In Defense of Ethnoscience


“Ethnoscience” and “Indigenous science”, along with more fine-grained designations like “ethnomathematics”, “ethnoastronomy”, etc., are common terms used to describe both Indigenous systems of knowledge, as well as the scholarly study of these systems. These terms are contested among specialists, for reasons I will not address here. More recently they have also been swallowed up by the voracious beast that is our neverending culture war, and are now hotly contested by people who know nothing about them as well.

Thus in his New York Times column of May 13 entitled “This Is How Wokeness Ends”, David Brooks singles out ethnomathematics as one of the “fringe absurdities” produced by the new “soft totalitarian” ideology currently taking America by storm. Two days before that, Brian Leiter declared on his widely read philosophy blog that Indigenous science is “bad science”1 — this in response to another philosophy blog, Figs in Winter, that had recently deemed Indigenous science “pseudoscience” (Leiter thinks this latter category is unuseful, in view of the well-known demarcation problem in the philosophy of science). Now, Brooks has made a career out of modeling ignorance for intellectually soft and complacent Americans, while Leiter is a representative of an academic discipline that, at least in principle, encourages its members to pursue broad learning and to cultivate an interest in the world around them. So, though perhaps I should be inured to this sort of thing by now, I admit I found it astonishing to come across something so aggressively ignorant and incurious as his dismissal of Indigenous science.

You cannot understand what science is, and therefore cannot really do philosophy of science, without understanding the extent to which science is embedded in culture. The only way to adequately understand this embedding, in turn, is through serious attention to the different ways in which cognition of the world around us, and practical application of this cognition, are expressed in different cultures in different times and places. In the study of these different ways, moreover, Indigenous cultures can and do play a particularly important role, not least because there are unique features of cognition in societies that transmit intergenerational knowledge orally, which are lost with the rise of textual learning as the basis of knowledge transmission.

Indigenous people are members of the same species as modern scientists. Their brains evolved in the same way, in response to the same environmental pressures. Ours is a species that was made up entirely of Indigenous people for the vast majority of its history (if we permit ourselves anachronistically to project back a category that makes no sense prior to the emergence of the non-Indigenous contrast class). Therefore it would behoove anyone who wants to understand how science “meets” the world, which I think is something philosophers are in principle still interested in doing, to pay attention to human natural cognition and human practical knowledge of the natural world in general — again, the great majority of which has, throughout our species’ history, been Indigenous.



This is the most succinct version of the defense of “ethnoscience” I can offer, and there would be much more to say about each of the claims I’ve made. I am aware that it will not sound entirely convincing if all you mean by science is something like “finding the most efficient and economical way to get the most work out of our machines”. But is there any good reason to think that’s what science is?

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle ingeniously deadpans that “fire burns both here and in Persia” (1134b). It is this same singular insight that underlies the work of modern scientists such as Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program. The West, Khan saw, might indeed call the shots politically and economically, and as a result the ideology implicit in Western cultural products insinuates itself everywhere in an asymmetrical fashion. But in Pakistan as in America, fire burns the same, and nuclear fission works the same, and for this reason science is a great equalizer and leveller — it can level entire cities, in fact.

Khan would have no patience at all for talk of Pakistani tribal villagers’ traditional theories about what makes fire burn in, say, a lecture on nuclear physics at the University of Karachi. Arguably however, Khan is not a scientist in any rich sense that ought to be of interest to a philosopher of science, or in any sense that is continuous with the legacy of what was once called scientia, or yet in any sense that ought to be modeled to a future citizen-scientist contributing to the civic life of a free society. His concerns —though they are an Islamic and nationalist variant that on the surface have a distinct appearance— are rather continuous with those of the ideology we call, under neoliberalism, “STEM”. This ideology reduces science to engineering in the service of power.

It’s true, fire burns the same everywhere, but what is most interesting to me, as a philosopher and as a student of the remarkable varieties of human endeavor, are all the different ways human beings, in the face of this uniformity, are still able to conceptualize what fire is, and all the different ways they are able to incorporate it into their societies as a result of these different conceptualizations. I do not think I am merely expressing a me-centric idiosyncrasy when I say that this interest of mine should be shared by other philosophers.



