From Futures 26 (6) 665-682 (July/August 1994).
Western civilization has appropriated the scientific achievements of all Other
civilizations, declared that they are not science and written them out from the
history of science. Nevertheless, Western science is a product of the scientific
achievements of all non-Western cultures. In its ‘modern’ form science is
Eurocentric and based on a racial economy. Will postmodern science, of which
chaos and complexity are the most noteworthy examples, treat non-Western
cultures differently? Will emphasis on holism and new perceptions of nature
transform science into a pluralistic enterprise? What is the significance of Western
obsession with discovering a Theory of Everything? This essay explores these and
On a visit to Cairo, the hero of Amin Maalouf’s The First Century After Beatrice,1 a world renowned entomologist, discovers an unusual use for scarab beetle. When consumed as a powder, the insect enhances virility and guarantees the birth of a son. Even though the powder has existed for centuries, its use hasn’t done much harm to the Egyptians: the population seems to be equally balanced between males and
females. But then the ‘scarab powder’ begins to make an appearance in other parts of the world. The entomologist and his high flying journalist wife discover that it is being sold in India, all over Africa and much of the Third World. Worst: an examination of demographic trends reveals a sharp decline in the birth of girls all over the South.
The First Century After Beatrice is an insightful novel that explores the myths and realities of modern science. We start with an ancient Eastern myth which turns out to be a Western invention and re-emerges as Western science. We discover that the power of the ‘scarab powder’ to immunize women against the birth of girls derives not so much from an ancient formula but from modern molecular biology. The product is packaged in the formula of an ancient myth as a market ploy. While the narrative follows the quests of the protagonists to discover the truth about the ‘scarab powder’, the reader discovers how science is corrupted, statistics are manipulated and risks from new discoveries are written off with doublespeak which make them ‘negligible’, ‘insignificant’, ‘extremely limited’, ‘residual’ and ‘under control’. Far from freeing us from ancient prejudices, Maalouf asserts, science is often used to perpetuate them and, not infrequently, to confirm them.
Indeed, modern science has been instrumental in shaping some of the most potent myths of race, of inferiority of the non-European people, of the origins of Europe, of the ‘problems’ of the Third World, of the inseparable distance between ‘knowledge’ and ‘values’ and the inevitability of certain futures. Science has been the dominant instrument in the subjugation of the Other-the non-West-by Western civilization. It is the prime mechanism for the globalization of the worldview of the West as well as maintaining a stranglehold on non Western civilizations and cultures.2 It is the bastion of Eurocentricism par excellence. And the survival of the non-West, indeed their very existence as distinct entities, depends on dethroning Western science, on taming the instrumental rationality of the scientific enterprise with an injection of antibiotics of multiculturalism and redirecting it towards shaping a more humane future for humankind.
All the rivers run into the sea
Science, contrary to widespread belief, is not a European creation. Almost every civilization and culture, whether ‘great’ like Islam, China or India, or ‘simple’ like those of Africa, pre-Colombian Americas and the Pacific Islands, have produced their own science. Modern, Western science is the heir to the sciences of all non-European civilizations. But Europe appropriated this knowledge either through conquest or by
borrowing and plagiarizing it and recycling it under its own rubric while suppressing the knowledge of its origins. After appropriating the heritage of Other cultures, Europe identified science with certain notions of rationality and approach to nature, thus framing and defining it in a specific reductive and secular framework; it followed that all other sciences which operated in different frameworks were not science, thus they could easily be written out of history. Finally, the history of the evolution and development of modern science as well as the origins of Europe was rewritten to make both the enterprise of modern science as well as Europe per se self-generating and autonomous of all Other cultures. Recent advances in the history of science, as well as the scholarship on the origins of Europe, have exposed these ploys.
Paul Davies provides us with the standard Eurocentric picture of scientific advance:
In primitive cultures, understanding of the world
was limited to everyday affairs, such as the
passage of seasons, or the motion of a slingshot
or an arrow. It was entirely pragmatic, and had
no theoretical basis, except in magical terms.
Today, in the age of science, our understanding
has vastly expanded, so that we need to divide
knowledge up into distinct subjects-astronomy,
physics, chemistry, geology, psychology and so
on. This dramatic progress has come about
almost entirely as a result of the ‘scientific
method’: experiment, observation, deduction,
hypothesis, falsification science demands
rigorous standards of procedure and discussion
that set reason over irrational belief.3
We now know that even those cultures which were described by Europe as ‘primitive’ had in fact developed highly sophisticated sciences. The pre-Columbian cultures had evolved experimental agriculture into a finely tuned science. For example, they had developed over 3,000 varieties of potatoes alone! The people of the Pacific Islands had developed highly polished principles of navigation and techniques of vessel construction. Carbon steel was first produced in what is today called Tanzania over 1500 years ago by methods so sophisticated that Europe could not match them until the beginning of the 19th century. The Dogon people of West Africa had already observed what Galileo was to see 1500 years later with his telescope. Clearly, such monumental feats cannot be achieved simply on the basis of ‘irrational beliefs’ or without some ‘standards of procedure’. The conventional wisdom is to attribute ‘irrationality’ to non-Western cultures and dismiss their achievements. However, as research into the history of science and technology of the so-called primitive cultures proceeds, such arrogance will become increasingly difficult to justify.
Our knowledge of the sciences of the civilization of Islam, China and India have taken great strides over the past two decades. The monumental work of Joseph Needham and others has shown the real sophistication and empirical base of Chinese science which was ‘much more efficient than the occidental in applying human natural knowledge to practical human needs.‘4 Without its discoveries of the magnetic needle, the rudder and gunpowder, Europe would have been confined within its geographical boundaries. The extensive research on Islamic science by numerous scholars, including Faut Sazgin, A. I. Sabra, E. S. Kennedy and Donald Hill, has established beyond doubt not just the sheer quality and quantity of science in Islam, but also how much Europe really ‘borrowed’ from the Muslim scientists. There would have been no Copernicus, Kepler, Newton or Harvey without the work of al-Tusi, ibn al-Shatir, al-Haytham or ibn Nafis. Indeed, the ‘scientific revolution’ would not have taken place had it not been for the mathematical models of the 14th century Muslim scientist, ibn Shatir, and the work of astronomers at the famous observatory in Maragha, Adharbayjan, built in the 13th century by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. The Maragha astronomers developed the Tusi couple and a theorem for the transformation of eccentric models into epicyclic ones. Muslim scientists already knew that Ptolemy’s arrangements for planetary motion were, to use the word of al-Haytham, ‘false’. Thus, the Muslim scientists were on the verge of a major breakthrough. Copernicus not only used the Tusi couple and the theorems of ibn Shatir, but used them at exactly the same points in the model. In other words the lunar models of Copernicus and the Maragha school are identical. All that Copernicus did was to remove the Earth from the centre of the model and replace it with the sun-and the ‘scientific revolution’ erupted!’ If science is a universal building then its foundations lie not in Europe but in non-Western scientific traditions.
But it is not just the foundations of modern science that are deeply rooted in non-Western cultures. The growth of Western science is a function of the exploitation, colonization and de-development of non-Western societies. Just as colonialism and industrial revolution went hand in hand, so was the development of Western science intrinsically linked to European empires. In Science and Empires, Patrick Petitjean’ and his colleagues have shown how each development in science was connected to European expansion. Indian historians of science, particularly Radhika Ramasubhan in her study, Public Health and Medical Research in India,’ and R. K. Kochhar in his papers on ‘Science in British India’,8 have provided detailed accounts of how British colonialism in India advanced European science. Western science progressed primarily because of the military, economic and political power of Europe, focusing on describing and explaining those aspects of nature that promoted the power of the upper classes in Europe. At the same time, the colonial administrators banned the theory and practice of indigenous sciences. For example, Islamic medicine, which was the dominant medicine of the European world until the 18th century, was outlawed in the Middle East and those caught practising or researching it were imprisoned.
