Nature touts combining indigenous knowledge and science

January 17, 2022 • 10:00 am

I’m not going to criticize Nature too strongly for posting the article below, because most of it, involving how to cooperate with indigenous people when one does field work in their area, describes good practices.

The article includes statements by representatives of three indigenous minorities: a Māori researcher, an Arawak Taíno (Caribbean group) researcher, and a “formally adopted member” of the Qikitagrukmiut group of Alaskans. There are also statements from two people who give grants for research collaborations with indigenous people.

In fact, the practices of Canadian and American grant-givers is, by and large, sensible, though the sensitivity to locals is relatively new compared to pretty bad stuff done when I was a child. (Removal of biological material from countries without permission and the like.) It’s only right to let local inhabitants know what you’re doing, ask their permission, and, when possible, enlist their participation and their expertise. I’m not going to deal with these issues, as I think the movement to involve indigenous people is, by and large, admirable.

But I am going to discuss the statement of Māori researcher Daniel Hikuroa, because it exemplifies some of the problems with trying to see Māori “ways of knowing” as coequal to science (a program that is in fact occurring in New Zealand secondary schools and colleges), and with trying to use superstition as a basis for “science.” This problem seems unique to New Zealand, which has official communications to this end; I do not know of it occurring in other comparable countries.

Click on the screenshot to read (I think it’s still free):

I will fault Nature for one thing, though. Actually, two things. The first is simple:—this sentence (emphasis is mine):

There’s no road map out of science’s painful past. Nature asked three researchers who belong to Indigenous communities in the Americas and New Zealand, plus two funders who work closely with Alaskan Natives, how far we’ve come toward decolonizing science — and how researchers can work more respectfully with Indigenous groups.

The term “decolonizing science” is not only undefined, but pejorative: it implies that science itself is a colonialist enterprise (with the further implication that white men were the colonizers). In fact, science is just a toolkit for finding out true things about the cosmos; colonization is not part of that toolkit.  Some people may have been colonizers (not many of them scientists, though, who were too busy to colonize), and some may have used science-based technology, like weapons, to colonize. But science is no more “colonizing” than are architecture, clothing, or art. It’s time to ditch this term, which is about as ambiguous as “structural racism.” If people want to argue that science is inherently racist or that scientists in general try to keep out minorities, then say that, but you’ll be saying something that is no longer true.

Second, the article lacks criticality. That might be expected in such a piece, but when Daniel Hikuroa calls for “weaving folklore into modern science,” well, one might take some exception. More on that below.

So on to Hikuroa’s statement about why we need to incorporate Mātauranga Māori, or Māori “ways of knowing” into science.  As always, I note at the outset that traditional knowledge, acquired from trial and error or reasoning, may have a place in modern science. But that’s not all that Mātauranga Māori is; it includes creationism, oral tradition (such as the claim that the Polynesians colonized Antarctica), morality, philosophy, and so on. When you want to weave such indigenous knowledge into modern science, and are trying to make a case for this, it behooves you to give specific examples.  Here’s one from Hikuroa:

For example, in Māori tradition, we have these things called taniwha that are like water serpents. When you think of taniwha, you think, danger, risk, be on your guard! Taniwha as physical entities do not exist. Taniwha are a mechanism for describing how rivers behave and change through time. For example, pūrākau say that taniwha live in a certain part of the Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest, running for 425 kilometres through the North Island. That’s the part of the river that tends to flood. Fortunately, officials took knowledge of taniwha into account when they were designing a road near the Waikato river in 2002. Because of this, we’ve averted disasters.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this example used to defend Māori ways of knowing, probably because it’s only one of a handful of such examples. Leaving aside my doubt that water serpents really were seen as entirely mythological, why does this one example crop up over and over again? I suspect because there aren’t very many. And that paucity deserves examination when arguing that Mātauranga Māori should be taught as coequal to science. If this is the nature of indigenous “science”, it’s worth hearing about, but is far from all the knowledge we’ve acquired about the cosmos that came from pure curiosity.

