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Science, Tool of colonial imperialism?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on February 4, 2011

A friend of mine asked me if it wasn’t true that science…WESTERN science is really just part of the whole colonial imperialist baggage intended, and used, to diminish ‘local’ indigenous knowledge and elevate the superiority of ‘western ways of thinking’. As a believer in science, I knew he was wrong…then as an even better skeptic I thought I should exam the question.

To start with we should point out there are several ways to look at the question. First is the idea that science made ‘western’ domination possible, then the fact that science may be (claimed to be) neutral but scientists are not and lastly the idea of Scientism. I should also note that I used Europe and European but mean Western which would include Canada, the USA and those non-European countries/colonies that were largely populated by Europeans AND their ideas.

Now, it is a fact (or a quirk of history) that Europe took knowledge and technology from other cultures…altered and improved many…eventually applying them to world exploration and then domination. Europeans did not invent gunpowder but they did ‘perfect’ its use as a weapon. They did not invent oceanic travel but they did improve both the technology of ship-building and

by Jerad Diamond

navigation to the point where they could not only circumnavigate the globe but to do so regularly. Now, I don’t want to go into the why or even how Europe did this expropriation of technology that is a different question (I recommend checking out “Guns, Germs and Steel” and the response to the book). They were not the first imperial power and probably not the last, they were however the first global power.

There is a paradox in colonialism with regard to how science was able to both create and destroy civilizations. One of the greatest crimes Europeans committed (at time accidental – other times with purpose) against the indigenous people of the world was the spread of disease. However through transportation (plagues) and medicine, science was fundamental to Europe’s ability to dominate. Science caused the loss of many indigenous cultures while creating an entirely new one  for both Europeans and those they dominated.

Trade routes facilitated the spread of the plague

First you had the science of transportation. Not only did this allow Europeans to travel around the globe encountering new peoples in new lands but to take with them (unknowingly) a plethora of diseases from one continent to another. Ironically, because of the endless waves of plague and disease that ravaged Europe (also due to scientific advances in trade and travel), Europeans became a reservoir of ‘biological weapons’ like smallpox as well as the science to ‘deal’ with it like vaccination and drugs.

Painting of massive deaths in Europe due to bubonic plague

When Europeans first encountered indigenous peoples, local medicine was only adapted to local conditions…which would have little experience with highly ‘communicability’ of disease. Europeans, thanks to extensive Euro-Asian trade, were better equipped both biologically (ie natural immunity) as well as culturally to deal with ‘new’ communicable disease. Thus indigenous people died by the millions while Europeans only died by the hundreds.

Colonial governments vaccinating indigenous population

To add irony to this, science had first enabled Europeans to infect and decimate indigenous populations then, thanks to the ever increasing medical advances (spurred by the challenges to overcome new disease), science then provided a salvation for the locals to ‘save them’ from the very disease the Europeans had brought as well as the local ‘incurables’. Thus Europeans were cast as both the takers of life (because of  things like small pox) and the saviours of life (especially in the 19th century when ‘modern’ medicine really started), allowing them to take on the persona of gods while instilling a sense of inferiority in the locals.

Nigerian solder keeping guard over slaves

Now this give-and-take of science had its parallels in agriculture, mining, manufacturing and a great number of other areas of life that allowed Europeans to dominate most indigenous cultures both physically as well as psychologically. The most notable of these “other” areas is the science of warfare and in particular weapons.

Haitian revolt for independence from France

First it allowed Europeans to dominate local power structures but then provided the means for locals (friendly to the Europeans of course) to dominate their own rivals as well as offer the only effective resistance to the colonial powers. You had a situation where the only way to defend the local people from colonial invaders was to adopt the science of those very same imperialist.

Europeans splitting the Chinese pie

Now as an aside, this analysis may not completely explain colonization of the ‘old’ culture like China but if goes some ways. Of course having gotten rich and fat from the New World, when Europe turned its eyes on the ‘old’ cultures of the middle east and Asia, it was not as much science but brute force that allowed Europe to become a global power.

Okay, enough of the first part…the HOW science made western imperialism possible. Now let’s look at the idea that science is itself used as a tool of domination.

What do we mean when we say that…science is tool of domination? By this I mean that not only the fruits of science have allowed for imperialism (as already discussed) but the idea, authority or method of science itself has been used to re-enforce that dominance. This is done in two ways; first local knowledge, such as herbalism or shamanism was seen as backwards and ‘primitive’…that the only real medicine was found in a test-tube. Another way it has done this is to use (or misuse) the tools of science to make dogma seem natural and right…giving it an air of authority by the fact it is a  ‘scientific fact’ therefore supporting cultural (political, etc.) truths; for example the attempt to use biology to PROVE the superiority of whites over blacks. Another example is the Piltdown man fake.

Piltdown Man skull

For those who are not acquainted with Piltdown Man, it was a partial ‘humanoid’ skull (jaw and scull fragments). In 1912, this “missing link” was found in England by Charles Dawson. It’s ready acceptance in the scientific community was because it fit with the cultural prejudices of the time…England was THE superpower, the birth place of the industrial revolution and the ruler of billions of people around the globe. It was obvious, to those at the time that England had to be the birth place of ‘intelligent’ man. It also confirmed the assumption at the time that the brain drove the evolution of the body…ie big brains with ape bodies evolved into big brains with human bodies…notably the jaw in the Piltdown man was ape-like and the brain case human-like.