Thus, the empire played a double role: it fuelled the development of modern science-it is hardly surprising that the first thing the British did in India was to build observatories and that the first European sciences to be established in India were geography and botany-and first curtailed, and then killed, the development of non-European sciences. The supposed innate rationality or the alleged commitment of European scientists to the pursuit of disinterested truths, had little to do with the development of modern science. As Sandra Harding tells us, ‘the professed universality of Western science was established as an empirical consequence of European expansion, not as an epistemological cause of valid claims’.9
Even though Western science was fuelled by the scientific traditions of non-Western civilizations and evolved and developed by systematically devouring them, it had to be shown to be separate from all other sciences and traditionsunique to Europe and a law unto itself. Europe thus introduced a number of measures that delinked its science from sciences of all other civilizations. A major innovation, as Willis Harman notes, was the ‘ontological assumption of separateness: reparability of observer from the observed; parts from whole; organism from environment; man from nature; mind from matter; science from religion-separateness from one another of the “fundamental particles” which are presumed to compromise ultimate reality’.10 Once nature could be isolated and separated it could be studied in a way that was unique to Western civilization. A second innovation was the notion that only that which can be measured is real. While experimentation and measurement were a crucial part of the sciences of many non-Western traditions-Islamic science in particular pioneered exact measurements and detailed experimentation-in Europe they defined what was real and what was unscientific or literally unintelligible. Ideas, notions, categories, phenomena for which no experimental or observational evidence could be discovered had to be abandoned. Laws formulating the regular concomitance of phenomena were sufficient to describe all that is describable, predict all that is
predictable. What was isolated, rigorously studied and measured, was the ultimate truth which, in its formulation as law, could be appropriated. The celebrated saying of Lessing that the real power of reason is not in the possession but in the acquisition of truth sums up the whole philosophy.
Non-Western traditions of science thus became so many rivers all of which ran into the sea of Western science which not only, as Bacon said, ‘tortured’ its secrets from nature but was also the rightful owner of this Truth. Unlike other civilizations, Europe transformed reason in science into an instrumentalist rationality-scientific reason now defined the world and all that it contained. Other notions of reality, however rational, were meaningless at best and dangerous at worst. They could thus be written out of history and the ‘scientific revolution’ connected to a more appropriate European source: Greece. The history of science thus becomes a linear story of the progress of Europe from its origins in Greece to the development of modern science during the Renaissance with the ‘dark ages’ filling the gaps in between. A standard history of science, for example J. D. Bernal’s Science in History,” starts from ancient Greece and then (devoting only ten pages to Islamic science) jumps to Europe as though nothing happened in between or parallel worlds of other sciences did not exist. But the identification of Greek culture as European has serious problems. For one thing, Harding points out, ‘the idea of Europe and the social relations such an idea made possible, came centuries later-some would date it to Charlemagne’s achievement others to fifteenth century.
Another point is that due to the spread of Islam, the diverse cultures of Africa and Asia can also claim Greek culture as their legacy’. 12 Islamic medicine, for example, traces its roots to Galen and Greek medicine-indeed, its technical name in Muslim civilization is yunani, literally Greek-medicine. Recent studies, like the monumental works of Martin Bernal13 and Cheikh Anta Diop,14 have shown that Greeks were hardly ‘European’. The world of Plato and Aristotle was more Egyptian and African than it was European: Bernal shows that ‘the Aryan model’ of the origins of Greek civilization, which claims that the Africans and the Semites had nothing to do with the creation of classical Greek civilization, was a fabrication of the 18th and 19th century Romantics and racists. Prominent amongst the fabricators were
noted scientists like Boyle, Kelvin and Newton. Indeed, the Aryan model was disseminated on the back of Newtonian science.
Having connected the ‘scientific revolution’ back to a manufactured Greece, and argued that modern science is totally European in its origins, internal drive and final ends, the West has now to demonstrate that other civilizations just do not have the relevant cultural traits to produce anything that could be worthy of the description of ‘science’. It is normally in the analysis of the ‘enigma’ of the decline of Islamic and Chinese sciences that this task is performed. The diagnosis offered by Toby Huff in his The Rise of Early Modern Science15 is typical. The decline of Islamic science, Huff contends, was due to the cultural characteristics of Islam. The main culprits are Islamic law which does not recognize ‘personal negligence’ and corporate institutions, the ‘extremely personalized nature of human relations’ which has generated the extended family system, and the Islamic belief system which denies that nature is governed by a rational order. These three factors conspired to bring down Islamic science (we are not told how it managed to reach the zenith of civilization in the first place given the dominance of these factors) and would not allow modern science to take root in Muslim societies today. Given the fact that one-third of the Qur’an is devoted to extolling the virtues of reason and that Islamic law has a much broader notion of social responsibility and accountability than ‘personal negligence’, one could hardly consider Islamic culture much of a hindrance to scientific development.
When it comes to Chinese science, Huff declares that the Chinese language is not conducive to ‘clear and unambiguous communication’ and is thus not suitable for scientific inquiry. That may come as a surprise to modern China which had no problem in acquiring nuclear technology or to the Japanese, who use a parallel system and lead the world in many fields of scientific research. Chinese notions of the organic world of primary forces (yang and yin), Huff argues further, is hardly a metaphysics worthy of the name. It does assume that ‘there is a pattern to existence in all things and that there is a unique way (tao) for all things, but the explanation of the patterns of existence is not to be sought in a set of laws or mechanical processes, but in the structure of the organic unit of the whole’.16 The whole notion is little more than ‘a primitive but natural instinct of mankind’ and, at best, it yields meaningless binary oppositions such as light and darkness.
There is a total absence in Chinese thought of ‘a genuine dialectic of disputation and a faith in reason’.17 Funny then, how the Chinese managed to build a whole civilization on this ‘primitive’, ‘natural’ notion and evolved a science without any idea of reason in their metaphysics which, according to Needham, ‘was much more congruent with modern science than was the world outlook on Christendom’.18
While the banality and undiluted racism of Huff’s contentions are a wonder to behold, they are nevertheless standard arguments advanced both for the decline of non-Western sciences and for the justification why modern science could not have been produced by any culture other than that of Europe. Not for nothing is the Europe of the Middle Ages that emerges from Huff’s analysis a haven of rationality where religion had willingly taken a back seat, reason and conscience had been discovered for the first time and science advanced unhindered from dogma, persecution or other social and cultural impediments. In the 12th century, we are told, Christianity in Europe had turned into a ‘corporation’, a legal entity that did not really interfere with the work of the scientists-but, critics may ask, did it stop the emergence of the Inquisition a few centuries later? The ‘cultural outlook, social organization, and economic performance’ as well as ‘institutionalised disinterestedness and skepticism’ of Europe prepared the ground for the emergence of modern science. The universities, far from being a reluctant partner in scientific endeavour as is normally accepted, Huff contends, became the founding institution of modern science. By the 15th century, the search for truth had become ‘part of the credo, the ethos, the cultural outlook of Europe’.19 Of course, it was the same credo that launched Europe on its imperial adventure and colonization of the Other. The origins of modern science lie in ‘the fusion of Greek philosophy, Roman law’ and that most rational of all metaphysical systems, ‘Christian theology’.20 QED: the purity of Europe and of Western science is preserved from contamination by any Other culture.
The type of arguments offered by Huff can be summed up as follows: modern science did not evolve in Other cultures because they failed to develop mercantile and corporate capitalism and refused to adopt a deterministic model of science based on instrumental rationalism. The essence of this position is that non-Western cultures have to abandon their worldviews and history and change the cultural characteristics that define their identity if they are to become ‘scientific’ and progress. This is, of course, a prescription for suicide and the final triumph of Europe. Both China and Islam have an integrated worldview. In their unique and individual ways, these cultures do not place reason and ethics in two separate compartments. While Islam extols the virtues of reason, it also warns against instrumental rationality-the intense debate in Muslim civilization between theologians and philosophers was a debate not about the use of reason but about the transformation of reason into an instrument of oppression. Both civilizations have a deep respect for nature: in Islam it is a sacred trust; in Chinese metaphysics it is an autonomous, integrated web; in both cases one approaches nature with respect and humility. Given the ecological devastation caused by modern science, both approaches have something going for them. And neither civilization accepts a totally mechanical view of the universe. With hindsight, and a backhanded compliment to quantum physics, it can be said, that both were/are ‘right’. So, should the non-Western cultures abandon their worldviews and cultures, or is it modern science that needs to relinquish its ontology of separation and metaphysics of domination and torture?