You might agree with me that Indigenous science is worth studying, while still agreeing with Leiter that it is “bad” — though here you might also prefer to distinguish “wrong” from “bad”, as it is far from obvious that a factually wrong account of how the natural world works is in any sense blameworthy, and moreover there are numerous examples of factually wrong accounts of reality being fairly “good”, in the sense of “efficacious”, in helping people to move through their environments and get done the things they want to do. But is it in fact bad?

A lot depends on whether you understand “science” strictly as a theoretical account of reality that can then be translated into the pursuit of practical goals, or whether you understand it as essentially mixed up with these goals. For example, did the Polynesians who made it to Easter Island between 800 and 1200 CE have a “science” of navigation? They certainly had a system of knowledge, grounded in rigorous cognitive training, that enabled them to accomplish feats far superior to those of Europeans prior to the modern period. But they do not seem to have had a formal or explicit system of geodesy, and they did not have an account of the shape of the Earth or of the relationship between the motion of the Earth and the perceptible objects in the night sky.

Now, if you wish to exclude the “practical navigation” of the Polynesians on the grounds that it was principally focused on accomplishing tasks rather than on understanding the world, then you are faced with an obvious problem: theoretical understanding of how the world “really” works has never been the principal motor of scientific research for any group of people: power-hungry engineers and the despots who employ them have always disdained stargazing sages who seek the causes of the motions of the heavens and the growth of the seed, etc.

What we generally find in the history of science, when we believe we have isolated a moment of pure intellectual discovery of universal import, is in fact only the end of a long sequence of more mundane and culturally specific endeavors. Consider the famous Leibniz series, which are, collectively, a method offering a description of the summation of infinite quantities. It was long imagined that this method was innovated by the great German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), and that he took up the task because he wished to penetrate with his mind the mystery of infinity, or some such thing. But we now know that this method was developed at least three centuries earlier in the Kerala school of mathematics, by Mādhava of Sangamagrāma (c. 1340 – c. 1425), and was likely diffused from South Asia to Europe via untraceable ship and land routes and by the missionaries and traders who followed them.

Why, now, were Kerala mathematicians interested in such calculations? There would be much to say here, but it is enough to note that their mathematical and astronomical work had a good deal to do with the need to anticipate small anomalies bearing consequences for the projection of the religious calendar into the future. In other words, the mathematics of the infinite develops as an outgrowth of the distinctly cultural need to schedule the holy days of feasts and fasts, of prayer and celebration. And this is not at all particular to India: as J. L. Heilbron has shown in his remarkable book, The Sun in the Church, European cathedrals for centuries served the double purpose of functioning as solar observatories, which were likewise crucial for calendrical projections, in turn important for anticipating feasts and fasts and in general for the conduct of a pious life.

Were the solar observations in medieval cathedrals “bad science”? There is surely no good reason to classify Polynesian navigation as such, but to spare the Indian or European innovations. All of these in fact belong to the category of what was for a long time called “mixed mathematics”, which included not just astronomy, but also music, optics, etc. The only “pure” mathematics left over, in fact, once you exclude all the practical concerns involved in its mixture, would be something like what the pious Catholic Georg Cantor reserved for the term “infinity” (while calling the larger-than-∞ quantities he manipulated in his set theory merely “transfinite”): the nature of God, or the contemplation of the eternal and unchangeable — which, however lofty, surely isn’t what STEM-ideologists have in mind when they imagine they are the sole possessors of “good science”.

Games are another important motor of mixed mathematics, and every human society has games. Where there are games there is competition (and often betting); and where there is competition, there is superstition. It is thus hard to see the well-studied emergence of techniques for calculating probabilities that came with the rise of modern state lotteries, as something fully separate from the “lucky numbers” booklets that emerged at the same time, often with images of saints on them (on which, see Stephen Stigler’s forthcoming Casanova’s Lottery). Given the complex cultural embeddedness of Western mathematical practices, it should not be at all surprising that other cultures have mathematics, or that it might take some work to identify and separate out and “measure” the sophistication of the mathematical knowledge that is embedded in these practices.

