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Conventionally, science is the hallmark of objectivity and, therefore, universality. Science thereby models how to transcend culture and unify all peoples. In the past few decades, however, ethnographic studies have profiled how cultur sets an important context for science, from the questions posed to how "science" itself is done. This special issue of the SHiPS News explores some examples and surveys resources for introducing the cultural dimension of science into the classroom.

Editor's Introduction: A Spectrum Relating Science and Culture

Celebration of cultural diversity has flourished as a theme in education recently. As suggested above, science initially may seem apart from such trends. But the concept of culture intersects with science education in many ways (summary here draws on Pomeroy, 1994).

First, there is a concern for students from different cultures. In this view, teachers should strive to recruit minorities and accommodate themselves to any special learning styles among such groups, or use native languages where appropriate (from Hispanic or Asian to Native American or Inuit). In addition, teachers should actively portray the achievements by scientists in many different cultures, both to acknowledge fairly the contributions of those cultures and to provide role models for diverse students. In some cases, instructors may underscore the significance of native technology or "folk" knowledge that emerged independently of, yet is now also warranted by, Western science. Hence, we might approach astronomy from the perspective of Native American or other cultures and their relationship to the heavens (see Dan Kutsko's article, pp.2-4). Or we might recognize that our concerns about another outbreak of hantavirus (Science 5/15/98) parallel Navajo traditional knowledge (p.15). In general, the primary aim is to value different cultures, to contribute to a more diverse scientific commun-ity, and to enhance understanding of science for all individuals. The educational challenge is to ensure respect for all students and cultures.

A heightened awareness along this theme can also help us rethink science in or for our own culture. One can read John Jamieson's description (p. 2) of teaching Inuits in Canada, for example, from two perspectives. One may consider just the context of students from "aboriginal" or "primitive" cultures. Or one might also imagine how his strategy applies in an impoverished inner city or affluent neighborhood. Each of these has a genuine culture of its own. What science is appropriate to students in these cultures? Consider, for example, the importance of learning about diabetes in a primarily Hispanic community. COr the science of CD players in suburbia. Many teachers bemoan the apathy of students in recent years: to what degree does this reflect schooling that does or does not teach things that are relevant to the students' culture? Cultural awareness highlights the question: are current science curricula truly culturally relevant?

A second major theme views science itself as a "culture," with its own language, habits and values. Many students' conceptual and attitudi-nal difficulties in science classes may be deeply cultural. Here, the strategy is to bridge world views or to support a student's acclimatization to a new culture. Teachers should recognize that they must genuinely translate scientific concepts, methodological standards and ways of thinking for persons who, for the purposes at hand, live in a different culture. Here, the aim is merely to convey conventional content, but more more effectively.

A third major theme is how culture (or society and its values) affects science -- how scientists choose problems, how they interpret results and thus, ultimately, what they conclude. Such views are especially important where persons have appealed to science to justify the privilege of one cultural group over another. (Some of the most notorious work of this type involved 19th-century craniology and 20th-century "intelligence"-testing; see Gould, 1981). Sandra Harding (1991) frames the issue as a question, "whose science? whose knowledge?," to remind us that the overall pursuit of science depends on people and their values. Here, the challenge is to teach about the nature of science and the potential cultural sources of bias. Teachers may need to address entrenched beliefs about the transcendence and pure objectivity of science, (re)shaping the very image of science and the limits of its authority.

Finally, a fourth theme focuses on how the process of exploring and validating knowledge, itself may differ in various cultures. How did "folk" knowledge and native technologies develop? Understanding science in other cultures can be difficult because knowledge is rarely recorded in books. Rather, it is encoded in stories or other narratives, or mores and taboos, where the source of knowledge and the method of ascertaining it are hidden. One must question, too, "the scientific method" and the heritage of the Scientific Revolution as the only model of science. This can occur where the science of two cultures encounter each other, as they did when Chinese acupuncture met Western scrutiny beginning in the 1970s (see pp. 8-13). In comparing science across cultures, we might come to understand "Western ethnoscience" and science more deeply.