Given both its metaphysical assumptions as well as the nature of its development, it is not surprising that Western science is intrinsically Eurocentric. And this Eurocentrism is now being increasingly challenged. Eurocentrism in science manifests itself in a number of ways: in terms of what is selected for research which itself depends on where the funding is coming from, what is seen as a problem, what questions are asked and how they are answered. If, for example, the problem of cancer is defined as finding a cure then the benefits accrue to certain groups, particularly the pharmaceutical companies. But if the function of scientific research is seen as eliminating the problems of cancer from society, then another group benefits from the efforts of research. Similarly, if the problems of the developing countries are seen in terms of population, then research is focused on reproductive systems of Third World women, methods of sterilization and new methods of contraceptives. However, if poverty is identified as the main cause then research would take a totally different direction.
But it is not just the institutional framework that is biased against the Other. The cornerstone of the ideology of science, the scientific method, is itself value-laden. The method of science is supposed to ensure neutrality and objectivity by following a strict logic: observation, experimentation, deduction and value-free conclusion. However, studies on how scientists actually work have shown this to be a total myth. Historians of science (including Kuhn,” Feyerabend22 and Ravetz23) and sociologists of knowledge (Rose,24 Mitroff,25 Latour and
Woolgan,26 Knorr-Cetina27 and so many others) have shown that scientists do not ‘discover’ the laws of nature, rather they manufacture them. Laws of nature are not written in some inaudible ink on the heavens, they are manufactured in laboratories. Observations are not made in isolation but within a theoretical framework. The theory itself is embedded in a paradigm-a set of beliefs and dogmas.
Thus, all observations are theoryladen, theories themselves are based on paradigms which in turn are burdened with a cultural baggage. Hence, there are no such things as value-neutral, ‘objective facts’. Value judgments are also at the very heart of one of the most common elements of scientific technique: statistical inference. When statisticians test a scientific hypothesis they cannot possibly decide its truth or falsity. They go for a level of ‘confidence’. Different problems are conventionally investigated to different confidence-limits. As Ravetz notes, ‘Whether the limit is 95 or 99 per cent depends on the values defining the investigations, the costs and importance placed to social, environmental or cultural consequences’.28 However, despite the value-laden and culturally biased nature of scientific methodology, science continues to insist on its neutrality. This emphasis in itself is a Western cultural trait. ‘Maximizing cultural neutrality’, writes Harding, ‘not to mention claiming it, is itself a culturally specific value. Both the reality and the claim are at issue here. Most cultures do not value neutrality for its own sake, so one that does is easily identifiable’.l’ The illusion of neutrality is produced by stripping a scientific fact of its unique historical features. The ‘essential nature’ of a scientific fact, argues Claude Alvares,
is abstracted, in order that the new information
can fit other similarly anaesthetized historical
events. The fact that an experiment distorts reality
is no longer doubted. Strikingly, such distorted
information or ‘objective knowledge’ is passed
off as the only true picture of reality. The method
thus arrogates to itself the right to function as the
sole absolute criterion of truth. What science
creates are artificial facts. Violence results when
the ‘artificial’ fact is imposed on ‘natural’ nature
in its ascientific state30
While Western cultural values are deeply ingrained in the methodology of science, compassion is totally excluded. ‘Both the method and its metaphysics’, notes Alvares, ‘demand the constant mutilation of the Other. Vivisection, for instance, is an essential component of the strategy of achieving “scientific truth”‘.31
The cultural baggage of science is not limited to its institutions and method. Certain laws of science, based on ‘both Judeo-Christian religious beliefs and increasing familiarity in early modern Europe with centralized royal authority and royal absolutism’,32 are also formulated in a Eurocentric manner. For example, a detailed examination of the second law of thermodynamics-which states that heat cannot be transferred from a colder to a hotter body without some other effect, eg work being don-led the Indian physicist C. V. Seshadri to conclude that it is ‘ethnocentric’.33 Seshadri charges that due to its industrial origins the second law presents a definition of energy that favours the allocation of resources to big industry, and a notion of efficiency that values high temperatures, and resources like petroleum and nuclear power that can generate such high temperatures, over ambient temperatures. Together, the notion of energy and the concept of efficiency were thus ‘fused with one kind of resource-utilization’. As work done at ordinary temperatures is by definition inefficient both nature and the non-Western world are losers in this new definition. For example, Seshadri points out, the monsoon, transporting millions of tons of water across a subcontinent is ‘inefficient’ since it does its work at ordinary temperatures. Similarly, traditional crafts and technologies are designated as inefficient and marginalized. Capitalism and big industry win by the force of ‘natural law’.
Finally, the costs and benefits of science are also distributed along racial lines. Harding observes:
the way Westerners both distribute and account
for the consequences of modern science appear
distinctivelv Western. The benefits are distributed
disproportionally to already over-advantaged
groups in the West and their allies elsewhere,
and the costs disproportionally to everyone else.
Whether it is sciences intended to improve
the military, agriculture, manufacturing, health
or even the environment, the expanded opportunities
science makes possible have been
distributed predominantly to already privileged
people of European descent, and the cost to the
already poorest, racial and ethnic minorities,
women, and people located at the periphery of
global economic and political networks.34
Thus, for Other cultures, science’s Eurocentrism manifests itself in its violence, in the de-development of the Third World, in the racial portrayals of their culture and worldviews, in the suppression of their modes of knowledge, and in the degradation of the very environments that sustain their physical existence. Science perpetually seeks to dominate and control the Other: ‘the character of science’ writes Alvares, ‘compels it to colonize areas previously outside its domain of control. In this regard, it resembles the great proselytizing religions which attempt to compel people to their point of view because of their unshakable belief that they alone possess the ultimate truth concerning God and nature’.35
No particular place to go
As modern science marches on its selfproclaimed quest for truth, God appears to be entering the scientific equation more and more. Both theoretical physics and molecular biology, it appears, have brought us to the brink of the final curtain: a Theory of Everything and a ‘Code of Codes’ that lays bear every gene in our bodies are within our grasp. As the blurb on the jacket of Leon Lederman’s The God Particle36 announces: ‘we may be close to discovering the ultimate atom-the God particlewhich orchestrates the cosmic symphony, and that its discovery may reduce the laws of physics to an equation so simple that it can fit on a T-shirt’. The famous closing paragraphs of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, reflect the same sentiments:
If we do discover a complete theory, it should in
time be understandable in broad principle by
everyone, not just a few scientists. Then, we shall
all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary
people, be able to take part in the discussion of
the question of why it is that we and the universe
exists. If we find the answer to that, it would be
the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then
we will know the mind of Cod.37
But would the ultimate triumph of Western instrumental rationality really tell us something about ourselves? Would the end of reductive science really make us happy and be nice to each other? Would the reduction of the entire universe into a single equation that can be printed on an outsize T-shirt really answer the burning questions that confront humankind? Would a Theory of Everything enable us successfully to manipulate the world to all our advantage?
The history of science teaches us that the ‘correct’ understanding of how the world works is not necessary for a successful manipulation of the world. After ail, even the most chauvinist historians are forced to acknowledge that the Chinese were very good at manipulating the world to their advantage; but, given the fact that they did not subscribe to the notions of Western science, they could hardly have had a ‘correct’ understanding of the world. Most ‘primitive’ cultures could manipulate the world without possessing a scientific theory in the Western genre. But a theoretical, rational explanation of how the universe works serves an important purpose in Western thought: the purpose of possession and legitimization. The Western notion of science and rationality is deeply rooted in mathematical realism. Only that which can be described by mathematics is real and can be believed. The conviction that the true meaning of nature is to be found only in mathematical formulae goes back to Pythagoras who believed that both reason and intuition can be encapsulated in the harmonies that numbers display, and to Plato for whom mathematics is a pointer to the ultimate reality of the world of forms that overshadows the visible world of sensory data. Whatever Western scientists actually believe, they work-indeed, the dominant paradigm of science forces them to work-as though pi is really in the sky. This approach, as John Borrow notes, ‘elevates mathematics pretty close to God in traditional theology. Mathematics is part of the world, but transcends it. It must exist before and after the Universe’.38 Thus translating a natural phenomenon into an equation is tantamount in Western thought to possessing it. The quest for the equation also serves as a legitimization for perpetually expanding the domains of science as well as certain types of science policies.
