N.B. Please note that I wrote this on 8/12/21 and much has been written since. Jerry Coyne has waxed eloquent on the topic! Mine is very much a preliminary comment and serious readers need to read more widely!!
Exactly 40 years ago this December the hot topic in science was the trial over the teaching of Creationism in Arkansas. A bill had been passed a few months earlier to give equal time of the teaching of “Creation” and “Evolution” in schools. (Creation mean a 6 day creation some 6 -10,000 years ago according to a literal view of Genesis and Evolution meant an earth some 4.5 billion years old and humans evolving ultimately from a unicellular creature.) At first Creationists in America were rejoicing at their success, but soon forces were mobilised against them.
Soon the bill was challenged in the courts, with a court case running from 7th to17th December 1981. A vast number of witnesses were called on both sides and on Jan 5th 1982 Judge Overton gave a 38 page ruling concluding that Creation Science was not science but religious doctrine and thus could not be taught as science in schools. Neither the euphoria nor the despondency lasted. soon Larry Laudan was in dispute with Michael Ruse on the boundaries of science, with Laudan saying they were not clear-cut.
The issue of creationism has rumbled on and continues to make a stir today. There have been many cases of Creationism being sneakingly taught as science throughout the world. But that is not my concern.
My concern is the controversy in New Zealand over the teaching of Maori beliefs – ‘Matauranga’ – within science. According to an email from NZ to Jerry Coyne
Matauranga means the knowledge system of the Maori. It includes reference to various gods e.g., Tane the god of the forest is said to be the creator of humans, and of all plants and creatures of the forest. Rain happens when the goddess Papatuanuku sheds tears. Maori try to claim that they have always been scientists. Their political demand is that Matauranga must be acknowledged as the equal of western (pakeha) science; that without this, Maori children will continue to fail in science at school.
As far as I can see this seems a fair description of Matuaranga. There are good intentions behind the introduction into education as Maoris have not been well treated by the British Colonists. The same applies to the new respect for Indigenous beliefs and practices in North America. It is impossible to deny that often the original indigenous populations have been dispossessed and marginalised. This has often made them disadvantaged in many ways. This raises political and ethical issues in many countries. However to put indigenous knowledge on a par with science is not the solution.
Not all are happy with the introduction of Matuaranga and seven professors sent a letter to the NZ Listener earlier in 2021 to express their concern that it was undermining the teaching of science and Matuaranga had no place in the teaching of science.
Here the authors tried to give a balanced case but they were not popular and have received a backlash – recounted by Jerry Coyne, who is usually pretty accurate! Much of my summary is based on his early blogs. Note that Garth Cooper is of Maori descent.
As a result 2000 academics and public figures signed a petition, including this statement
We, the signatories to this response, categorically disagree with their views. Indigenous knowledges – in this case, Mātauranga – are not lesser to other knowledge systems. Indeed, indigenous ways of knowing, including Mātauranga, have always included methodologies that overlap with “Western” understandings of the scientific method.
However, Mātauranga is far more than just equivalent to or equal to “Western” science. It offers ways of viewing the world that are unique and complementary to other knowledge systems.
Thus we have two serious views. First the magnificent (or not) Seven argue that Matauranga has no place in science teaching and they make a careful and respectful delineation between science and indigenous knowledge. They conclude by writing ” To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations.” Here they make a clear demarcation with a sharp boundary between science and indigenous knowledge. The 2000 wanted a blurred boundary, if one at all, and regard the two as complimentary.
It is also relevant that before the arrival of Europeans in the 19th century Maoris had not put their language to writing, but could produce accurate maps.
What should we think?
To go back to Arkansas and Creationism. A historian or philosopher of science will be more aware of fuzzy boundaries than a contemporary scientist in her/his lab. Historically many things which were once accepted as science are no longer. Think of Alchemy – but chemistry grew out of alchemy, or geology, which began with all strata being laid down in Noah’s Flood, which drained away from the 1660s to the 1840s. 20th century Creationism is a sustained attempt at re-introducing Noah’s Flood as vital for our understanding of geology. Creationists claim their ideas to be of equivalent value, or better, than conventional geology. However 99% or more geologists will see it as the illicit smuggling of a religious belief into science. Most Christians also see it as illicit and not science. Is this the same as Matauranga saying “Rain happens when the goddess Papatuanuku sheds tears.”? I would say that as a Christian (and a minister) and who has a science degree, worked as a geologist, that they are both illicit and wrong and have no place in science or science teaching.
That is not to dismiss and reject religious and indigenous views but to see them in relation to science. Neither will give science, but both can be very valuable in giving a wider perspective than science as in various ways they give values. Science gives no values and thus people have to go to their world view or belief for those.
Perhaps we can consider the cosmology of some bronze age goatsherders! (Village atheists use that expression and fail to recognise that the writers of the Old testament lived in the Iron Age) So some village atheists call the writers of the Old Testament! If you consider Genesis One in its environment, it not only speaks of a young earth, but a FLAT EARTH, with plants before the sun etc. It is on a par with a Rain goddess shedding tears, if taken literally. No secular university today will allow goatsherders’ cosmology to be taught alongside the Big Bang. As an orthodox Christian I value Genesis in what it says about God as Creator and the relationship of humans to creation/nature, but there is no way can it be taught as science. It gives values but not science. We can say the same for Matauranga and respect and value what it says about our relationship to the natural world, but reject it as science.