But that work can be done, and is being done. Thus for example scholars are interested in the practice of sand-drawing in Vanuatu, where boys and young men compete with one another to create complex geometrical patterns on the beach according to a number of rigid rules. Their work is proven to involve “higher-order” conceptualization of the nature of the mathematical operations involved, even as this conceptualization remains entirely subordinate to aims that have no meaning outside of this distinct cultural setting. Other recent scholarship has shown the crucial importance in Europe of the (feminine-coded) cultural practice of weaving for key conceptual breakthroughs in algebra in the seventeenth century. Thus for example around 1640 Joachim Jungius wrote a work entitled Texturae contemplatio [A Contemplation of Weaving], which anticipates in important ways Leibniz’s own analysis situs or the mathematics of the study of situational relations.

Mathematics has always been mixed, in the West as everywhere else. You can separate it out, in special contexts, but it gets pulled back down into the world whenever you want to get anything done. And when it’s pulled down it really only comes back where it started. Ethnomathematics, properly understood, is really just the study of mathematics as mixed mathematics, from a perspective sufficiently broad to capture something close to the full variety of possible mixtures.



I’ve been focusing mostly on ethnomathematics only because it was David Brooks’s dismissal of this field as an interest of “the marginal fringe” that determined me to write the present response. But it is perhaps in the area of natural classification and biological taxonomy that we have obtained the most impressive results in the study of ethnoscience as a scholarly field.

In an already classic 1990 work, The Cognitive Foundations of Natural History, building on research by Brent Berlin and many others Scott Atran showed that Linnean taxonomy operates according to the same basic cognitive constraints as are present in Indigenous Central American ethnobotanical knowledge systems, or for that matter in Aristotle, or in ancient Ayurvedic taxonomy, or pretty much anywhere you look. We simply do not have unlimited freedom in the way we carve the world up, since much of the carving is done for us already in the evolution of our brains. The natural world arrives in the consciousness of modern science pre-carved by pre-scientific cognition. In order to understand how this works, and to have any hope of measuring the adequation of our own classificatory schemes to the way the world really is, we need to know something about such things as Indigenous Guatemalan ethnobotany.

We have also known for some decades, thanks to the work of William Balée and many others, that the carving-up of the natural world within Indigenous knowledge systems also often translates into complex programs of practical engagement with the natural environment. The Amazon, for example, is conceptualized by its inhabitants from within as a multigenerational horticultural-cum-architectural project of human will, even if from the outside perspective of “civilization”, it looks only like so much “nature”.

It is moreover in the field of ecology that the STEM-ideology, of science as engineering in the interest of power, seems, in light of the present environmental crisis, most inadequate. For the same reason it is perhaps in this field that one might be able to make the strongest case that Indigenous science is not just “interesting”, and not just “right relative to the particular ends of the Indigenous people in question”, but right simpliciter. The most advanced scientia of the natural world, the knowledge-system that is most adequate to its particular object, may, when it comes to nature, be not the one that most thoroughly and powerfully transforms it, but the one that most elegantly and sustainably harmonizes with it.

We know that Indigenous knowledge systems often include in their practical expression a power to transform and to sculpt the environment, notably in the Amazon and in the Pacific Northwest. This power is transmitted across the generations through intangible but very real knowledge traditions. One does not have to be a “romantic” or an “irrationalist” to become convinced that it would be a good thing for scientists to understand how, concretely, such knowledge systems function. They are part of the human experience after all, and, more urgently, they potentially offer a model of ecological stewardship that will prove crucial for getting us through the looming bottleneck of our species’ planetary history.



A further question, if we agree that ethnoscience is at least interesting and useful, and often also true, concerns when and how it should be taught. Brooks and Leiter are both reacting to ideologically driven initiatives (such as this one) to incorporate some vulgarized version of “ethnoscience” instruction at the primary-school level in the United States. These initatives make the gross mistake, rightly identified by the physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, of dividing American children up into different epistemic categories on the basis of their racial and ethnic backgrounds, as if there were anything close to an easy one-to-one mapping of ancestry to epistēmē.