Most non-Western cultures believe that world is potentially and actually intelligible because at some level it is algorithmically compressible and can be described by mathematics. Witness the mathematical achievements of the civilizations of India (where the zero, the decimal, the ability to deal with very large numbers-eg 10 to power 53, irrational and negative numbers were discovered), China (where mathematics
was first integrated to aesthetics) and Islam (where algebra, trigonometry and spherical geometry were formulated).39 However, while the Western perception equates mathematics with truth and reality, the non-Western cultures and civilizations have always held both reality and truth to be infinitely more complicated and certainly not totally amenable to a single (mathematical) approach. When al-Biruni, the 11th century Muslim mathematician and scholar who first measured the specific gravity of numerous base metals, encountered Yoga in India, he immediately declared his mathematical knowledge to be useless in the study of the new science he had encountered. The relevant questions one can ask of Yoga, he declared, are not amenable to mathematical answers; a different reality was at work here and one needed a different method and approach to study it. For him there was no question of superiority or inferiority: the two subjects,
Yoga and the determination of the coordinates of Indian cities, required two different approaches, each as valid as the other. But a Western mind would immediately relegate Yoga to be an inferior science because it is not amenable to the Western God: mathematical formulation.
The different approach to mathematics in the West and the non-West also generates different notions of truth. In most non-Western cultures truth is a priori given; in Islam, for example, its source is revelation. In Western perception, truth is arrived at by some act of observation and mathematical formulation; it is known only a posteriori. Thus, while non-Western cultures start with a set of basic axioms, the Western civilization is forever searching for truth, something to believe in. Hence the perpetual, and frequently meaningless, journeys of discoveries. The quest is insatiable and the journey perpetual because what is sought is never really found, what is discovered never really satisfies its true purpose. The grand desire of Western science to encapsulate in a unitary code, thus reducing nature, intuition, world, human beings, the entire universe into a single equation, is a manifestation of its inner emptiness.
That this is a purely Western enterprise is well illustrated by Lederman. The quest for the ultimate particle, he tells us in a chart labelled ‘The Standard Model’, started with Thales in 600BC, moved on to Empedocles (460BC) and Democritus (430BC) from where we take a quantum leap to 1687 and Newton!40 The black hole in between and the atomic theories of Indian, Chinese and Muslim scientists do not concern him. For Steven Weinberg, the main travellers on the quest for the string theory are known to ‘everyone’: ‘Copernicus, who proposed that the earth is not the centre of the universe, Galileo, who made it plausible that Copernicus was right, Bruno who guessed that the sun is only one of a vast number of stars, and Newton who showed that the same laws of motion and gravitation apply to the solar system and to bodies on the earth’.41 Lederman describes the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle, which is crucial to the understanding of the structure of matter, in brutish metaphors:
We are building a tunnel fifty-four miles in
circumference that will contain the twin beam
tubes of the Superconducting Super Collider, in
which we hope to trap our villain. And what a
villain. The biggest of all time. There is, we
believe, a wraithlike presence throughout the
universe that is keeping us from understanding
the true nature of matter. It is as if something, or
someone, wants to prevent us from attaining the
Weinberg places his faith on mathematical realism: the difference between the earlier theories of physics and the string theories is that ‘the space-time and internal symmetries are not put in by hand; they are mathematical consequences of the particular way that rules of quantum mechanics are satisfied in each particular string theory’.43 Thus string theories offer a ‘rational explanation of nature.’ So, how long is a piece of string? What would the effects of a final theory be? What would we discover when we ‘trap’ the ultimate ‘villain’? We may discover things about the working of the universe that would be as surprising to us as say Newtonian mechanics would have been to Thales. But with the discovery of the Higgs boson and the construction of the final Theory of Everything, says Lederman, ‘the road to reduction will come to end; we will essentially know it all’.44 Quoting Einstein, Weinberg tells us that we will learn that ‘God Himself could not have arranged these connections in any other way than that which factually exists45 and warns that we will ‘regret that nature has become more ordinary, less full of wonder and mystery’. But the discovery ‘would give us some special insight into the handiwork of God’. However, this will not provide us with a ‘standard of value or morality. And so we will find no hint of God who cares about any such things’.46
The end of reductive physics, like the end of history, would spell the triumph of Western rationality and liberal democracy, but it will leave a rather boring universe behind. The ultimate discovery of the Theory of Everything will be that there is no point to the universe: it’s just a physical system, why should it have a point?, Weinberg asks. ‘There are ways that we ourselves could invent a point to our lives, including trying to understand the universe’.47 So in this pointless universe we will continue our meaningless quest for understanding the pointless universe. We cannot sit around and ‘have nothing else to do’, says Lederman: ‘we need to think beyond the SSC (Superconducting Super Collider) energy of 40 trillion volts to more powerful machines which will make this barrier seem docile’.48 Even when possessed, the final frontier brings no satisfaction. The journey may be meaningless but it must be perpetual.
The inconsequential external universe of modern science is but an echo of the inner being of Western man. The truth is, E. 0. Wilson has declared in his classic defence of sociobiology, On Human Nature, ‘we have no particular place to go. The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature’.49 In the next 100 years or so we could solve the few remaining problems of energy and material quest, control reproduction, stabilize our ecosystems, and so on-‘but then what?’ We need something more: ‘in order to search for a new morality based upon a more truthful definition of man, it is necessary to look inwards, to dissect the machinery of the mind and to retrace its evolutionary history’.50 When we look ‘inwards’ we will find ‘innate censors and motivators’ that ‘exist in the brain that deeply and unconsciously effect our ethical premises; from these roots, morality evolved asinstinct’.51 Apart from being on the verge of conquering the universe and wrapping it in an equation, science will also ‘soon be in a position to investigate the very origin and meaning of human values, from which all ethical pronouncements and much of political practice flow’.52 Natural selection over thousands of generations, Wilson informs us, has programmed all ‘human emotional responses and the more general ethical practices based on them’ in our genes. Soon, in the not-too-distant future, it will have the ‘power to identify many genes that influence behavior’.53 We will thus possess not just the universe, but the very morals and ethics that shape our behaviour. Way back in 1978 when Wilson published On Human Nature, and the earlier Sociobiology,54 biological determinism was frowned on and sociobiology was attacked as a new variant of eugenics. Now it has become respectable and is the dominant theme of biology.
The thesis is simple. All living beings are made of elementary life-particles called genes which are themselves made of DNA molecules; we will understand what we are and who we are when we know what our genes are made of. The genes are really our driving force: they are propagating themselves through us, using us as a temporary means of transportation, as a medium through which these replicators spread through the world. As Richard Dawkins has it:
they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic
lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside
world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect
routes, manipulating it by remote control.
They are in you and me; they created us, body
and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate
rationale for our existence. They have come
a long way, these replicators. Now they go by
the name of genes, and we are their survival
As machines, human beings do not have much of a free will let alone any responsibility, for all our behaviour is genetically determined. We do what our genes tell us to do. We behave as our genes wish us to behave. Chauvinism, xenophobia, sexual dominance are a priori given. There are genes for free market entrepreneurs, for male aggression and dominance, for homosexuality. It is the genes that make different societies different. Whether a particular race is aggressive or docile, creative or banal, musical or tone deaf, is all coded in their genes. The corollary is that the hierarchical structure of the modern world, with the professorial-type white man at the top of the ladder and the indigenous cultures of the Third World at the bottom, is actually a function of our human nature. If we differ in our cultural traits and fundamental abilities because of innate differences, and if these innate differences are written in our genes and are biologically inherited, then hierarchy is actually coded in human nature. The world is the way it is because that is exactly how it should be. A proposed scientific explanation thus becomes the instrument for legitimizing the status quo. Human nature dictates that Other cultures should always be conquered, suppressed, exploited, marginalized, consumed and eradicated-in the final analysis we can only blame our genes! Hence the Holy Grail of modern biology: the human genome project.