As we scientists press harder on Māori and their supporters to justify their “coequality” claims for teaching, the more often they argue that the myths in their “ways of knowing” were just that—myths that everybody knew weren’t true, but were somehow practically useful. I don’t believe that. It’s similar to what religionists did when science began showing that their truth claims were wrong: they sweated and wriggled and finally said that most of Scripture is metaphor and was understood as such. Both Christians and Muslims have had their own version of “religious science”, showing that the claims of the Bible or the Qur’an easily comported with modern science. (It’s easy, for example, to say that any creation myth anticipated the Big Bang.) But scripture morphs into myth only when pressured by science. I believe I’ve said this before (one of my few bon mots): “When a scientific claim is falsified, it’s thrown into the garbage claim. When a religious claim is falsified, it’s turned into metaphor.”

This is why, I think, Hikuroa says that “Taniwha” (water serpents) do not exist as physical entities. Is that really the common belief, and was it the case 300 years ago? Or did the myths become mythical only when science came along?

Here’s another example of Hikuroa’s attempt to meld “ways of knowing” with science:

Sometimes, it takes a bit of explanation to convince non-Indigenous scientists that pūrākau are a variation on the scientific method. They’re built on observations and interpretations of the natural world, and they allow us to predict how the world will function in the future. They’re repeatable, reliable, they have rigour, and they’re accurate. Once scientists see this, they have that ‘Aha!’ moment where they realize how well Western science and pūrākau complement each other.

Okay, if this be the case, please give us two dozen predictions drawn from Mātauranga Māori of how the world will function in the future or what we can predict about physical phenomena. (Stuff like “the tide will come in this afternoon” doesn’t count.) I can easily give a lot of examples from modern science in a few minutes: the continents have moved over time, light will bend in a gravitational field, the ancestors of mammals were things we’d recognize as reptiles, making vaccines that allow our bodies to manufacture versions of Covid-19 spike proteins will stimulate the immune system, and so on and so on. All of these predictions, even of what vaccines will do, were the product of pure curiosity (another is CRISPR technology), rather than of solving technical problems of life living that, once solved, don’t really lead to further hypotheses. (E.g., how to catch wild animals—another bit of Mātauranga Māori knowledge).

I tend to be wary of claims that indigenous people have taught us how to be stewards of the land, because they often practiced a slash-and-burn type of cultivation, as did the Māori, who also didn’t do a particularly good job of conserving a good source of meat: the many species of moa that were driven extinct by being bopped by pounamu clubs. We are all guilty of overusing resources, but here’s an example from New Zealand. It’s in Wikipedia, so you know that advocates for indigenous knowledge have already vetted it:

Effectiveness of environmental stewardship:

Archeology and Quaternary Geology show that New Zealand’s natural environment changed significantly during the period of precolonial Māori occupation. This has led some academics to question the effectiveness of Māori traditional knowledge in managing the environment.[37][38] The environmental changes are similar to those following human occupation in other parts of the world, including deforestation (approximately 50%), the loss of the megafauna, more general species extinctions and soil degradation due to agriculture. The models favoured by academics today describe precolonial Māori as accessing resources based on ease of access and energy return. This would have involved moving from one location or food source to another when the original one had become less rewarding. Historically academic models on precolonial environmental stewardship have been closely tied to the idea of the ‘Noble Savage‘. and the now debunked hypothesis of multiple ethnicities being responsible for different aspects of New Zealand’s archeological record.[37][38]

So if Mātauranga Māori really is a “variation on the scientific method,” and should be taught as thoroughly as is modern science in the science classroom, let us have a knowledge of the cosmos as extensive as that  produced by modern science. And let us have predictions that are not simply “the albatross will return next year to breed”.

Of course Nature brings up none of this. Although that’s not the ostensible purpose of their piece (and much of the piece adumbrates good practices), they do manage to work the Satanic Seven into the second paragraph of their piece, describing the seven University of Auckland researchers who wrote a letter criticizing the drive to place Mātauranga Māori up there with modern science.

I’ll add one theory here, which is mine. (Actually, I think someone has said this before.) Calls for coequality of indigenous knowledge and modern science often seem to be surrogates not for scientific equality, but for moral and political equality. But the latter issues are already settled: “done and dusted,” as the British say. But often the claims represent attempts to secure political power, and there we must be more wary. The motivation for claiming that the Polynesians discovered Antarctica, for example, appears to be a lever to give Polynesians more power in deciding the future of Antarctica.  That, however, is a debatable issue. It’s as if these falsehoods must be pushed to justify a desire for political power.