References Cited

  • Stephen Jay Gould. 1981. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Sandra Harding. 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Cornell Univ. Press.
  • Pomeroy, Deborah. 1994. "Science Education and Cultural Diversity: Mapping the Field." Studies in Science Education.

CASES: Science and Native Practices

Inuit Intuitions?

Navajos & the Hantavirus

Hot Peppers & Garlic


Inuit "Intuitions"? (excerpted from Deborah Pomeroy, "Exploring Science Across Cultures," HGSE Alumni Bulletin (Fall 1992), pp.8-9.)

A group of biologists wanted to explain to the elders of an Athabascan village what they were doing and why they were going to be in the area around the village. They said that for the purposes of fisheries management, they wanted to know the summer/winter migration patterns of pike, especially where they wintered over. To accomplish this they were netting pike and implanting little transmitters in their bellies. To this the elders replied that, in fact, they could show the scientists exactly where the pike migra-ted and wintered over; they'd been using this knowledge for fishing throughout the seasons for many generations. Furthermore, the women were especially upset because the biologists were planting the transmitters in the fish bellies. The scientists said they had done so inten-tionally so as not to ruin the meat for the natives. The women replied that everybody knows pike is so bony that the main source of nutritional value worth the effort with pike is the belly.

The natives' knowledge of the pike's migration pattern was completely confirmed by the Western scientists. Moreover, the methods of observation utilized by the natives were found to provide equally valid knowledge of migratory routes in other river systems. Here, what counts as "science"?

Modern Virus Hunters and Traditional Navajo Taboos (as reported by Denise Grady, "Death at the Crossroads," Discovery (Dec., 1993), p.90.)

In May, 1993, a series of sudden and unexplainable deaths in the Four Corners area of the Southwest U.S. prompted an impressive search into the causes of an unknown disease. By late June, the source had been traced using standard epidemiological and medical investigative techniques to a hantavirus, previously unidentified, carried by deer mice. But was this discovery "new"?

The Navajo, who have inhabited the region for centuries, have deep traditions about the human-mouse relationshipBprinciples that would govern any possible disease borne by the mice. Fundamentally, the Navajo revere mice because they carried seeds that brought life to the world. At the same time, mice belong to the "night world," and hence must not interact with humans. Some taboos are quite specific -- and match the epidemiological profile of this particular disease. For example, Navajos say one must burn clothes or anything else that even comes in contact with a mouse. Also, the mouse is supposed to seek the strongest individual in a house, paralleling the pattern of hantaviruses to attack healthy persons in their prime, rather than much younger or older persons. According to one medicine woman, mice are "bearers of illness from ancient times." Indeed, mice are the only animals against which the Navajo have such taboos. Do the Navajo beliefs embody implicit knowledge of the mouse-borne virus? Does one always need "science" to collect or validate knowledge of the natural world, or does this illustrate another form of science?

Consider finally the views of the tribal elders in this episode. When the outbreak of the disease occured, they attributed the cause to the tendency among younger Navajos to abandon traditional beliefs. Was their judgment correct? -- And was it "scientific"?

Hot Peppers and Garlic (as reported in Science 277(18 July 1997): 321.)

Herbs and spices can flavor meat, but many also kill bacteria. Paul Sherman and Jennifer Billing at Cornell recently examined a wide sample of spices used in various native cuisines. Garlic, onion, allspice and oregano, for example, killed all bacteria tested, including Salmonella and Staphylococcus. Other spices, such as hot peppers, showed antibiotic properties in three-quarters or more of the cases. Use of these spices tends to increase nearer the tropics--where temperature would otherwise promote meat spoilage. Does the hot spicy cuisine thus reflect native knowledge and technology of disease and food preservation?

The Physics of Boomerangs (courtesy of Bill Palmer)

Boomerangs are aerfoils. But the direction of the aerfoil is reversed on each leg of the boomerang. An excellent case for disucssing Bernoulli's principle -- not that the boomerang's inventors would have called it that. There's also torque and precession to address. The center of rotation is outside the physical object -- a fun and unusal occurence. References belowCbut don't expect this author to say much to flatter the inventors.