The declared objectives of the human genome project are pretty straightforward: to map out and analyse the complete genetic blueprint for a human being. A gene is a long sequence of four kinds of nucleotides identified by the letters A, T, C and G. Writing down the nucleotide sequence As, Ts, Cs and Gs of all the genes of human beings is a complex project which, given current technology, states R. C. Lewontin, ‘will take about 30 years and use tens or evens hundreds of billions of dollars’.56 The knowledge will be extremely useful in treating and curing some genetically caused diseases, like cystic fibrosis, thalassaemia, and sickle-cell anaemia. But what else will the human genome project achieve?
Once we know the sequence of the molecules that make up all our genes then, it is claimed, we will know what it is to be human. It is not just a question of learning ‘the genetic spelling of cystic fibrosis’, says Tom Wilkie, the human genome project is an ‘attempt to find out how to spell “human”‘.57 Wilkie cites Walter Gilbert, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, boasting that ‘when we know the complete human genome we will know what it is to be human’.58 Thus, the very concept of human nature will be transformed as a result of the human genome project which, Wilkie argues, will usher in the most important scientific revolution since Darwin; indeed, it will be a culmination of the scientific revolution begun by Darwin. At the very least, the human genome project will have direct consequences ‘for patients seeking
medical care, would-be parents planning a family, prudent investors seeking to save for a pension in their old age, for insurance companies trying to assess the actuarial risk of giving someone life assurance, and for prospective employers assessing the health and capabilities of their workers’.59
The reduction of the human being to no more than the biological expression of the program of instructions encoded in his or her DNA will also have moral consequences for how we look at our bodies. If an individual believes that he or she is no more than a DNA code, that his or her biographical life is valueless, then there is no real bar to suicide or euthanasia. And ‘humans who possess only the capacity for biological life (such as those born with gross mental retardation) may be of less moral value in this scheme of things than a normal chimpanzee or orangutan’.60 Moreover, it would be morally more permissible to carry out ‘scientific experiments involving vivisection on a grossly handicapped human baby than on a standard laboratory animal such as a rhesus monkey’.61 Certainly, the end product of the project will encourage cultural, social, racial and sexual discrimination on the grounds of biological determinism. Biology has always been used to justify the status quo; and the human genome project will further institutionalize the existing array of prejudice against the Other. Difference, more specifically genetic difference, will become the criteria for judging all Others. Wilkie asks: given that ‘the democracies of the Western industrialised nations have on occasion displayed a surprisingly illiberal streak and have discriminated against those whose genetic constitution (actual or presumed) made them different, how is society to ensure that, with the much more powerful tools available from the human genome project, such actions are not repeated?‘.62 The frank answer: science has always used new tools for the oppression of the Other and no matter what legislation is introduced, whatever safety mechanisms we may produce, the new tools will become the new instruments in the subjugation and oppression of the Other.
Would we, in knowing the molecular configuration of our genes, actually know everything that is biologically worth knowing about ourselves? Only if all human beings are exactly alike; but we are not. Lewontin explains:
there is an immense amount of variation from
normal individual to normal individual in the
amino acid sequence of their protein because a
given protein may have a variety of amino acid
compositions without impairing its function.
Each of us carries two genes for each protein, one
that we get from our mother and one from our
father. On the average, the amino acid sequence
specified by our maternally inherited and paternally
inherited genes differ in about one every 12
genes. In addition, because of the nature of the
genetic code, many changes occur at the level
of DNA that are not reflected in proteins themselves.
That is, there are many different DNA
sequences that correspond to the same protein.
We do not have good estimates for humans at the
moment, but if humans are anything like experimental
animals, about one in every 500 nucleotides
will differ in DNA taken from any two
individuals chosen at random. Since there are
roughly 3 billion nucleotides in human genes,
any two human beings will differ on the average
in about 600 000 nucleotides. And an average
gene that is, say, 3000 nucleotides long will
differ between any two normal individuals by
about 20 nucleotides. Who’s genome, then, is
going to provide the sequence for the catalogue
for the normal person?63
Moreover, Lewontin asserts, there is a serious problem with identifying genes as the ‘cause’ of this or that disorder, let alone determining the individual. An alteration in a cancer gene cannot be assumed to be the cause of cancer for the alteration could in turn have been caused by a pollutant which was a product of an industrial process which was the consequence of investing money at 6%. The cancer is an accumulative product of all these factors and not a result of the alteration of a single gene. Actual treatment of cancer involves either removing the growing tumour or destroying it with radiation therapy; progress in cancer therapy has hardly received a boost from advances in our understanding of cell growth and development despite the fact that nearly all cancer research is focused on cell biology. Indeed, as Lewontin notes, progress in genetics has had very little input in discovering therapies for most of our common diseases. Cardiovascular diseases are treated by surgery whose anatomical bases go back to the 19th century; antibiotics were originally developed without the slightest notion of how they do their work; and diabetics continue to take insulin as they have for over 60 years. The medical track record of genetic research leaves a great deal to be desired.
Given the medically limp record of genetic research, the serious shortcomings in the methodology and the morally dubious nature of the enterprise, why are scientists so keen on the human genome project? Scientific enterprise is totally committed to the ideology of perpetual research-stop the research and the whole venture threatens to collapse on itself. There is also a ‘rather crass’ reason:
The participation in and control of a multibilliondollar,
30. or 50.year project that will involve the
everyday work of thousands of technicians and
lower-level scientists is an extraordinarily appealing
prospect for an ambitious biologist. Great
careers will be made. Nobel Prizes will be given.
Honorary degrees will be offered. Important
professorships and huge laboratory facilities will
be put at the disposal of those who control this
project and who succeed in producing thousands
of computer discs of human genome sequence.“4
But apart from personal aggrandisement, there is also the social and economic amplification of the power of the Western civilization. Normally, patent laws prohibit patenting of anything that is natural. But genes are not natural; they are isolated in the laboratory, and they can be patented. Lewinton notes that ‘if human DNA sequences are to be the basis of future therapy, then exclusive ownership of such DNA sequences would be money in the bank’.“5 But more: their ownership could mean the ownership of ‘human nature’, clandestine experiments on Third World populations, and their military and political use in subjugating the Other. This is why the human genome project is being pursued with such zeal and determination. It confirms biological determinism as an explanation of all social and individual variation: it is the biological Theory of Everything. Possessing the ‘codes of codes’ will be tantamount to possessing the human being itself and, once possessed, the ‘lumbering robots’ could be controlled and manipulated at will.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio!
Both its moral dimensions as well as its perpetual descent into reductionism are changing the characteristics of science. We are moving from science based on modernity-self-declared pursuit of the ‘grand design’ of seeking the truth, total control, absolute certainty, ontological assumption of separateness-to a Western science of postmodern dimensions. The ‘Grand Design of improving Natural Knowledge, and perfecting all Philosophical Arts and Sciences’,” as the editor of the first volume of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society put it, stands discredited: most self-respecting scientists now accept that far from being the pursuit of some romantic truth science is one gigantic ‘puzzle solving’ industry. Governments, increasingly unwilling to fund the unlimited growth of ‘pure’ research, now demand that science produces ‘practical results’ with direct impacts on GNP. The public is increasingly becoming suspicious of science and associates it with most of our environmental and global problems.
