On heritage and inheritance

01ep-sci_western-g_2952743fThere is a subtle difference between heritage and inheritance. This is the reason why experts distinguish between natural heritage on one hand and cultural heritage on the other. Wikipedia describes natural heritage as that of living forms — an inheritance of flora, fauna, geology, landscape, landforms and other natural resources in a given geographical area. Note here that even landscape and landforms are seen to be the result of living forms (for example the Great Barrier Reef off Australia or the mangroves of the Sundarbans of Bengal). In contrast to this is cultural heritage, which Wikipedia describes as the legacy of physical artefacts and generally manmade objects (for example, Mohenjadaro, Ajanta caves or the Bamiyan Buddhas). Also, while there is the feature of continuity in a natural heritage, a cultural heritage does not have the “life” that the former has. It is “inert” and a one-time effort.

Regardless, both natural and cultural heritages have been respected and prided upon by humankind as a whole; thus their recognition as World Heritage sites or objects by agencies such as UNESCO, the Aga Khan Trust and others. This generality and commonality is important and not artificial. Heritages do not know nor recognise national boundaries (which are lines — often temporary — drawn across regions of the globe by man for political reasons). We have thus come to realise and recognise that Angkor Vat, the Amazon forest, coral reefs and the Grand Canyon are humanity’s treasures and must be preserved for generations to come. History here becomes heritage.

Yet, there is a difference between natural and cultural heritages. Living forms live in environments conducive to their growth and reproduction. There are habitats they live and thrive in and habitats where they cannot. In very general terms, this is natural selection at play. But when the habitat where they thrive is perturbed, their existence could be in danger. (The effect of global warming is one such threat. And excessive use of antibiotics is another. We now have new multi-drug-resistant microbes attacking us. The influenza virus alone has had several avatars during the present century, and this is getting more and more worrisome for human and animal health.)

Read the full editorial in Indian Journal of History of Science