  • M.J. Hansen. 1977. "The Boomerang." School Science Review 58:428-37.
  • M.J. Hansen. 1989. "The Flight of the Boomer-ang." Physics Education 24: 268-72.


This is probably the best available intro-duction to the professional literature on science in non-Western traditions. The guide is organized in the form of an annotated syllabus for college students, with six classes devoted to each of seven areas: China, India, Africa, Latin America, Native America, Australia and the Pacific, and Japan. Each section provides an overview, readings for students and background resources. There are recommended videos, general references, journals and websites, and lists of specialized topics (suitable for student research projects). While not supplying activities for the K-12 classroom, the guide is an excellent survey for delving into non-Western science. A newly revisedCand much improved Cversion is still under final preparation for publication and should be available by the end of summer, 1998.

  • Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Helaine Selin (ed.). Kluwer (1996). ISBN 0-7923-4066-3. 1124 pp. $420.

This massive volume is the first (and much-needed) "master reference" for science in non-Western cultures. Like any encyclopedia, this was a major project and serves to give the basics over an incredibly wide scope of material. The entries range from astronomy and agriculture to medicine and metallurgy. Thematic entries address colonialism, environment and nature, maps and mapmaking, weights and measures, and time, each in various cultural traditions. There is relatively substantial biographical coverage (especially considering significant individuals are less common in many non-Western cultures). The browser might be impressed by entries on textiles, bamboo, salt, surveying, rainwater harvesting, pi, childbirth, and trephination (cranial skull surgery)(!). I found myself being schooled in tribologythe study of friction, lubricants and wear of surfaces. It seems that the Chinese were using lubricants as early as 1100-600 BC and metal bushes as early as 400 BC. Zhi is the fat of horned animals used as a lubricant, while gao is the fat of hornless animals. As you may not be able to afford the high cost personally, you might encourage your local library to accept the reponsibility of acquiring a reference copy.

  • Science: Its History and Development Among the World's Cultures. Colin A. Ronan. Facts On File (1982). ISBN 0-87196-745-6.

This is probably the only one-volume text that truly highlights non-Western science around the globe, and serves as an excellent concise introduction to themes and cases. The opening chapter addresses the origins of science (prehistoric), then cascades through Greek, Chinese, Hindu & Indian, Arabian, and Roman & Medieval science, before sketching science since the Scientific Revolution, one century per chapter. There' s also a healthily supply of B+W illustrations. Unfortunately now out or print, you might find this volume in a good used book store -- or add to the number of requests that might motivate a reprint.

  • Science Across Cultures: An Annotated Bibliography of Books on Non-Western Science, Technology and Medicine. Helaine Selin. Garland Publishing (New York, 1992). ISBN 0-8153-0839-6. 431pp. [out-of-print?]

This is a complete guide. Compiled by a science librarian, this guide has advantages and disadvantages for the average user. Separate indices for authors, titles and subject are a plus. The volume seems exhaustively complete -- helpful for the resourceful individual, but likely a frustration for the average reader, who may it difficult to reach volumes from publishers in New Delhi or Kampala, Uganda, say. Again, price will probably put this volume out of reach for most individual teachers and school libraries but, again, public libraries (esp. central branches) might be encouraged to accept the responsibility of keeping a copy on hand.

  • Multiculturalism in Mathematics, Science and Technology: Readings and Activities. Addison-Wesley (1993). ISBN 0-201-29417-6. 205pp. + poster.

This volume assembles labs and other activities for grades ~7-10 that recapitulate or are inspired by discoveries around the globe. The activities are rarely inquiry based, but they do connect with specific persons and their stories, also included. Note that roughly half the modules are mathematical. The best element of this package is the 21" x 36" poster-map. Forty important achievements, each depicted by an image of the scientist, culture or discovery, is spotted on a world map.

  • Science for All Cultures. Shelley J. Carey (ed.). National Science Teachers Assoc. (Arlington, 1993). ISBN 0-87355-122-2. 72pp.