The modern pattern of continual ‘unplanned’ scientific progress is threatened by a dilemma of control: when research can be controlled its harmful social consequences cannot be predicted with any edge of certainty or confidence to justify imposition of control; when the unwanted social consequences of research become apparent, it is too far advanced to be easily controlled. ‘Increasingly’, write Crook et al, ‘science and technology are required to turn their attention to another kind of control: the “damage control” of the unforeseen consequences of the project for the control of nature’.67
The certainty of scientific results is evaporating. As Funtowicz and Ravetz point out, ‘issues of risk and the environment present the most urgent problems for science, uncertainty and quality are moving in from the periphery, one might say the shadows of scientific methodology, to become the central, integrating concepts’.68 The boundaries between what is natural and what is artificially produced in the laboratory are breaking down. Genetic engineering is blurring the distinction between natural, social and technical processes. ‘Is a fly engineered to transmit sterility to its descendants and released into the wild to be considered as a part of “nature” or as a pest-control “technology” ‘? Science policy in most Western countries, as Crook et a/ put it, now has an air of ‘panic production’: it produces ‘a simulation
of organization in a rapidly disorganizing world’.69
In physics, it is the movement towards a general theory of strings that is ushering postmodern science. Because string theories incorporate gravitons and a host of other particles and seem to have solved the problems of infinities, they mark, says Steven Weinberg, ‘the beginning of a new, postmodern, era in physics’.” But the sciences that really display all the characteristics of postmodernism-emphasis on diversity, abolition of the ontology of separateness and accent on interconnectedness of everything, accommodation of different notions of truth-and thus truly deserve the label ‘postmodern’, are the new sciences of chaos and complexity.
Chaos theory is the new science of non-linear systems. Chaos itself has been defined in a number of different ways: ‘a kind of order without periodicity’; ‘apparently random recurrent behaviour in a simple deterministic (clockwork-like) system’; and ‘dynamics freed at last from the shackles of order and predictability. . . systems liberated to randomly explore their every dynamical possibility. . . exciting variety, richness of choice, a cornucopia of opportunity’.71 Complexity is somewhat more difficult to define. Its concern is with spontaneous, disorderly ‘complex systems’ in which a host of interdependent agents act with each other to produce, by an ‘adoptive strategy’, ‘spontaneous self- organization’. Complex systems have the ability to balance order and chaos, the balancing point being ‘the edge of chaos’. Complexity
grapples with big questions: what is life, why is there something rather than nothing, why do stock markets crash, why did the Soviet empire collapse within a few months, why do ancient species remain stable in fossil records after million of years, etc.
Both chaos and complexity undermine reductionism and paint a more pluralistic picture of reality than modern science. The complexity produced from simplicity by non-linearity and feedback makes chaotic all the assumptions and assurances on which science has been operating for the past 400 years of its dominance of modernity, and the two millennia of the exclusively Western history that it traces all the way back to Euclid and his geometry. Chaos and complexity demonstrate that the universe and all that is in it cannot be approximated in straight lines, as a ball rolling down a table through time; equally they shows that predictability is a rare phenomenon, one operating only within the constraints that science has filtered out from the rich diversity of our complex world. Quite simply, chaos theory and the new science of complexity show that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. (Hamlet, Act 1, sc 5, I 166). The most significant question we have to ask is whether the deeply entrenched enterprise of scientism, all that has been built on the foundations of the scientific method, will react to this jolt like that other Horatio, Horatio Nelson, who when sent a signal he did not wish to receive merely placed his telescope to his blinded eye.
Chaos and complexity promise a postmodern revolution in science based on the notions of holism, interconnection, order out of chaos and self-governing, autonomous nature. But where do the new ideas of complexity come from? Why they are the very same non-Western notions that modern science rejected in the 15th century as irrational and Huff described as ‘a primitive but natural instinct of mankind’. In his Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, Mitchell Waldrop reports the following conversation with Brian Arthur, a stalwart of the Santa Fe Institute which pioneered the work on complexity:
You can look at the complexity revolution
in almost theological terms, he says. ‘The Newtonian
clockwork model is akin to standard
Protestantism. Basically there’s order in the
universe. It’s not that we rely on God for order.
That’s a little too Catholic. It’s that God has
arranged the world so that the order is naturally
there if we behave ourselves. . .’
The alternative-the complex approach-is
total Taoist. In Taoism there is no inherent order.
‘The world starts with one, and the one become
two, and the two become many, and the many
led to myriad things’. The universe in Taoism
is perceived as vast, amorphous, and ever changing.
You can never nail it down. The elements
always stay the same, yet they are always
arranging themselves. So it’s like a kaleidoscope:
the world is a matter of patterns that change, that
partly repeats, but never quite repeat, that are
always new and different. . .’
In complexity there is no duality between
man and nature, says Arthur. ‘We are part of
nature ourselves. We’re in the middle of it. There
is no division between doer and the done-to
because we are all part of this interlocking
network. . .
Basically what I am saying is not at all new
to Eastern philosophy. It’s never seen the world
as anything else but a complex system. But it’s a
world view that, decade by decade, is becoming
more important in the West-both in science and
in the culture at large what is happening IS
that we are beginning to loose our innocence,
Precisely: Eastern philosophy has never seen the world in any other but complex terms. While modern science saw that as a problem, postmodern science sees it as a opportunity-when Western thought reaches a dead-end, it unreservedly turns towards the Other to appropriate and devours its thought and continues on its irrational and grotesquely skewed goal of refinement of death and destruction.
Despite its obvious challenge to the linear outlook of modern science, complexity is not a break from modern science but an attempt at a quantum leap to a new level of multidimensional reduction and pluralistic control. ‘My own aim,’ writes Stuart Kauffman, one of the key founders of complexity, ‘is not so much to challenge as to broaden the neo-Darwinian tradition. For, despite its resilience, that tradition has surely grown without seriously attempting to integrate the ways in which simple and complex systems may spontaneously exhibit order’.73 The goal of complexity is to expand evolutionary theory ‘to combine the themes of self-organisation and selection’ and thus produce a new edifice. The object of the exercise is thus to transcend scientific control beyond Darwinian determinism to multidimensional, pluralistic, self organizing systems.
Both chaos and complexity, like modern science itself, postulate the universe as a computer. Kauffman’s hope that ‘we may, in the not distant future, create new life’74 begins with the creation of cellular automata in the computer. In merely blurring the boundary and extending the confusion between natural life and genetically manufactured ‘life’ to ‘life’ generated inside a computer, complexity presents itself as a new self-glorifying phase of Western science. But what is really ‘new’ about the ‘new science’ of complexity and chaos is the mathematics. The actual insights revealed by chaos theory and complexity are hardly new for non-Western cultures. Humility before nature, richness and diversity of life, generation of complexity from simplicity, one needs to understand the whole to understand a part-these are the things that the non-West not only believes but acts on; they are intrinsic in most non-Western worldviews: the sciences of India, China and Islam were based on these notions. The aesthetics of the Mandelbrot set have astounded scientists and enthralled laypersons alike; however, for someone whose visual sense has been formed by Islamic art and design, what is the revelation? Go inside any historic mosque and look at the ceiling! There you will find simple patterns generating complexity as a mental tool to focus the intellect on the contemplation of the infinite. But cherished non-Western notions have become real for Western science because they have been proved mathematically. The mathematical codifications of the notions of nature, holism, interconnectedness and complexity of everything, lead the West to the illusion that they can be ‘possessed’. Postmodern science extends the grand desire of the Western civilization for absolutism, for encapsulating the entire universe into a single mathematical statement, into hitherto ‘irrational’ domains of non-Western notions
of nature and reality. It is hardly surprising that Roger Lewin describes complexity as the theory which includes the entire spectrum, from embryological development, evolution, the dynamics of ecosystems, complex societies, right up to Gaia: ‘it’s a theory of everything’.” In the face of such totalizing outlook, one can ask: why should the dominating and absolutist categories of Western thought, even when they have appropriated the non-Western notions of nature and reality, be able to cope with the scope and nature of the real world, let alone describe everything that is out there?
