Field of Science

The Djabugay medicine woman and the varieties of knowledge

An exquisite piece of art from the Tjapukai, illustrating the fishes, reptiles, mammals and other animals which are essential
for their culture, beliefs and sustenance.

Recently as part of the holiday break, I had an opportunity to visit the Djabugay (Tjapukai) cultural center in Cairns, Australia which showcases the often fascinating lifestyle and culture of the Djabugay people. Typical of other Australian aboriginal tribes, the Djabugay have occupied the land of Australia for thousands of years before the settlers and convicts came in. Everyday the cultural center organizes events demonstrating some of the essential activities of the tribe: these involve spear sharpening and throwing, boomerang throwing, dance and song including didgeridoo playing, folk art and medicinal plants.

All of the events were enjoyable but as a scientist I was especially interested in the session on medicinal plants. It was presented by a woman standing in front of a huge tray laden with different kinds of fruits, nuts and herbs. First she told us about all the fruits which the Djabugay had found were beneficial to their health. Then she told us about all those fruits and plants that were toxic. That was the end of the presentation.

During the Q&A session I asked her what exactly happens when we eat the toxic plants. “You die” was the commonsense answer, accompanied by a muffled chorus of laughter from the back. I stumbled around for a better-phrased question and asked what the mechanism of death was; whether the fruits were neurotoxic or cardiotoxic or paralyzing agents. The women replied by saying that she did not know anything about that. She genuinely seemed not to.

I was struck then by how different the knowledge of the Djabugay regarding these toxic plants was. For the Djabugay, the very word “knowledge” meant practical knowledge, the existence of facts without reasons. For us knowledge means something different; a body of thinking that allows us to unearth not just facts but the reasons for their existence. The Djabugay were of course no different from thousands of ancient and cultures around the world whose practitioners knew whether something would kill you or save you but who had no idea of how it worked. Their way of obtaining knowledge was no different from that of Neolithic man finding out things the hard way. From a primitive standpoint this makes a lot of sense; knowing how something works is a useless bit of information if I don’t know whether it will kill me. Knowledge of life and death, irrespective of mechanism, is very useful knowledge.

And yet the kind of knowledge that the Djabugay and their counterparts had is fundamentally different from the kind that has come to be associated with modern science. The whole idea of the scientific revolution can be traced back to the time when we went from asking not just “what” but to asking “how” and “why”. This fundamental shift in inquiry is much more radical than it seems, especially since, as illustrated by the Djabugay’s identification of poisonous fruit, asking “what” seems very important for survival while asking “how” seems like mere idle curiosity. Yet the flame of this idle curiosity was always present in man, and it was only by the sixteenth century in Europe that we started to find ways of systematically and comprehensively applying an algorithm that would help us fruitfully satisfy this idle curiosity.

The scientific method that enabled us to do this made it possible to go from consequences to mechanism, a connection that had largely escaped primitive people. Going from consequences to mechanism, and especially abstract mechanism, was truly revolutionary. People like the Djabugay would understandably have frowned upon the quest for mechanism, had they not known that three hundred years later, it would be abstract mechanism and not just purposeful, commonsense knowledge that would result in some of our greatest inventions, including computers, lasers, plastics and drugs. Curiosity-based, supposedly impractical thinking led to some of our most practical wherewithal. Scribblings on paper led to machines humming away and making other machines. That’s a long way to come.

And yet we are not as different from the Djabugay as we think; even among their ranks there were undoubtedly tinkerers, questioners, mavericks who indulged in what we today call “experiments and “testing”. Perhaps these mavericks were relegated to the side by the elders and the leaders who were more interested in knowing the what rather than the why and the how, but it was undoubtedly the ones who were far ahead of their times who were unknowingly laying the bricks of the cathedrals of the future.

As historian of science David Wootton implies in his recent book “The Invention of Science”, one of the greatest events in the invention of science was the very formulation of a vocabulary – containing the terms “facts” and “hypotheses” and “experiments” and “theories” – which enabled the scientific method. The Djabugay did not individually lack this vocabulary’s abstract mental representations even if they might have collectively lacked its vocalization. But the most important lesson that the Djabugay illustrated for me is that knowledge can be a subjective, fluid entity. It can consist of reasons or it can consist of facts, or it can consist of both. Primitive knowledge might be primitive but it has a seamless connection to our present as the primal wellspring of all that we regard as relevant today. Religious knowledge might be subjective but it too bears connections to our human existence because of its ability to make us forge communities and understand each other better. To live, to thrive, to love and to teach we need all kinds of knowledge. Once we start seeing knowledge as a multifaceted, many-splendored thing we will be able to appreciate its various manifestations, and even if some of these manifestations may have deficiencies, we will be able to use their merits to augment each other.

1 comment:

  1. We have a lot of knowledge that we cannot explain. All of us can tell when someone is feeling sad, when some stranger doesn't like us, what some friend is thinking, countless pieces of knowledge that there is no concrete evidence for, but we know nevertheless. Some of us know just what to say to comfort a friend, some don't....a lot of knowledge that we have acquired without the scientific process. And at that moment in life, it is far more important to know how to comfort a friend than to know the brain biochem that led to her feeling of sadness.


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