Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Darwin and Western Science

As the birthday of Charles Darwin approaches, many are discussing his work and role in today's society.  A colleague of mine sent on this website "Darwin on Race and Slavery" which helped spark a discussion on Darwin and Western Science.

In the context of this discussion, people may be interested to know that although Darwin is usually blamed (my word choice) for the cultural concept of "survival of the fittest" and hence for the shamefully misnamed "social darwinism," his theories of evolution didn't really point to "survival of the fittest" as a satisfactory evolutionary theory.

Darwin's theories of evolution pointed to those species surviving who had the most survivable traits at a particular time in a particular ecological niche - it didn't necessarily make them the most fit species of all time.  However, a contemporary of Darwin's, Herbert Spencer (also of England), saw survival and dominance as evidence of superiority.  Given this, according to Spencer (the person who first developed the concept of "survival of the fittest"), those who survived were more superior; those
who perished were inferior.  Thus, as he advocated, if you were an Indigenous population nearly or completely wiped out by aggressive colonizers, it was sad but a necessary phase of human evolution.  The same held true, in his view, for those in poverty:  poverty was a sign of inferiority and the sooner the poor died out, according to Spencer, the better off humanity would be, however sad the fate may be of those of us in poverty.  The proper name for this theory is not "social darwinism" but "spencerianism."  Darwin, however, gets saddled with all of Spencer's racist, classist ideologies, ideologies that still covertly dominate Western cultural thought today.

Spencer's ideas formulated a major basis for Western science today: that of survival of the fittest.  Another major basis is the Linnaen classification system - a classification system so pervasive most of us don't even realize we've compartmentalized the world in which we leave based on one person's ideas of how species should be lumped together.  Keeping that in mind, anthropologist, Luke Eric Lassiter, in his recent text, "Invitation to Anthropology," writes "Linnaeus was among the first
to define race for the scientific community.  In the 1758 edition of "System of Nature," Linnaeus defined four races [of humanity] and their characteristics:

Homo sapiens europaeus (a.k.a., 'white Europeans')
'White, serious, strong.  Hair blond, flowing.  Eyes blue.  Active, very
smart, inventive.  Covered by tight clothing.  Ruled by laws.'

Home sapiens asiaticus (a.k.a., 'yellow Asians')
'Yellow, melancholy, greedy.  Hair black.  Eyes dark.  Severe, haughty,
desirous.  Covered by loose garments.  Ruled by opinion.'

Homo sapiens americanus (a.k.a., 'red Americans')
'Red, ill-tempered, subjugated.  Hair black, straight, thick; Nostrils
wide; Face harsh, beard scanty.  Obstinate, contented, free.  Paints
himself with red lines.  Ruled by custom.'

Home sapiens afer (a.k.a., 'black Africans')
'Black, impassive, lazy.  Hair kinked.  Skin silky.  Nose flat.  Lips
thick.  Women with genital flap; breasts large.  Crafty, slow, foolish.
Anoints himself with grease.  Ruled by caprice.'"

And it is from this type of thinking that we are taught how to
classify/catalog/categorize....come to know.....our entire world - that
is, when we are taught in Western educational institutions.

Finally, it may also interest people to know that Darwin did not write off sentience or intelligence in other animals as his scientific descendants did and continue to do.  He wrote a book that largely discussed this issue called "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals."

In fact, I often think Darwin's views were much closer to the manner in which traditional Indigenous cultures, around the planet, view the world and other animals than were/are his scientific colleagues and descendants.  Western Science, however, is beginning, on its radical fringes, to come around to viewpoints long promulgated by Traditional Ecological Knowledge - knowledge based on the "homo sapiens" experience with the world for 200,000-300,000 years.  PBS recently released a documentary titled "What Plants Talk About" that provides intriguing interviews with various botanists about plants and their amazing systems of communication.  "The Mother Tree" concept being explored by scientists on Canada's West Coast, is one such example....although the scientist who is proposing this theory implies she felt it might be her "discovery" that was the beginning inspiration for the Mother Tree idea in the film "Avatar," I wonder how much she knows about the Indigenous nation of South America who inspired James Cameron to do the film?

From what I know of him, Darwin, in my view, represents some of the best Western science has to offer.  Spencer; Rene DesCartes (another of science's founding fathers); and to various extents, Linnaeus; represent much of what has led to a disconnect with the Earth in Western science.  It is interesting, though, that the more Western scientists are willing to push the scientific boundaries in botany, in the study of other animals, and in the very study of the stuff our universe is made of, the more their theories start to sound more and more like the ideas found in the bodies of Traditional Ecological Knowledge developed by Indigenous societies throughout the world over millenia.  As T.S. Eliot writes:
                          We shall not cease from exploration
                          And the end of all our exploring will be
                          To arrive where we started
                          And know the place for the first time.