The philosophy and methodology of Western science did not develop in a vacuum. It arose with initial conditions in a social context, and developed in a feedback loop, a reciprocal relationship with its particular social context. Even the prologue to the most abstract mathematical article would use words, words embued with significance and resonance by the social context and its history, to establish the parameters within which the mathematical inquiry had relevance. The social context of both chaos and complexity, as well as much of modern science, is that most notorious of all non-linear dynamic systems: Western civilization. The semantic field of the terms ‘chaos’ and ‘complexity’ are deeply embedded in the Western psyche. Chaos has an ancestry as a term for the primordial condition, or anticondition out of which the world as we know it, the natural world, the world of human existence and thought was created. It is the term for all that is not ordered, what lies beyond the boundaries of the ethos, ideology and philosophy that established the means of knowing, being and doing of the world in the right way. Chaos is antithesis, or perhaps more properly antimatter, to all that makes life sustainable and knowable. Regularity, order, belief in doctrine, these are the substance of the habitable world of matter of fact existence, the world after chaos. It has played a part in every speculation about social or material order, it has taken the role of the alternative, the Other,the unacceptable backdrop operating as imperative and necessity urging on the human constructs that seek to promote order. Chaos is something more than disorder: it is the absence of any possibility of rule or rationality. Disorder is something that can emerge within or as a consequence of order itself. Disorder marches to the same drummer, but mischievously or maliciously, it recognizes that which it flouts or defies.
The new proposition being demonstrated with postmodern science is that order can come out of chaos and simple rules can give rise to complex behaviour and complexity answers to simple rules. The world pictures associated with the terms simple and complex are the most socially constructed of all value-laden words. They have multiple associations with the whole tradition of Western social and moral philosophy and perceptions of the Other. They are employed as descriptive terms within world pictures, expressions of the vision of the natural world unfolded by the new science of complexity. It is interesting to note that the resonances of these terms are almost diametrically contrary to the phenomena the new science has uncovered. Chaos is not chaos perse, it is the failure to confirm the reductionist vision of predictable operations according to the laws elucidated by science. Complexity is an effort to subdue complex systems by way of mathematical description. If the misnomers of chaos and complexity have anything to teach us in the social and cultural realm then it would seem most clearly to be that this is the most natural way for the world to proceed. But once again it is the West that must bear the burden of change.
Travelling in thought
Before the emergence of the postmodern sciences of chaos and complexity, the non-West had its own old conventional chaos and complexity to deal with. And in each of the traditional civilizations of the non-West, in India, the Muslim world and China as well as in other civilizational pockets, a conservational and prudential resistance was already in motion-movements of cultural resistance in search of authenticity that spawned a new interest in their own discrete sciences and technologies. It isnot too much to say that these traditional non-Western sciences are better fitted to integrate the ‘new’ vision of complexity for they have conserved a more complex, nonreductionist vision at their core and have always considered the holistic view as essential to the pursuit of science as an intellectual and cultural undertaking.
Given the Eurocentrism and the racial economy of modern science, and the insights of postmodern science of chaos and complexity, non-Western cultures have a new imperative to revive their own unique sciences based on their own perceptions of nature and reality. If the Islamic, Chinese and Indian traditions could scale such heights of scientific endeavour in history, there is nothing that says they cannot be ‘rediscovered’ and prove equally valuable for our time. Indigenous knowledge systems, which are sometimes described as ‘traditional’ or ‘local’ knowledge systems, are based on genuine complexity where systematic inquiry is integrated with cultures, values and lifestyles as well as the religious outlook of a community. Often the notion of ‘rationality’ in non-Western cultures appears quite bewildering from a
Western perspective; but this does not mean that non-Western knowledge systems are not based on objectivity, systematic inquiry or experimentation. There is nothing that dictates that reason can only be defined in a single, Western way. Consider, for example, how sophisticated and complex is the shamanistic concept of environmental accounting among the Tanimuka and Yukuna tribes of the Colombian Amazon:
These societies have a strong cultural tradition of
indigenous sustainable development based on a
model of resource management which allows for
long term maintenance-of human and environmental
well-being without depleting the resource
base. The shamans and some ritual specialists
assess the trends in land use patterns and guide
the community’s production level as well as their
conservation strategies. They practise ‘travelling
in thought’ to map areas, re-establish ecosystem
boundaries, and survey land, water and air to
determine the size of population of various
species. This environmental audit considers the
impact of human activities on the universe and
the cosmos and demonstrates the state of debt,
credit or balance with nature as a whole. The
shamans then prescribe or prohibit certain
activities, prescribe forms of resource utilization,
and commit the community as a whole to
Tanimuka and Yukuna’s ‘Travelling in thought’ appears similar in rationality to the ‘songlines’ of the Australian aborigines or the theoretical basis of Chinese medicine responsible for acupuncture: even though they are beyond the scope of Western perception and rationality, they ‘work’ within their own system and ‘work’ just as well as Western science. Indeed, sometimes traditional systems of rationality work better than Western science. Traditional paddy farmers in Sri Lanka, for example, had developed a system of pest control which was intrinsically linked to their ritual behaviour. Certain ritual practices, like the offering of food, flowers, and lighted oil lamps were designed to reduce pests. Birds were attracted to the food while insect pests were attracted to the light. Birds thus preyed on the destructive insects. When these time-tested, environmentally safe and economically viable indigenous systems were replaced by the application of sciencepesticides-
the end-results were devastating for the farmers.77 Even on a simple technological level, indigenous knowledge often foxes the capabilities of Western science and technology. For example: upland rice farmers in Batangas, Philippines, developed an animal-drawn five-tined furrow opener and interrow cultivator called lithao. After primary land preparation the lithao is used to open parallel furrows. Rice seed is broadcast and then harrowed into the furrows and seedlings emerge in rows. The system requires less labour than the traditional system of furrowing by plough and seed drilling. Since the wooden lithao breaks in anything but sandy Batangas soil, agricultural engineers were asked to improve the system. After a decade of development, the lithao was declared ‘unstable’ and the work abandoned. Meanwhile, farmers in Tupi, South Cotabato, managed to change the Batangas wooden lithao to a steel panudlingand happily adopted it for heavier soils and developed a highly productive upland rice system based on use of the implement and associated practices!78 In his brilliant Science, Development and Violence, Claude Alvares shows how Indian indigenous knowledge systematically proved to be more environmentally sound, economically viable, empowering and highly complex. The knowledge systems that produce gur (traditional Indian sweetener), rotis (Indian bread) and ldli are far more complex-and therefore humane and sustainable-than that which produces white sugar, white bread and biotechnology. Such complex systems are not ‘emergent’-they are already there and have been there for centuries. Their existence not only demands recognition and acknowledgment but also space for growth and development.
But non-Western cultures have to create this ‘knowledge space’ for themselves. Neither modern science, nor its postmodern equivalent, would willingly give up its hegemonic tendencies. It is only by developing contemporary civilizational sciences, both with a sound theoretical as well as empirical base, that Western science can be humbled. That the Indians work a science based on Indian metaphysics which, unlike the either/or duality of Western logic, sees the world through a fourfold logic (X is neither A, nor non-A, nor both A and non-A, nor neither A nor non-A) of cognition and can achieve a precise and unambiguous formulation of universal statements without quantification, is an assuring beginning. In particular the work on medicine and agriculture shows considerable promise. Equally promising is the attempt, particularly in Pakistan, India and Malaysia, to formulate the theory and practice of a contemporary Islamic science-a science based on Islamic metaphysics and its notion of nature as a trust, that incorporates the ideals of justice and public interest in its processes and methods and is geared to the needs and requirements of Muslim societies.” Rudimentary models of what this enterprise may look like have already appeared in the Journal of Islamic Science. Similarly, lines of inquiry need to be pursued in Chinese science and the sciences of the Pacific Islands, various African cultures and the indigenous peoples of America.