23 thoughts on “Nature touts combining indigenous knowledge and science

  1. ¶When some old island guy ¶ wants some Antarctic pie¶ That’s a Mãori¶ –(Apologies to Dean Martin) Why not give them several hundred acres between British and Russian facilities and welcome them with a hardy “Drill baby, drill” chant?

  2. Let me focus on one thing: the words used to describe the problem at issue. These words are “structural racism” and “colonization.” The liberal use of these words is key. The meaning of each is ambiguous, as Jerry says. But it is this very ambiguity that gives them their power. They can be used—and are used—whenever an aggrieved party wants to establish power, whether it is deserved or not. Claiming that a practice—science, for instance—is structurally racist or a colonial enterprise serves to demonize that practice without requiring any argument. And the technique works because few are willing to speak out against it for fear of being cancelled. Those words make what is effectively an unfalsifiable claim that, unfortunately sticks all to often. Thoughtful intellectuals need to question these claims vigorously.

    1. I agree, generally, with your comment. However, it might also be that Prof. Coyne assumes too narrow a referential notion of meaning when critiquing the use of terms such as ‘structural racism’ and ‘colonization’ here. ‘Structural racism’ generally is used in opposition to ‘individual’ racism: laws banning marriage between members of different races are institutional forms of racism, part of ‘structural’ racism, and when a clerk refuses to issue a marriage license to a mixed-race couple that clerk is not necessarily him- or herself ‘racist’ — they’re just obeying the law. We’ve dismantled many of those institutionalized forms of racism, but to suggest that there is no ‘thing’ called structural racism ignores history, perhaps. ‘Colonization’ is a somewhat different case. Many social scientists used to use the notion of hegemony to describe the same thing, and perhaps that is more clear. I use the DSM — every psychiatric community around the world now does as well, not because it is better than the alternatives, but because the American psychiatric community has the power to impose its view of ‘mental’ illness on everyone else. That may be a good thing, but it’s probably not too far off to label it ‘colonization’.

  3. In regard to the stock phrase “decolonizing science”, our host observes: “science is no more “colonizing” than are architecture, clothing, or art.” But of course, campaigns to “decolonize” architecture, clothing, and art, along with bird-watching, knitting, and musical notation, are already spoken of. Which tells us that the “decolonizing” meme is merely a gimmick for the attainment of status and power, as well as a widely imitated cliché, like misuse of the word “awesome”.

  4. Hikuroa: “Fortunately, officials took knowledge of taniwha into account when they were designing a road near the Waikato river in 2002.”
    I think not.
    What officials surely did take notice of was flow and flood patterns of that stretch of the Waikato.
    I worked one summer for the New Zealand Hydrological Survey (as it was called back then), and that’s what we did – measure flows in rivers and calculate river capacity (how much water would have to flow before the river overtopped its banks), etc.; and other people in the organization used that information to predict likelihood of flooding and where construction, such as building roads, might safely be done to avoid being flooded.
    I don’t doubt there is some value in oral history, such as Maori oral history, of flooding of the Waikato, because European settlement and written history is only 175 years or so old; but I see no need to invoke supernatural beings in 2002. And, for what it’s worth, the Waikato and its flows have been so extensively modified in that past 175 years, notably by the construction of eight hydropower dams mostly on the upper part of the Waikato in the mid-20th century, that knowledge of the flood patterns before that construction seems to me likely of very limited value.

  5. “Or did the myths become mythical only when science came along?”

    Myths—or, more accurately, metaphor—preceded science as a way of knowing and has always been at odds with it. As science gained the ascendancy, metaphor came under attack as either useless or deceptive, so much so that Samuel Parker, a member of the Royal Society, advocated an act of parliament to stop the use of metaphors. Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, claimed that metaphors “can never be the true grounds of any ratiocination,” and John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, complained that metaphors “were nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment, and so indeed are perfect cheats. They are certainly, in all discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided.”

