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Camping with the Prince and Other Tales of Science in Africa. Thomas Bass. Reprint by Moyer Bell (Providence, 1997). ISBN 1-55921-206-3. $14 pb. 282 pp.
When prompted to think about science in Africa, one tends to consider the search for the missing links in the human lineage, begun in the Rift Valley and now drifting northwards into Ethiopia. —Or one might consider evolutionary studies to interpret the startling diversity of cichlid fish in Lake Malawi. In these cases, Western researchers have been led by their topic to the great continent. Thomas Bass describes these investigations in compelling narratives, telling us what motivates the researchers, what guides their speculative hunches, and what practical obstacles they encounter in foreign lands.
But far more intriguing are the cases that involve African scientists—or Africans who have developed knowledge that often surpasses the conclusions of Western scientists hoping to "help out" in Africa. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, in its noble efforts to alleviate world hunger through a "green revolution," sponsored breeding research worldwide on crop plants. While their efforts were sometimes successful elsewhere, they failed miserably in Africa. Researchers trained in Western methods were not ready to deal with the poor soils of Africa; they did not address problems for a culture that could not afford expensive farm machinery, fertilizers or pesticides. Current researchers at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria, by contrast, "listen" to the local context—and one can begin to see just how culture can shape science. With different relevant questions, different theoretical over-tones emerge. Agricultural research in Africa has led to intriguing ecological questions as posed by mixing crops, multilevel farming and natural pest control. IITA researchers worry about tools that women, who do much of the farmwork, can wield and use effectively.
In a similar way, sociologists trying to decipher complex land use patterns in the inland Niger River Delta, found that the traditions of shifting land rights practiced as a result of long historical negotiations were close to optimal. When one sees such "conclusions" arising without the formalities of modern research methods, one pauses to consider just what "the" scientific method (as advertised) yields and what counts as science (compare to Chinese knowledge of acupuncture). Tradition-al African farming methods are beginning to serve as models for more industrialized nations concerned with sustainability: what does this tell us about agricultural "science" in our culture?
These are items for reflection in a book that is basically a collection of seven "tales." Disregard the cumbersome title: the stories are extremely engaging. The narrative format itself allows the reader to appreciate the full texture of doing science—and Bass captures well the adventure of the enterprise as much as the importance of the science. Besides those mentioned, the cases examine a global center for research on insect pests and diseases, studies of nomadic famine, and virus hunting (beyond Ebola of "The Hot Zone"!). All reveal something of the flavor of doing science and of doing science in a way that varies from the familiar Western patterns—sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically.
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