It is worth emphasizing that champions of contemporary models of indigenous knowledge and non-Western sciences are not arguing for some magical or mystical notion of science. The debate is about science-that is, systematic inquiry, albeit grounded on different notions of rationality, different perceptions and approaches to nature, based on empirical observations and work, whose results are universally applicable. The argument is not that the laws of nature ‘discovered’ by Western science that, for example, explain how gravity or antibiotics work, do not or will not work in other cultural locations, but, as Sandra Harding puts it, ‘they are not the only possible such universal laws of nature-there could be many universally valid and culturally distinctive sciences’.80
From the perspective of the Other, the crunch question is, however, what it always was. How ready is the dominant establishment of Western science to enter into a multiplex polylogue of diverse sciences and technologies, how ready to share a complex world with diverse explorations of nature and reality, opportunity, variety and richness of choice? The marginalized will not go away, neither is the fiat of the West necessary as sanction and authority for these alternative approaches to science to sustain themselves. What is at issue is our ability to effectively incorporate a complex future of plurality as an integrated diverse world order of the future. Other cultures have always treated their myths as myths; Western civilization systematically translates its myths into science. Would postmodern science create new myths about the Other-ironically using non-Western notions of nature and reality-and then institutionalize them in mathematical codes? For a genuinely new departure, complexity must demonstrate that it has the capability of transforming Western science, like the narrator’s caterpillar in Amin Maalouf’s The First Century After Beatrice, into a butterfly, a higher level of knowledge that recognizes different ways of knowing and promotes symbiosis with non-Western sciences.
Notes and references
- Amin Maalouf, The First Century After Beatrice (London, Quartet, 1993), page 3.
- For analysis of how science dominates the non-West, see Ziauddin Sardar (editor), The Revenge of Athena: Science, Exploitaion and the Third World (London, Mansell, 1988); Ashis Nandy (editor), Science, Hegemony and Violence (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1988); and Sandra Harding (editor), The Racial Economy of Science (Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1993).
- Paul Davies, The Mind of God (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1992), pages 22-23.
- Huff, op cit, reference 15, page 314.
- Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1969), page 56; quoted by Sandra Harding, ‘Is science multicultural?’ Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science and Technology, 2(2), 1994.
- For a general introduction to Islamic science, see Donald Hill, lslamic Science and Engineering (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1994). See also: Faut Sazgin, Geschichte des Arabischen Schriftturn (Leiden, Brill, 1974482, 8 vols); E. S. Kennedy, Studies in the lslamic Exact Sciences (Beirut, American University of Beirut, 1983); A. I. Sabra, The Optics of ibn al-Haytham (London, The WarburgInstitute, University of London, 1989, 2 vols) and numerous entries in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York, Scribners, 1970-80).
- Patrick Petitjean, Science and Empires (Dordrecht, Kluwer, 1992).
- Radhika Ramasubhan, Public Health and Medical Research in lndia (Stockholm, SAREC, 1982).
- R. K. Kochhar, ‘Science in British India’, Current Science, Parts I and II, 63(11) and 64(l), 1992293.
- Harding, op cit, reference 4; and in David Theo Goldberg (editor), Multiculturalism: A Reader (London, Blackwells, 1994). Willis W. Harman, ‘Rethinking the central institutions of modern society: science and business’, Futures, 2_5(10), 1993, pages 1063-1069.
- J. D. Bernal, Science in History (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1979, 4 vols).
- Harding, op cit, reference 4.
- Martin Bernal, Black Athena (London, Free Association Books, 1987, 2 vols).
- Cheikh Anta Diop, Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology (New York, Lawrence Hill Books, 1991).
- Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993).
- Ibid, page 215.
- Ibid, page 299.
- Needham, op cit, reference 4.
- For how Huff rewrites the history of Europe and science see chapters 3, 6 and 9. But for a more enlightened account see Colin A. Ronan, Science: Its History and Development among the World’s Cultures (New York, Facts on File, 1982); and the magnificent George Sarton, introduction to The History of Science (New York, Robert E. Krieger, 1975, 4 vols); and historic papers, particularly on scientific revolution in J. R. Ravetz’s Merger of Knowledge With Power (London, Mansell, 1990).
- T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 1962).
- Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (London, NLB, 1975); Science in a Free Society (London, Verso, 1978); Farewell to Reason (London, Verso, 1987).
- J. R. Ravetz, Scientific Know/edge and Its Social Problems (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991); and Ravetz, op cit, reference
- H. Rose and S. Rose (editors), Ideology of/in the Natural Sciences (London, Macmillan, 1976, 2 ~01s).
- Ian Mitroff, The Subjective Side Science (Amsterdam, Elsevier, 1974).
- Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgan, Laboratory Life: Social Constructions of Scientific Facts (London, Sage, 1979).
- Karin Knorr-Cetina, The Manufacture of Knowledge (Oxford, Pergamon, 1981).
- J. R. Ravetz, ‘Science, ignorance and fantasies’ in Sardar, op cit, reference 2, page 35
- Harding, op cit, reference 4.
- Claude Alvares, Science, Development and Violence (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1992), page 65.
- Ibid, page 64.
- Harding, op cit, reference 4.
- C. V. Seshadri, Development and Thermodynamics (Delhi, MCRC, 1982); cited by Alvares, op cit, reference 30.
- Harding, op cit, reference 4.
- Alvares, op cit, reference 30, page 85.
- Leon Lederman, The God Particle (London, Bantam Press, 1993).
- Stephen Hawkins, A Brief History of Time (London, Bantam Press, 1988), page 175.
- John D. Borrow, Theories of Everything (London, Vintage, 1991), page 184.
- On the mathematics of non-Western civilizations see the excellent George Gheverghese Joseph, The Crest of the Peacock: Non- European Roots of Mathematics (London, Penguin, 1990).
- Lederman, op cit, reference 36, page 340.
- Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (London, Vintage, 1993), page 196.
- Lederman, op cit, reference 36, page 22.
- Weinberg, op cit, reference 41, page 173.
- Lederman, op cit, reference 36, page 408.
- Weinberg, op cit, reference 41, page 194.
- Ibid, page 200.
- Ibid, page 204.
- Lederman, op cit, reference 36, page 408.
- E. 0. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1978), page 3.
- Ibid, page 4.
- Ibid, page 5.
- Ibid, page 5.
- Ibid, page 46.
- E. 0. Wilson, Sociobiology (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1975).
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1976), pages 19-20.
- R. C. Lewontin, The Doctrine of DNA (London, Penguin, 1991), pages 48-49.
- Tom Wilkie, Perilous Knowledge (London, Faber and Faber, 1993), page 3.
- Ibid, page 182.
- Ibid, pages 169- 170.
- Ibid, page 177.
- Ibid, page 178.
- Ibid, page 188.
- Lewontin, op cit, reference 56, pages 49-50.
- Ibid, page 51.
- Ibid, page 75.
- Royal Society of London, Philosophical Transactions, I, 1665-66 (New York, Johnson Reprint Company, 19631, 2, page 197.
- Stephen Crook, Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Waters, Postmodernization (London, Sage, 1992), page 211.
- Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome R. Ravetz, ‘Science for the post-normal age’, Futures, 25(7), 1993, pages 739-756.
- Cook et al, op cit, reference 67, page 207.
- Weinberg, op cit, reference 41, page 172.
- James Cleick, Chaos (London, Cordinal, 1987), page 306.
- Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (London, Viking, 1993), pages 330-333.
- Stuart A. Kauffman, The Origins of Order (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993), page 26.
- Ibid, page 341. On computer-generated life, see also Steven Levy, Artificial Life (London, Penguin, 1993).
- Roger Lewin, Complexity (London, J. M. Dent, 1993), page 191.
- Elizabeth Reichel, ‘Shamanistic modes for environmental accounting in the Colombian Amazon: lessons from indigenous ethoecology for sustainable development’, indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, 7 (2), 1993, pages 17- 18.
- Rohana Ulluwishewa, ‘Indigenous knowledge system for sustainable development: the case of pest control by traditional paddy farmers in Sri Lanka’, indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, l(2), 1993, pages 14-15.
- S. Fujisaka, E. Jayson and A. Dapusala, “‘Recommendation domain” and a farmer’s upland rice technology’, indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, l(3), 1993, pages 4-7.
- For a detailed examination of the contemporary issues in Islamic science see Ziauddin Sardar, Explorations in lslamic Science (London, Mansell, 1989).
- Harding, op cit, reference 4.