    This attempt to rid scientific language of metaphors was doomed to fail, of course, since all language is metaphorical. In anatomy, for example, we have “muscle” (little mouse), “eardrum,” and all those aqueducts, canals, chambers, and walls, not to mention goblet and sickle cells in microscopic anatomy. And where would medical science be without “bacteria” (little staffs), or “disseminate” (scatter seeds)?

    Still, the intent to remove metaphor tells us much about the evolving perception of science’s task as being one of reduction or definition. Definition (literally, to set bounds to) arrives at knowledge by taking things apart—that is, by separating the thing in question from other things,. Metaphor (literally, to carry across or transfer) arrives at knowledge by putting things together—that is, by a process of fusing the thing in question with some other thing. For better or worse, the reductive approach—knowledge by separation—would become the predominant, and even exclusive, one in modern science. Critics suggest that something important may have been lost in the process.

    1. Perhaps this aversion to metaphors explains a lot of the misunderstanding and vitriol that Richard Dawkins received about The Selfish Gene, which is actually an excellent metaphor for understanding how natural selection operates. Ironically, one of the biggest criticisms was that his metaphor was “too reductive”.

  6. I will make a prediction. Here it comes. This is my prediction.
    The push for co-equal teaching of science and indigenous beliefs will expand into other countries. Canada will be next, but the U.S. will not be far behind.

    1. If this spreads to the US it will resurrect the ID movement. I see a rebranding of Genesis as “part of a collection of traditional beliefs about natural history that deserve their rightful place alongside mainstream science.”

      Right now, there are numerous excellent websites dedicated to demonstrating the falsity of Christian creation stories and notions of natural history. But it seems that if someone put up a website detailing all of the ways that pūrākau is unsubstantiated, vague, or outright false, they will be cancelled.

      So Christian fundamentalists surely notice this inconsistency, and will ally with indigenous peoples in their efforts to get their creation stories and other beliefs taught in school.

  7. It would be odd for a Maori belief to involve “serpents”, as the only snakes that occur in New Zealand are sea snakes that get driven there by currents occasionally; there are no native snake populations in New Zealand. It would be interesting to know what “taniwha” actually means. If it is really associated with snakes, it suggests that it is a post-European contact word (or meaning).


    1. “Taniwha are ferocious creatures or guardians, representing the life force (mauri) of a place in physical form”
      further described as a Maori legend.
      Wikipedia: Taniwha
      In Māori mythology, taniwha are large supernatural beings that live in deep pools in rivers, dark caves, or in the sea, especially in places with dangerous currents or deceptive breakers.
      So could be the equivalent of a ” DANGER DO NOT SWIM HERE” sign.

      Confusing and no one has seen one to date… hmmm like a god, a figment of imagination.

  8. Speaking of indigenous Ways of Knowing, or the equivalent, here is a sample from Israel, quoted from Jewish News. It quotes a hyper-orthodox Knesset Member speaking against proposed legislation that would limit the Haredi privilege of studying Torah as a substitute, not only for army service, but for virtually any activity that the rest of the world calls “work”. “United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev said the law “undermines the foundation of our existence… “I believe wholeheartedly that the duty to study the Torah and its existence is what gives the people of Israel the right to exist,” he said. …”The Torah is a value, and when there is Torah study, the need for an army is small.”

  9. In the 1950s our family would holiday in a remote, isolated part of Northland’s East Coast where our neighbours were Maori families. When I was about 12 yo I would have adventures with a Maori friend; fishing and walking the hills in the district. On one occasion we were walking an old cattle track through regenerating forest when we came upon a large Puriri tree (Vitex lucens). My friend refused to walk under the tree because he feared that a Taniwha living there would drop onto us and make a meal of us. He was clearly very afraid, so not wishing to gainsay him I agreed on a detour. Later, on my own, I walked under the Puriri tree and suffered no harm. I concluded then that the Taniwha only ate Maori. I did wonder where his knowledge of the Taniwha came from, and why this particular tree.

    1. When I lived in the Mariana Islands, there were trees (Ficus benghalensis) that were often called Taotaomona trees. The word itself means a headless ghost, and the trees were very common near the entrances of caves and Japanese bunker systems. The trees are avoided.
      The headless aspect of the ghosts seems to be related to the ancient practice of collecting and preserving the heads of ancestors. If the head is in your lodge, inhabited by a spirit watching over the family, then I suppose the malevolent ghost is likely headless.

