Are Modern Science and Indigenous People’s TEK Compatible?

A recent article in The Guardian * described efforts of scientists working with members of New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Māori, to save the kauri (Agathis australis). It’s a species of tree native to New Zealand which can grow to over 150 feet tall, with a trunk girth up to 52 feet, and live for over 2,000 years. Kauri forests have been decimated by a disease caused by a microscopic fungus-like organism (phytophthora agathidicida) living in the soil and infecting kauri roots, damaging the tissues that carry nutrients and water within the tree, effectively starving it to death. The disease is easily spread through soil movements, for example, when soil is carried on dirty footwear, animals, equipment and vehicles. The New York Times ran an article on the same story earlier this year. *

According to Māori tradition, the kauri are considered to be sacred, and this elevated status has turned out to be a great help to the conservation project. One kauri in particular, Tāne Mahuta, was named after the god of forests who created space between the sky father and the earth mother, thereby making life possible. When it became evident that kauri were dying from the fungus, Māori became the trees’ guardians by keeping visitors from inadvertently spreading the killer organism. They also were early advocates for the need for more attention from the New Zealand government which up to that time had not given the problem much priority. A change in government in 2017 brought change in environmental policies. As scientists began to spend more time working with the Māori to at least minimize the damage, they came to value mātauranga, the traditional knowledge of the Māori people. According to Tess McClure in the aforementioned Guardian article,

[Forest] rangers and some scientists say the battle has also contributed to a deeper and more widespread transformation of conservation work in New Zealand, which increasingly looks to matauranga – Māori knowledge systems – to reinforce and inform scientific approaches.

In consultation with Te Kawerau ā Maki [a Māori iwi or tribe], the rangers have begun an intricate process of re-engineering tracks through the reserve – suspending many of them above the ground, and avoiding deep foundation pillars that disrupt root systems.

This collaborative effort to save the kauri is not entirely foreign to New Zealanders. Some of that country’s scientists have been open to TEK or traditional (or indigenous) ecological knowledge and have proposed its inclusion in science education curricula * . However, there are those in the wider scientific community who do not consider TEK to be anything like a science. For example Richard Dawkins has been highly critical of what he sees as a type of misguided approach to teaching science.

I have read [about] the ludicrous move to incorporate Maori “ways of knowing” into science curricula in New Zealand, and the frankly appalling failure of the Royal Society of New Zealand to stand up for science – which is, after all, what your Society exists to do.

Dawkins is quite clear about what is and is not science.

. . . no indigenous myths from anywhere in the world, no matter how poetic or hauntingly beautiful, belong in science classes. Science classes are emphatically not the right place to teach scientific falsehoods alongside true science. . . . Science is science is science, and it doesn’t matter who does it, or where, or what “tradition” they may have been brought up in. True science is evidence-based not tradition-based; it incorporates safeguards such as peer review, repeated experimental testing of hypotheses, double-blind trials, instruments to supplement and validate fallible senses etc. True science works: lands spacecraft on comets, develops vaccines against plagues, predicts eclipses to the nearest second, reconstructs the lives of extinct species such as the tragically destroyed Moas.*

Dawkins concerns were shared by a number of New Zealand’s scientists who published a letter highly critical of the proposed inclusion of mātauranga in science teaching. The resulting heated crossfire between critics and defenders of mātauranga have led to statements like “New Zealand science is heading off the rails” while the defenders argue that the critics are making “racist assumptions.” In an article in the New Zealand Medical Journal, Waikaremoana Waitoki, President of the New Zealand Psychological Society and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Waikato presented the defenders’ position:

The letter writers express their concern that science is being misunderstood at all levels of education and science funding. They further add that science itself does not colonise—while acknowledging that “it has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art”. This is similar to saying “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”. Esteemed scholar, Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (and others), established that science has indeed been used, under the pretence of its own legitimacy, to colonise and commit genocide towards Māori and other Indigenous peoples. . . . *

Professor Smith’s comment reminds me of the science that had been used in the US to relegate Blacks to a lower status in the hierarchy of human races, characterizing them as having an inferior intellect. * Waikato argues that white racism is behind Dawkin’s and others’ condemnation of mātauranga. Again, that makes me think of systemic racism here in the US where whites are often unable to perceive their implicit bias.

Research conducted over 40 plus years in psychology shows the impact of racism on Māori health outcomes, curriculum development, student numbers, research outputs, and staff recruitment, advancement and retention. More needs to be done, and the NCEA [New Zealand’s National Certificates of Educational Achievement] curriculum changes will go some way to achieving mātauranga parity. We welcome the changes on the horizon and embrace the potential for enhanced understandings of science, whatever their origins.

Waitoki is here arguing for a more inclusive understanding of science. When Dawkins and others declaim “true science works” and “science is helping us battle worldwide crises . . . COVID-19, global warming,” they are insisting on an exclusivist view of what methodologies must be used to determine information about the natural world. According to Waitoki and those who are defending Māori TEK,

Māori do have solutions to global warming, as do many other Indigenous epistemologies. These solutions centre on protecting the planet as an ancestor by using Indigenous science and addressing exploitative capitalism. It is unfair to claim that we should be concerned (and therefore panic) that science won’t be trusted if we teach the truth about the colonisation of peoples, or about racism that occurs in New Zealand society. We should instead be concerned that viable and sustainable solutions, derived from Indigenous worldviews, are systematically ignored and marginalised, or suppressed and criminalised by those who do not understand their role in epistemic injustice.

So are modern science and Indigenous peoples’ ecological knowledge compatible? It’s clear that the answer depends on whom you talk to. But those involved with saving the kauri have no problem seeing the compatibility – because apparently the collaborative approach is working.

According Guardian reporter Tess McClure,

In the case of kauri . . . rangers and conservationists say the advice of Māori has shaped and often predicted the scientific advice, as conservation efforts shift from a focus on kauri alone to a more holistic, interconnected one that looks at pressures on the forest as a whole.

Senior kauri dieback ranger Stuart Leighton describes the kauri situation this way:

We’ve got all of these impacts colliding. It’s climate change, this newly discovered pathogen, the impacts of lots of footfalls … introduced species – all creating this enormous pressure. . . . I think we’ll look back at this point in time, and we’re starting to see, nationally, a change in how we approach some of our natural resources. . . . The western science, if you like, it’s starting to point more and more to that interconnectedness.”

* Sources

Salvation of New Zealand’s dying giant kauri trees may have roots in Māori wisdom | New Zealand | The Guardian(opens in a new tab)

How Maori Stepped In to Save a Towering Tree Crucial to Their Identity – The New York Times(opens in a new tab)

Mātauranga Māori and science — Science Learning Hub(opens in a new tab)

Myths Do Not Belong in Science Classes: Letter to the Royal Society of New Zealand | Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science(opens in a new tab)

In defence of mātauranga Māori: a response to the ‘seven academics’(opens in a new tab)

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