Indigenous Science

Over the last century we in the western world have gradually come to take seriously other culture's religions, social systems, aesthetics, and philosophies. Unlike our eighteenth century forebears we no longer think of indigenous peoples of the non-white world as "savages", but have come to understand that many of these cultures are as complex and sophisticated as ours. The one area where we have continued to proclaim our own specialness - and by extension our own superiority - is science. "True Science" - that is a "truely empirical" understanding of the world - is often said to be a uniquely western pursuit, the one thing we alone have achieved. Against this view, a small but growing body of scholars are beginning to claim that many indigenous cultures also have a genuine scientific understanding of the world - their claim is that science is not a uniquely western endeavour. These "other" sciences are sometimes referred to as "ethnosciences" - examples include (most famously) Mayan astronomy and Chinese medicine, both of which are highly accurate, though wildly different to their western equivalents. Less well known is the logic-obsessed knowledge system of the Yolgnu Aborigines of Arnhemland in northern Australia, and the complex navigational techniques of the Polynesians.

The claim that other cultures have genuine sciences (and sometimes also complex logics) embedded in their knowledge systems, raises again the whole philosophical issue of what exactly does the word "science" mean. Helen Verran, an Australian philosopher of science who is one of the leaders of the ethnoscience movement, has made the point that having the chance to study other sciences gives us a unique opportunity to reflect back on our own science. Her work on the Yolgnu provides a important window from which to see our own scientific insights in a new light.

Sadly, some scientists seem inherently opposed to the very idea of "other sciences". But studying these other ways of knowing may enhance our own understanding of the world in ways we cannot yet imagine. The example of accupuncture must surely give any skeptic at least some pause for thought - the Chinese have performed operations using accupucture needles instead of anesthetic drugs. Likewise Mayan astronomy, though based on the cycles of Venus, was as empirically accurate as anything in the West before the advent of the telescope.

Two hundred years ago the idea that indigenous "savages" might be genuine philsophers would have struck most Europeans as preposterous. Today we have accepted this "preposterous" proposition, but a similar view prevails about science. Learning about, and taking seriously, these other ways of knowing the world seems to me one of the greatest tasks for the next century - before (as Steven Pinker has rightly noted) this immense wealth of human understanding disappears from our planet.