Any pre-scientific understanding of the world, whether indigenous or religious, needs to be given consideration, or rather, critical consideration, drawing out what is of value in that world view and its practices in agriculture, fishing etc.
If we consider the peoples of Britain in the Middle Ages as indigenous, we could assess their beliefs and practices, whether of farming or medicine. Some were excellent like crop rotation, others not so good. As a result beavers, bears and wolves were hunted to extinction since 1066, and the auroch in the late Bronze Age. Some rugged cattle still have auroch genes. That does not look good for all traditional (indigenous) practices. As for medical practices…. Consider this from India in the 1940s. A labourer got severe acid burns in a munitions factory near Mumbai, so he went home and applied the traditional (indigenous?) treatment – Cow Dung. It was not very effective and some time later it fell to my mother, as a volunteer nurse, to clean up the mess. I’ll leave that to your imagination. We heard that story several times and my mother was never fazed by our childhood injuries! Moving to Central America the indigenous culture of the Aztecs would make a fruitful study. It forms part of today’s Mexican culture. Prior to the coming of Spaniards, the Aztecs had an excellent agricultural system but other practices would not be acceptable today. Guess which!
One field Maoris and all Polynesians were brilliant at was oceanic navigation. They could put information on maps but not writing. David Abulafia in the first two chapters of The Boundless Sea discussses the gradual colonisation of uninhabited Pacific islands from the west. The navigational skills needed were incredible and he gives a brief account on pages 16-9.
Undoubtedly indigenous understandings are strong on tacit knowledge rather than scientific knowledge, but that does not put them on an equal footing with science. Most indigenous belief systems are essentially mythological. If they, and in NZ Matauaranga, have a place in science teaching, then so do Creationism, alchemy and astrology. I am not dismissive of either alchemy or early attempts of flood geology as attempts to understand geology and chemistry 500 years ago, but both were rejected as wrong. As a historian of geology I have great respect for James Ussher and the “flood geologists” of the 17th century, but see them as totally superceded.
Atheist scientists like Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins are having a field day on this and in many ways they are justified. It does provide ammunition fro their particular atheistic world view.
What about it?
The first thing to say is that totally undermines the nature of science as a useful way of knowing, which gives closer and closer approximations of truth. Science has given some many benefits as well in technology, medicine and agriculture, despite misuse by some.
It is difficult not to see a creeping Post-modernism here, which ultimately removes any truth content from anything. Of course it fits in with some progressive ideas, especially in university settings and soon gets the charge, not entirely unfounded, of wokeism.
It cannot be denied that indigenous populations have been treated badly in countries like NZ, Australia, Canada, USA and South Africa and that colonialism has a blemished record. Each country needs to address this, but will fail to do so by simplistic efforts on decolonialism and over-valuing indigenous knowledge as equal to science.
Indigenous cultures must be valued and religious views respected but not at the cost of reducing science teaching and practice to myth.
The arguments against teaching any indigenous belief and practice are the same as the arguments against teaching Creationism, in any shape or form, as having no scientific validity
Peter Carrell, bishop of Christchurch in south island New Zealand, replied very constructively at length to my blog. With his permission I repeat them here. He is much more informed locally than I am. Please read them in conjunction my blog.
1. Maori understand that to defeat the pandemic they need to be vaccinated. They recognise that global science lies behind understanding of the virus and therefore of the vaccine required to defeat it. Matauranga expands to incorporate new learning.
2. Matauranga is a whole body of knowledge, both understanding the spirituality of nature (e.g. references to gods of forest, sea, earth and sky), the nature of spirituality (e.g. traditional religious beliefs, the Christian Scriptures, the relationship between Christian belief &
2. (Cont’d) those traditional beliefs. As well as engagement with nature (e.g. the science of navigation which brought Polynesian sailors from further north to Aotearoa, likely preceded by careful observation of bird flight and sea currents; science of food and healing re plants)
3. (As I understand it) Matauranga as a body of knowledge also refers to a wholistic understanding of human life as Maori (e.g. in offering medical care) seek to fuse global science, local (Maori) science, Maori culture and spirituality, to treat the whole person. From this view:
4. Maori (and supporters) are arguing for Pakeha/Westerners to respect this different way of both knowing and applying knowledge, not least so that Maori are treated well in our society and respond with engagement in education and embrace of opportunities in skills training.
I see the 7 scientists as making an important point, but possibly failing to understand what Matauranga means and why its teaching might edify Maori, indeed all Kiwis. I also see a group of academics (opposing them) as failing to engage in proper debate of ideas. It is chilling
Last in series) that our varsities (& Royal Soc) might be suppressing debate rather than encouraging it. In the long run I cannot see anyone, Maori or Pakeha, being well served by preventing discourse & debate about matters fundamental to human life, experience and understanding
For further reading see the following.
A recent 28/12/21 NZ news item
The first two by Jerry Coyne are more hostile.