Sunday, June 10, 2012

Seeing Through Cultural Bias in Science [no, white western experience should not be the universal norm]

Not only in science but in every form of discourse. This is why English is a curse as well as a blessing. It is a mask of conquest. For instance just take the expression 'Holy Land'. Whose holy land is the west Asian desert? Not mine, for sure.

On Jun 10, 2012 4:07 AM, "sri  wrote:
Seeing Through Cultural Bias in Science
Jul. 4, 2002

Most people now accept that fields like politics and journalism
reflect and perpetuate cultural bias. Yet we imagine science as free
of unexamined cultural assumptions. This is more or less true for some
fields - say, chemistry or physics. My own corner of science,
ethology, or the study of animal behavior, is certainly not pristine.

How we look at animals reflects how we view ourselves. The founder of
Japanese primatology, Kinji Imanishi, could attest to this. Imanishi
argued that nature is inherently harmonious rather than competitive,
with species forming an ecological whole. This rather un-Darwinian
perspective so upset a British paleontologist, the late Beverly
Halstead, that in 1984 he traveled to Kyoto to confront Imanishi.
Unconstrained by first-hand knowledge of Imanishi's works, which were
never translated, Halstead told him that his theory was "Japanese in
its unreality."

What compelled Halstead to be so rude? Why did he later write an
article criticizing not just Imanishi's views, but his country? Why
did " Nature, " one of the most prestigious journals in science,
publish it, in 1985, beneath the patronizing assertion that the
"popularity of Kinji Imanishi's writings in Japan gives an interesting
insight into Japanese society"? Could not the same be said of Darwin's
theory of unremitting competition, which grew out of a society giving
birth to free-market capitalism?

Even if Imanishi's ecological and evolutionary ideas were problematic,
he and his followers were right about quite a lot. In fact, well
before Halstead's contemptuous pilgrimage, Western ethologists began
adopting Eastern concepts and approaches--although without being aware
of their sources. To understand how this could occur is to appreciate
the role of different cultural assumptions about the relations between
humans and animals and how linguistic hegemony affects science.

Eastern philosophy has no counterpart to Plato's "great chain of
being," which places humans above all other animals. In most Eastern
belief systems, the human soul can reincarnate in many shapes and
forms. A man can become a fish and a fish can become God. There are no
grounds in Eastern thought for resisting the central idea of
evolutionary theory: that all animals are historically linked.

Unlike in the West, this acceptance of evolution was never tainted by
hubris or an aversion to acknowledging human-like characteristics in
animals. Japanese primate researchers assumed that each individual
animal had a distinct personality, and they did not hesitate to give
their subjects names. They plotted kinship relationships over multiple
generations, believing that primates must have a complex family life,
just like us.

They did all of this well before any Western scientist thought of it.
In 1958, when Imanishi and his students toured the US to report their
findings, they were ridiculed for humanizing their subjects and for
believing that they could distinguish between all those monkeys. The
Western view of apes regarded them as akin to Rousseau's "noble
savage" - autonomous individuals, devoid of social ties and
obligations, driven by instinct to swing haphazardly from one fruit
tree to the next.

But while Jane Goodall was describing female chimpanzees and their
dependent offspring as the only socially bonded units in the primate
world, a Japanese team, working only 130 kilometers away, eventually
proved that chimpanzees live in large communities with stable
memberships. We now know that chimpanzee society is male-bonded, and
there is ample evidence of territorial warfare between communities.
The initial discovery arose from the assumption that chimpanzees, so
close in evolution to humans, could not be as "individualistic" as
Western science supposed.

The same initial assumption led Imanishi in 1952 to suggest that
animals might have culture, which he reduced to its lowest common
denominator: the social rather than genetic transmission of behavior.
If individuals learn from one another, over time their behavior may
diverge from that of other groups, thus constituting a distinct

We now know that cultural learning among animals is widespread,
including birdsong, the use of tools by chimpanzees, and the hunting
techniques of whales. Yet only a few decades ago, some Western
professors forbade their students even to make reference to papers by
Japanese colleagues! How could a cultural outlook that the West
treated with such raw condescension - even in 1985 - simultaneously
shape Western science so profoundly?

The answer lies in language. A single language for scientific papers
and conferences is clearly desirable, and the language of
international science is English. Good scientific ideas formulated in
bad English either die or get repackaged. Like a Hollywood
interpretation of a French novel, their origins become erased. Eastern
thinking could creep into ethology unnoticed partly because it
filtered into the literature through awkward formulations and
translations that native English speakers found it easy to improve on.

The problem is not the English language per se , but the attitude and
behavior of many native speakers. Naturally, you speak and write your
own language faster and more eloquently than any other, and this can
place scientists whose English is poor at a severe disadvantage.
Imanishi's influence is now pervasive - all primate scientists have
adopted the technique of following individuals over time, and animal
culture is the hottest topic in our field. But Imanishi's writings are
rarely, if ever, cited. We should not wonder at the difficulties that
other cultural and linguistic groups must experience in gaining a
voice and proper acknowledgment in science.

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