Diversity as a Cornerstone to all Life

by Heidi Williams

In the world of social justice, there are a few words that people like to throw around a lot. And front and center of these, one word comes up again and again. Diversity. Diversity in our schools, diversity in our government, our workplace, our homes. Social diversity often stands to us as a sign of equality and fairness. As it well should. Social diversity is not yet a part of mainstream culture in the United States. This is worthy of more attention, and worth the fight it takes for us to inch our way closer to a more diverse, aka, more just, system.

Even equality issues aside, diversity in a team has been proven by scientists, economists, and sociologists to coincide with an increase in innovation and creative problem solving. That is because people’s differences in identity-- be it race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, you name it, create differences in backgrounds and heritages. These differences foster an inevitable diversity of thought, and it is these underrepresented, valid, fresh thoughts that can so enrich the world around us and infuse a needed jolt into our white-bread-male-dominated society. It also makes us more compassionate, curious, empathetic, productive, thoughtful citizens of the world. And multi-cultural cities—London, New York, etc.-- are often thought of as powerhouses in the world, the places where stuff happens, and the places where people are willing to shell out a lot more money to live because of the city’s vibrancy. This leads to more economic prosperity. All in all, there is an inherent strength in diversity.   

I can’t say it better than this guy.

John Stuart Mill, quoted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as ‘the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century’ said:

    John Stuart Mill

    John Stuart Mill

“It is hardly possible to overrate the value, for the improvement of human beings, of things which bring them into contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar… there is no nation which does not need to borrow from others.”

But I think that it goes much deeper than this. It is a matter of science. In my Undergraduate Biology 101 class, I learned that our world and our ecosystems would cease to function without something called biodiversity. Biodiversity is the variety of life. The more unique species there are that interact in a living space, or ecosystem, the healthier that ecosystem is considered to be by science. The more genetic diversity—the amount of variety within a single species, the healthier that species is thought to be within an ecosystem. Scientists recognize that diversity creates a more flexible, adaptable, and resilient community. The rainforest is the quintessential example of an ecosystem that has rich biodiversity. I would argue that the rainforest, as a community, is incredibly creative and innovative. Think of all the layers, the sights, sounds and smells—all unique—city-esque.It is no coincidence that much of the ingredients in our everyday products are derived from the rainforest. I’m guessing Amazon.com is named as such to invoke the sheer variety of products it sells.

Now, contrast that with the characteristics of an ecosystem that is characterized by sameness. The first and most important thing to note is that systems that lack diversity do not exist in nature—they are human created systems. They are not natural, they are not strong, and they are called monocultures. You may have heard of monoculture if you have heard of Monsanto, one of the top most hated corporations in the United States. The problem with monocultures is that when each individual is the same, they are susceptible to all fall at the same time if something goes wrong. These systems can only be maintained artificially, and sometimes not even then, because they are unable to survive hardship (often in the form of disease). Think of the potato famine or the fact that bananas as we know them are at risk of dying.

 We humans are an essential part, not separate from, our ecosystems and natural world. We are a species too. Biologically then, the same principles apply. We as a species form a healthier human ecosystem with more diversity, and will be more equipped to thrive and adapt to tough situations. Now, I am not claiming this as a scientific theory or anything so official, but merely as a logical extension of a scientific idea, or a metaphor. I think that our think tanks and organizations ought to embrace a diversity of opinions and types of people not because of lawsuits or obligations, but because it will make them better and stronger as a unit. We want rainforests, not monocultures, in our work environment. All those offices full of white heterosexual middle-aged men? Those are the corporate monocultures, the monocultures of innovation.

Now wouldn’t it be incredible if the United States recognized the fundamental importance of diversity to life, too? What if we measured the health of our country by the infusion of diversity in various of fields, instead of just economic variables and how much stuff us consumers buy? Economists aren’t strangers to the importance of diversity after all—the very first thing investors and banks usually tell their clients is to diversify their holdings and their assets to minimize risk. So why on earth aren’t these crusty businessmen more willing to open up the clubhouse and diversify who they associate with in order to reduce risk. Risk of sameness, group think, and a lack of fresh perspective.

--The Heibernator


If you liked this article, I recommend checking out these sources for more information:

·         This academic book is useful for a deeper dive into the value of diversity:

The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies by Claudia Dreifus.  

·         This article was published in 2007, but it seems like it is very relevant today and could be used as powerful ammo against Trump’s ignorant and racist approach to migration into the United States.

Philip Legrain, YaleGlobal, “Cosmopolitan Masala: Diversity Enriches us all”. Nov. 2007. http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/cosmopolitan-masala-diversity-enriches-us-all

·         And lastly, see this brilliant blurb by The Onion if you are in the mood for a laugh

Heidi Williams fancies herself as a Renaissance woman with a special place in her heart for art and science. She is a budding environmentalist working on ocean policy issues and spatial analysis. Her idea of a fun Friday night is spending hours on Lynda.com combing through tutorial videos, mixed in with the occasional trip around the world via travel blogs and Instagram. Follow her on your favorite social media platform @heibernator.