However the scientific method moved on and by mid to late 20’s other discoveries (such as Peking Man and the Tsaung Child) showed that the human body (i.e. the jaw, upright walking et al) evolved first then the brain. By 1930, Piltdown man was seen as at best an anomaly and at worst fraud…and proven a fraud by improved dating mechanism in the 1940’s.

Another great example is herbal or folk remedies. One of the greatest growth areas in pharmaceuticals is in  the natural pharmacy of evolution, found in the plants and animals of the world. Modern science is checking out rainforest plants to see if they have chemicals that help fight infections…remedies that sometimes were already known, albeit in an anecdotal way, to local ‘medicine’ men.

Aztec medicine man applying herbal remedies

Of course this leads us to the difference between scientist and science. Now medicine men may have, by trial and error, discovered some remedies in the flora/fauna of their habitat however they were not using the scientific method so were not scientists. This is an important distinction. Although it may have been wrong to ‘off handedly’ dismiss local knowledge it was still true that the average life span of the indigenous was perhaps 30, whereas

Longevity through the ages

Europeans (at least the upper classes) lived to 50-80…it was bad science to write-off local medicine without investigating but it was also obvious (now and at the time) that Europeans lived longer and thus it would be just human nature for the Europeans to be so dismissive. It became dogma (not without supporting evidence…ie. Global empires) that Europe, Europeans and the ‘western’ ways were always superior to ‘foreign’ and ‘primitive’ alternatives.

To be fair to the medicine men, they did not have the scientific method; they had to use spiritualism and religious/cultural dogma as their guides for discovery. It is by allowing dogma to rule that retarded the development of ‘traditional’ cultures (this included Europe during the religious or dark ages). Now this putting dogma ahead of the scientific method is not limited to the ‘primitive’ cultures, sadly it is all too common in modern science. The saving grace of science though is the scientific method…the method will in the long run correct the errors made by scientist be those errors purposeful or institutional/systemic.

Anatomical "proof" of racism

A great example of this ‘corrective’ nature of the method on the scientist can be seen in the ‘science’ of race and racism. Science once showed that whites were the top of a biological tree of humanity. However, in attempting to affirm previous generations results, assumptions and predictions; the scientific method began to show new generations the holes in the ‘old’ theories…they had to adjust the theory to match the evidence…they had to abandon (however slowly and reluctantly) cultural biases in the light of scientific evidence. It must be accepted that the scientific method is independent of culture but scientist are the products of culture. As such, they often carry the baggage and assumptions of the dogmas of their society which can affect how they apply the scientific method and how willing they are to follow its path.

The Scientific Method writ large

Now what do we mean by scientific method? In this context it has really three parts. One – observe the world, create a model of the world that predicts its outcomes, test those predictions, and adjust the model based on the test results then repeat.

The Second part is a commitment to follow the evidence; this is where scientists occasionally fail. Part of the method is the willingness to accept the fact that, given sufficient evidence, ANY and ALL beliefs, theories and models may be wrong and need to be adjusted to match the reality…even if that means abandoning long held ideas…like racism.

The last element is not often acknowledged as part of the method and that is intellectual compaction…that driving need all scientists have to expand the boundaries of knowledge. For those who say that once an scientific idea becomes established it cannot be challenged misses this concept…every up-and-coming scientist wants to make his name in the field…to gain immortality for their contribution to the project of human knowledge.

To that end, one of the best ways to gain this immortality is to prove the ‘old’ way of thinking wrong…to prove an established model is either incomplete or wrong. This means that every generation of scientist, by their very nature, challenge anything that had become ‘dogma’ in science and are, when successful, rewarded greatly for that challenge.

The first supper of sceince

Lastly Scientism; there are two versions of this term (both derogatory), the first is the misuse of scientific claims in fields of study they were not intended or do not apply; an example is the often misuse of quantum science by spiritualist. This definition is not the one that concerns us now; our Scientism is the idea that science itself is dogma…that the ONLY truth…the ONLY way to find the Truth is in and with science. Now this criticism is in some ways a straw man. It is true most scientists and skeptics believe that science if the best way to know the ‘truth’ about anything but that does not mean that they believe science can, in actuality, be applied (or at least applied perfectly) to every question humanity may ask.

On a recent episode we discussed the role of science in ethics. One of the points that came out was the idea that IF science could, with the same accuracy, certainty and predictability as found in physics, be applied to ethics then it could provide ALL the answers. It seems plainly true that science has absolute answers when it comes to launching a satellite into space because the problem, formulas and results are so well known and predictable. IF we could say the same for ethical questions, such as abortion, why would we NOT follow the same path?

However, it was reiterated that (at least for now and probably forever) science could not achieve this level of knowledge and that in the gaps (often very large gaps) the traditions of philosophy have their place. That, because of the complexity of the human mind and society, the role of  science may be quite limited in many of the ‘big’ questions.

This however does not mean we should not TRY and apply science (acknowledging its limitations) and TRY and limit the number of inaccuracies, misconceptions and uncertainties so as to allow scientific predictions to guide our moral and philosophical inquiries as far as they can. For example, we may debate when euthanasia is right but science can at least inform us as the possibility of ‘health’ recovery or not.

So, to answer my friend’s question, which started us on this intellectual journey, is science a tool of imperialism? No, the technology it produces has been used for that purpose but it could have been used otherwise…that  even when scientists reinforce cultural superiority, the scientific method will eventually bring down their house of cards and that the belief…no the faith…that science can answer all questions is healthy provided that faith does not itself blind you to science’s own limitations. Faith is not in itself bad, it is only when it is blind to the reality around you that it becomes the handmaiden of dogma and the assassin of truth and progress.

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