This is surely a consequence of the identitarianism that almost seems to have as its express purpose the concealment of what it is Americans of different backgrounds have in common with one another, whereas any viable (because faithful-to-truth) incorporation of ethnoscience at the elementary or high-school level would be one that reveals the universality of human cognitive patterns. But just as one presumably does not renounce anti-racism when one realizes the fraudulence, e.g., of Robin DiAngelo’s “anti-racism”, so too does it make no sense to banish and suppress “ethnoscience” when we learn how that term is being abused and misrepresented by the San Francisco School Board.

If we are now convinced that ethnoscience is a legitimate scholarly endeavor for researchers in universities, we might still ask whether there is any hope of translating the fruits of this research into a register that may be useful to elementary and high-school students, and in a way that does not distort and denature it beyond recognition for the ideological ends of the school curriculum planners.

I concede such a moment seems far away indeed, yet still desirable. I do not spend much time thinking about primary-school education (I don’t even have undergraduates in my current position), but I can at least say that I, for one, would have done better in high-school geometry if the teacher had been able to tell us at least something of Pythagoras and his sect.

And here, in turn, I note that the Pythagoreans were likely no less wrong about the nature of numbers, figures, and arithmetic than any of the cultures that might be studied under the rubric of ethnomathematics. They believed the number 2 is “feminine”, for example. Some of their core ideas are still contested in the philosophy of mathematics today. Do numbers exist independently, or do they only result from the constructive act of counting the number of particular concrete things? Does twelvehood pre-exist a dozen eggs, a dozen thumbtacks, and all the other particular assemblages of twelve individual things you might throw together? I have no idea, for my part, but I know that the Pythagorean commitment to the rigorous independent existence of numbers came with a suite of other metaphysical and theological commitments it would be pretty hard for most people to accept today. The Pythagoreans were an extremist religious sect channeling Indo-European folk-beliefs passed down to them over the millennia from the illiterate nomads of the Eurasian steppe.

What’s more, since the nineteenth century the geometry the Greeks came up with, and to which the Pythagoreans contributed, has been discovered to be largely conventional, rather than “true”: you can use Euclidean postulates if you wish to, or you can use Lobachevskian ones, or others still. It depends what you’re trying to accomplish. In this respect, geometry really does not differ from Vanuatuan sand-drawing or Polynesian navigation. Geometry as we have inherited it is a branch of ethnomathematics, and it is a fundamental lie about human cognition, and its uniformity across cultures, to pretend otherwise. Again, I’m not a primary-school education specialist, and I am extremely wary of all the current crop of people who are, but I still think it would be good if students were to be made aware of this as early as possible.

Not two days after I unkindly called Bari Weiss a “one-trick pony” in last week’s newsletter, she went and published perhaps the most interesting and substantive pair of essays I have ever read on cryptocurrency, by Balaji S. Srinivasan (in the “pro” camp) and Michael W. Green (offering the “contra” case). It just goes to show how wrong it is ever to assume you’ve got another person figured out, and how premature and underinformed ad-hominem dismissals always are. So I’m sorry to Bari. (And yes, I would still be delighted to have a somewhat larger fraction of the subscriptions that she has managed to attract for her own newsletter.)


Update May 23, 2021: Brian Leiter informs me that when he wrote “‘Indigenous science’ is bad science”, he meant “[What the Canadian curriculum planners discussed by Massimo Pigliucci on the Figs in Winter blog call] ‘Indigenous science’ is bad science”. That is, the scare quotes were meant to call into question the legitimacy of what is being passed off as Indigenous science, rather than the legitimacy of the study of Indigenous science itself. Given that Leiter does not believe that “Indigenous science is bad science”, I retract my claim that his claim that “‘Indigenous’ science is bad science” is an expression of aggressive ignorance and incuriosity. You can read my exchange with Leiter here.