The sheer concentration of people attracted by the urban lifestyle means that cosmopolitan cities like New York are host to people speaking more than 800 different languages – thought to be the highest language density in the world. In London, less than half of the population is made of white Britons – down from 58% a decade ago. Meanwhile, languages around the world are declining at a faster rate than ever – one of the 7,000 global tongues dies every two weeks.
It is having an effect not just culturally, but biologically: urban melting pots are genetically altering humans. The spread of genetic diversity can be traced back to the invention of the bicycle, according to geneticist Steve Jones, which encouraged the intermarriage of people between villages and towns. But the urbanisation occurring now is generating unprecedented mixing. As a result, humans are now more genetically similar than at any time in the last 100,000 years, Jones says.
The genetic and cultural melange does a lot to erode the barriers between races, as well as leading to novel works of art, science and music that draw on many perspectives. And the tight concentration of people in a city also leads to other tolerances and practices, many of which are less common in other human habitats (like the village) or in other species. For example, people in a metropolis are generally freer to practice different religions or none, to be openly gay, for women to work and to voluntarily limit their family size despite – or indeed because of – access to greater resources.
The biggest takeaway from this in my mind is the reminder that the megacities of today are relatively recent in the scale of human history. Outside of the last 150 years or so, at only a few points in human history has a city or two had a million people. Cities have been very influential throughout history, whether in Rome, Constantinople, Baghdad, or elsewhere, but today’s scale and rate of growth is astounding.
I also wonder if seeing these kinds of changes won’t really be fully known for a couple of hundred years where we can then look back and see that the changes in cities starting in the 1800s really altered human life. At the same time, plenty of learned people have noted the changes that started taking place in European life in particular in the late 1700s and early 1800s, from the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution. The more I have thought about it, the more I’ve become convinced that sociology’s origins are intimately tied to these changes in urban life.