      Anyway, I found the idea pretty irresistible. I dug some epiphytes from the most haunted site on the island, and potted them in my office. one of the local young men who worked for me really thought that I was risking a lot having such a dangerous thing.

      One of those seedlings is now 8 feet tall, and thriving in my sunroom.

  10. I’m unfamiliar with foreign nation’s rules on archaeological digs, but I know that we have regulated it. If a university wanst tod ig here they can apply for a permit.

    Who decides where there will be an archaeological excavation?

    All ancient monuments are covered by provisions in the Cultural Environment Act, the purpose of which is to preserve ancient monuments. In the case of land exploitation, antiquities must be avoided as far as possible, but if the need to remove an antiquity exceeds the interest in preserving it, for example during road construction or in connection with the construction of new homes, the county administrative board can grant permission to remove the antiquities. As a condition, the county administrative board requires an archaeological investigation. The investigations that take place in connection with land exploitation are usually called commissioned archeology and make up about 90 percent of all archaeological excavations in the country. The rest are archaeological excavations that are conducted for research purposes, usually by a university institution.

    The County Administrative Board is the authority that carries out the permit examination and that decides on the content and scope of an archaeological investigation.

    [ ]

    1. *wants to dig.

      This was in relation to who to ask permission of.

      If the locals have locales with cultural significance, they should (ideally) have registered that at the same administrative function. When new stuff is discovered during land exploitation, it should (ideally) be reported and assessed before the exploitation proceed. (There are fines if it doesn’t happen, but I don’t know how effective the system is.)

  11. As chance would have it, Dan Hikuroa tweeted a link to this site today.

    “Weaving knowledge systems together is common in New Zealand and has generated a distinctive approach to how we undertake science and research and how we collaborate with one another.

    The Aotearoa New Zealand Decade Committee commits to placing mātauranga Māori at the centre of the approach it takes to the work and activities under the Decade, following tikanga – traditional Māori ways of doing things – to ensure inclusive collaboration.”

    Looking at the page “Explore Projects” gives a good idea what this means in practice. Generally nothing at all – it’s just science and engineering as normal. One project looks at replacing plastic ropes in mussel farms with local plant fibres, One looks at the important topic of choosing a Maori name for Zealandia (Te Riu-a-Māui) and one appears to be about nothing at all, or “Exploring fisheries tikanga and mātauranga” as they put it.

  12. Bloody scientists and their religion.
    Homo sapiens have been around for about 350,000 years. Their brains were not just carrying spare capacity waiting for us to find a use for it, that is not how evolution works.
    Their thoughts were as complex as ours, their songs as beautiful, their emotions as deep.
    Far from being disease ridden, starved and hunted brutes, they had a lifestyle we remember as the Garden of Eden or paradise. They were doing something right or they would not have lasted so long.
    Not that any scientist would think to ask their descendants what they thought they were doing.

    So about 17,500 generations living a sustainable lifestyle.
    16 Generations of our World Wide Experiment With Science and we have seriously degraded our life support system and have enough weapons aimed at ourselves to blow us off the planet.

    Humility from a scientist? Perhaps a small oops, a minor Mea Culpa, not a chance.
    As christians say jesus is the answer, what is the question?
    Science is the only answer to every question as far as scientists are concerned.

    I am constantly amazed at their discoveries, this computer I type on blows my mind, the internet was the science fiction of my youth.

    I do not doubt scientists are the cleverest people on the planet, an ocean of clever.
    If only they had a teaspoon full of wisdom to go with it

    1. I have to laugh when I read comments like this. Did you MEAN to be funny?

      Go do your homework and read Pinker about how science has improved humanity in so many ways: materially, longevity, medically, and, via reason and empirical investigation, morality. Would you really be living 300,000 years ago? I thought not. Have you taken antibiotics? I thought so. Your precious Jesus didn’t accomplish that. If you lived back then, you’d be dead at 35 of a tooth infection.

      And of course it’s idiotic to say that science is a “religion”.

      Thanks for amusing us all.

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