what is and what isn’t a species can become quite particular.

So, what does this have to do with globalisation and diversity?

Now, consider each Great Lake as its own environment.  What would happen if, due to some kind of freak geological rebalancing – say an earthquake that suddenly brings all of the lakes level with each other and they all ran together?  You would have a large number of cichlids, each adapted to their own environmental niche which had suddenly, without warning, changed.  This would probably be a difficult time for a lot of the cichlids.  There would be extensive competition amongst those seeking to occupy the same space.  In the short term there would be a lot of fighting.  Then, as things stablised, you would see the forces of selection operating over this wide range of species.  The overall, larger lake environment that has resulted from all the smaller lakes running together, would be larger, more uniform, this would probably lead to the variability of the wider environment decreasing.  This would mean the number of specialist environments the cichlids could adapt to, would reduce and probably lead to a reduction in the total number of cichlid species.  Reducing to a smaller total number of species, but probably with a greater number of fishes in each species.

So, is this the case with Globalisation?  With the coming together of many different, localised societies are we seeing a great, global ‘mixing’.  Are all of the different ‘lakes’ of human society with different cultures, norms and practices merging?  Although, thankfully, this is not being bought about by some catastrophe – some kind of continental, drift in reverse.  Instead, the geography is staying the same but it is the movement of people and the knowledge and transmission of ideas between the different communities that is bringing everyone together.  And as it does, what does it mean?  Does it mean we all become increasingly similar, characterised by a declining number of global norms, which become increasingly inconsequential?

Globalisation and human society.

Are human environments all becoming increasingly similar?  Is there any evidence for this?  Consider some of the following trends.

Firstly, living habitats could be seen as becoming more uniform.  It is now more common for people to live in the urban environment.  This means people tend to live in smaller habitations confined to smaller areas.  They tend to find employment in the urban environment that is often based on services – moving away from the traditional form of agriculture as the main source of employment.  People tend to live in higher density housing, perhaps increasingly living in apartments rather than houses.  (If you’re interested in facts and figures for this trend – take a look at the excellent UN Urbanisation prospects database at http://esa.un.org/unup/)

Second, while the physical environment most people find themselves in becomes smaller and more uniform – this, combined with trends in current employment patterns drives a trend for smaller family sizes.  Today, there is generally a benefit in most countries to have a family size of 1-2 children as such a level probably has less impact on long term individual earnings.  Such a trend is a large shift away from the ‘traditional’ notion of ‘hunter-gatherers’ with large families, which has often been the basis for having larger family sizes in most societies around the world.  This trend is further reiterated by the increasing awareness of global norms for family size.  As more people get TV, they see entertainment programmes that show families with, generally, 1-2 children, often in-line with so, often through things like sitcoms and the media – the ‘traditional’ family size reduces to ‘developed levels’.

Third.  Language.  As people move more and gravitate to densely populated areas, the number of rare languages, sadly seems to decline.   It seems that also, along with languages so do the cultures and beliefs practiced.  The young look to the modern and opportunity and leave behind the ‘old ways’.  This is further facilitated by modern communications.  Deceptively simply devices like smartphones, tablets and increasingly affordable computing power means that almost everywhere, anybody can access a network.  With such tools, quick and accessible communication thrives on a language that is easy to communicate.  Symbols, emoticons and general overarching principles dominate that allow messages to be conveyed to as many people as quickly as possible.  At present, we could be seeing languages blend into a handful of macro-type forms that are easier to understand by the mainstream and can blend into other for ease of mass communication.

The Enduring languages project part funded by National Geographic, predicts that by 2100 half of the world’s 7000 languages may have disappeared.

Finally, and perhaps even more contentious than some of the trends described above there is the issue of politics.  Is political choice changing?  Are the ideas and values of political parties becoming increasingly similar?  In the UK for example, the political differences between the two main parties – Conservative and Labour used to be quite stark.  But, in the past 20 years, both parties have becoming increasingly central around a wide variety issues.  Labour has becoming more embracing of trade and business, whilst the Conservative party has become, generally, less conservative around issues of immigration and perhaps social care. Has this trend been driven by parties having to adapt to the general consensus of the electorate, which is, for the reasons described above, more central itself?  Does this mean that politically, we can expect the parties to become more like each other?  Its hard to call – this certainly remains an interesting trend that warrants more thought…watch this space on that one to…

So what?

As a species, are humans becoming less diverse? Well.  Perhaps yes and and perhaps no.  The trends described above, generally describe change at the national level.  In the future, what people define themselves as, the norms they subscribe to could be less bounded by the norms/traditions, or rules of their locality.  Nationality, for example, could be less of a significant marker for who a person is as increasingly, people ascribe to a more global system of norms.  But in potential population of 9 billion, what’s ‘normal’ could be potentially huge – the ‘mainstream’ is and will be massive.

In a lot of ways ‘standardisation through globalisation’ is a good thing.  It increases economic opportunity and standards of living for billions.  At a level, traditional diversity may be sacrificed for the majority vote but does it means people generally live longer, are generally healthier and more tolerant?

However, the process of change is never smooth.  Quite apart from the loss of unique languages, species and customs.  Many of those who practice and protect such things do not want them to disappear.  This can lead to many outcomes.  Peaceful awareness building and campaigning to raise awareness and increase protection.  Unfortunately, violence is at the other end.  So that is the challenge of the change that globalisation brings – As the environment becomes increasingly uniform, what does this mean to vast number of beautiful and exoctic creatures that populate our earth?

And one final point about the cichlids.  Another interesting thing about them, is that despite the similarities between them, they are for the main, very similar genetically.  This means that they could interbreed if they chose to.  But, they don’t chose to.  Sexual selection is very strongly in operation, which means that behaviour becomes the most significant factor in determining different types of species.  Despite all the trends pointing to everyone becoming increasing similar in terms of global norms there is a counter trend – the growth of interest based activities.  One of the most expanding industries globally is based around what people choose to do in their spare time.  In the future, could people be more like the cichlids, could people meet and marry and form families only with those that share the same interests as them?  Probably, but this wouldn’t lead to different types of human species – probably not, not at least for about a million years and Warcraft isn’t likely to be in its present form by then is it?

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