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My writing   : :   Biocultural & linguistic diversity

“Congruence between species and linguistic diversity”

David Harmon and Jonathan Loh

chapter in


The Oxford Handbook of Endangered Languages

Kenneth L. Rehg and Lyle Campbell, editors

New York: Oxford University Press, 2018


In this chapter we lay out the evidence for the considerable overlap between species and languages. Numerous studies have confirmed that there is a striking congruence between the global distributions of species diversity and language diversity. In both, richness and diversity generally increase at latitudes closer to the Equator. A variety of explanations has been offered; fundamentally, it appears that similar evolutionary processes, working on key biogeographic and environmental factors, are the cause. Advances in statistical analysis promise a deeper understanding of the overlap. The status of and trends in species and language diversity also show remarkable similarities when two leading indicators, the Living Planet Index and the Index of Linguistic Diversity, are compared at a global scale. Likewise, an analysis using IUCN Red List criteria reveals comparable levels of threat. At regional scales, however, differences emerge between trends. An integrated, biocultural approach to conservation is proposed as the most effective response to the parallel extinction crisis of species and languages.

Publisher’s bookpage   •   Amazon bookpage

“Biological diversity and language diversity: parallels and differences”

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and David Harmon

chapter in


The Routledge Handbook of Ecolinguistics

Alwin F. Fill and Hermine Penz, editors

Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2018


My colleague Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and I contributed the opening chapter to this book, which the publisher describes as “the first comprehensive exploration into the field of ecolinguistics, also known as language ecology. Organized into three sections that treat the different topic areas of ecolinguistics, the Handbook begins with chapters on language diversity, language minorities and language endangerment, with authors providing insight into the link between the loss of languages and the loss of species. It continues with an overview of the role of language and discourse in describing, concealing, and helping to solve environmental problems. With discussions on new orientations and topics for further exploration in the field, chapters in the last section show ecolinguistics as a pacesetter into a new scientific age.”

Publisher’s bookpage   •   Amazon bookpage

Biocultural Diversity:

Threatened Species, Endangered Languages

Jonathan Loh and David Harmon

Zeist, The Netherlands: WWF–Netherlands, 2014


Biodiversity and cultural diversity face many similar challenges throughout the world. Considering how they relate to each other, their similar declines, and the common drivers of these declines, this report from WWF Netherlands considers them as aspects of a single entity—biocultural diversity. We also present results from the latest version of our Index of Linguistic Diversity, one of the most widely cited metrics of its kind and recognized as an indicator of Aichi Target #18 of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“This is one of the more systematic efforts to define and describe biocultural diversity—or more particularly language and biodiversity—that has ever been completed. It’s not just a careful and thorough description of how linguistic and biodiversity actually evolve and connect, but a presentation of fresh data on the different patterns in different regions that groups on the ground will find stimulating and useful in their own communications and strategic work.” — Ken Wilson, Executive Director, The Christiansen Fund

Publisher’s bookpage (free download)

See also our op-ed piece for The New York Times, “Preserving Biocultural Diversity” (August 12, 2014)

In Light of Our Differences:

How Diversity in Nature and Culture Makes Us Human

David Harmon

Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002

Most scientists would agree that a sixth mass extinction is on the horizon unless radical changes are made in how Western society treats nature. At the same time, another extinction crisis is unfolding: the loss of many of the world’s languages. More and more work in applied biology, anthropology, linguistics, and other related fields is now driven by the assumption that we are approaching a threshold of irreversible loss, that events during the next few decades will decide whether we cross over into a fundamentally changed and significantly diminished world. This leads to a very simple question: Why should anyone care?

I take on this essential question by drawing on insights from conservation biology, evolutionary theory, linguistics, geography, psychology, philosophy, and ethics. The conclusion? When more and more elemental differences are erased from the natural world and human societies, the field of possible experience becomes more constricted and our essential humanity becomes jeopardized. In short, as we lose diversity, we risk losing ourselves.

“[Harmon] has gone where no one else has gone—to the historic intellectual underpinnings of discourse about diversity, unity, and heterogeneity, and with this link in place, the rest of the book has the potential to declare this issue one of the four or five great intellectual issues of mankind.... It’s a tour de force in terms of fresh insights and in terms of scholarly research.”

Gary Paul Nabhan

Publisher’s bookpage   •   Amazon bookpage