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d’Errico: Traditional knowledge is science

We sometimes hear that science is different from traditional knowledge. Typically someone criticizing a traditional worldview says this. From what I’ve seen, most traditionalists don’t put much effort into criticizing science. Some of them even encourage science as a partner with traditional knowledge. One of the best books in this genre is A. Oscar Kawagley, “A Yupiaq Worldview: A Pathway to Ecology and Spirit.”

I’ve always thought the most important ingredient in science is observation, paying attention to how things work, grow, stay the same, or evolve. From this perspective, traditional knowledge is scientific; it’s based on long-term observation, information gathered and passed along by generations of observers. That’s how we get to know about medicine plants and the behavior of animals and the seasons.

Traditional knowledge is scientific; it’s based on long-term observation, information gathered and passed along by generations of observers.

Traditional knowledge is also how we got the Hopi prophecies, which warn us about the dangers of imbalance in our relationship with the earth. The Hopis carried their warnings based on traditional knowledge to the United Nations in 1976. Thomas Banyacya presented it as a statement based on long-term observation: “Because we have seen this destruction once before, we do not want to see it happen again, when mankind had put more emphasis on material rather than spiritual things, when laws of nature were interfered and ignored and the world was destroyed.”

A recent article in The New Yorker magazine got me to thinking about this again: “The Ice Retreat,” by Fen Montaigne, is a close look at global warming and the Adélie penguins in the Antarctic. He interviews Bill Fraser, a scientist who has been living in the Antarctic for most of the past 35 years. Fraser is one of a handful of humans who have enough experience on the ground in the Antarctic to be able to tell us what it’s like from experience, not just experiment or computer modeling.

What Bill Fraser told the New Yorker writer fits right into the idea of observation as science. His words describe the kind of knowledge that indigenous peoples have about their environments: He said, “It always seemed intuitive to me that the only way to really understand something is to live in it, to spend a tremendous amount of time in the field, collecting the same data year after year. You develop a sense for what the rhythms should be; the flow of things. And that’s what has allowed me to pick up things that don’t make sense, the anomalies.”

The recent Copenhagen meetings produced a fair amount of global warming carbon jet exhaust and a few words on paper that may promise something useful later.

Fraser’s conclusions regarding the Adélie penguins are scary; he says it is a species that seems to have “fallen out of sync with its environment.” When we consider that it is the environment that has changed so much that the penguins can’t live in it, probably we should say the environment has fallen out of sync with the species.

Fraser points out that “older, experienced adult [penguins] have more success raising chicks than younger [penguins].” This fact is especially interesting, because it shows the ability to observe and understand is not limited to humans. It also means that penguins are dying off because their young can’t survive long enough to figure out how to survive.

The recent Copenhagen meetings produced a fair amount of global warming carbon jet exhaust and a few words on paper that may promise something useful later. One optimistic view, from Colin Blakemore, a professor of neuroscience, is that the Copenhagen meetings will mark something altogether new in human history: The emergence of planetary consciousness, “when the global village acquired a global mind.”

What good news it would be if humans woke up to the fact that we share a single planet and all beings observe and learn and everything we do affects everyone else.

What good news it would be if humans woke up to the fact that we share a single planet and all beings observe and learn and everything we do affects everyone else. What wonderful news if we realized this in time to slow the process of environmental change to at least a pace where our powers of observation could keep us in sync.

If we fall out of sync with the earth, we, like the Adélie penguins, are doomed to extinction. It would mean we didn’t pay attention to traditional knowledge and science when we had the chance. As Banyacya, Fraser, and Kawagley might say: “You can’t say you weren’t warned.”


Peter d’Errico is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues. D’Errico was a staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services from 1968 to 1970. He taught legal studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst until 2002.