This collection of reprints of articles from NSTA journals is a call to action for giving equal respect to students of African, Asian, Hispanic or Native American descent, along with minority women. The title of an early article "Equal Opportunity Science" captures the spirit of the book. This is hardly an unworthy goal, but the focus is mostly the culture of science students, not of science itself. The last three selections address science as practiced in different cultures but are so brief that they are little more than a laundry list of achievements originating in non-Western cultures. Of these, Helaine Selin's pair of articles can be found directly in The Science Teacher, March and April, 1993. The second article includes a nice one-page bibliography--if you have an excellent library, interlibrary loan service or lots of money. Selin's full-length annotated bibliography, noted above, is more complete for the serious user.

  • Thomas Bass, "Science: A Star in Africa's Future?" Encyclopedia Britannica 1996 Yearbook: Science and the Future, pp.160-77.

This is a brief, but provocative and informative account of science, both native and modern, in Africa. Bass profiles, among other topics, traditional healers that used psychotherapies and herbal drugs before they were recognized by European practitioners; native ecologies to control the spread of sleeping sickness by tsetse flies; and farming methods that solve problems of soil and pests.

  • Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Volume 15 (Supplement).

Many libraries will hold the main, multi-volumed edition of the DSB. This additional supplement includes several topical essays by distinguished historians on science in areas where the names of individual scientists are typically not known. Topics include

  • mathematical astronomy in both India and Mesopotamia
  • man and nature in Mesopotomia
  • mathematics in ancient Egypt
  • Egyptian astronomy, astrology and calendrical reckoning
  • Japanese scientific thought
  • Maya numeration, computation and calendrical astronomy
Recent articles from Scientific American

  • Webber Ndoro, AThe Great Zimbabwe." (Nov. 1997, pp. 94-99). --- describes advanced stone architecture in this sub-Saharan Africa civilization
  • Charles Ortloff, ACanal Builders of Pre-Inca Peru." (Dec., 1988, pp. 100-107). --- describes early irrigation systems
  • Paul Alan Cox and Michael J. Balick, "The Ethnobotanical Approach to Drug Discovery." (June, 1994, pp. 82-87). --- crossing cultures for medical "discovery"
  • Franics VanNoten and Jan Raymaekers, "Early Iron Smelting in Central Africa." (June 1988). --- a great way to introduce a unit on oxidation-reduction, setting it in historical context!
Books on Ethnobotany

  • R. Arvigo and M. Balick. 1994. Rainforest Remedies: 100 Healing Herbs of Belize, Lotus Press (Twin Lakes, WI). ISBN 0-914955-13-6.
  • Michael J. Balick and Paul A. Cox. 1996. Plants, People and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany. W.H. Freeman. ISBN 0-7167-5061-9.
  • Nicole Maxwell. (1961) 1990. Witch Doctor's Apprentice. Carol Publishing Group. ISBN 0-8065-1174-5. $13. (*Note the rare female ethnobotanist, here.)
  • R.E. Schultes. 1988. Where the Gods Reign. Oracle, AZ: Synergetic Press. ISBN 0-907791-13-1. $13. 125pp.
  • AbayomI Sofowora. 1985. Medicinal Plants and Traditional Medicine in Africa. Books on Demand. ISBN 0-685-23592-0. $$.
  • W. Arthur Whistler,. 1993. Polynesian Herbal Medicine. Nat'l Tropical Botanical Garden (1-800-956-2840). ISBN 0-915809-16-8.
  • See also Plotkin's Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice.



  • 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 contextCand 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, pp. 8-13). Tradi-tional 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.

    For a brief "greatest hits" version, you might try Bass' article noted under Resources above.

  • Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Seaches for New Medicines in the Amazonian Rain Forest. Mark J. Plotkin. Penquin Books (1993). ISBN 0-14-012991-X. 328pp.

    Mark Plotkin takes us on an adventure with him "through the emerald door" to the Amazon rainforest, rich in wildlife, rich in people with different ways of life, and rich in potential medicines for the West. The book reads like a travelogue and, with each chapter, Plotkin takes us deeper to more remote and exotic places. At the same time, we share in a quest to preserve the knowledge of native healers and to bring valuable fragments home to us.

    We observe two forms of science. The first is the ethnobotanist on the trail of learning from local healersCapprenticing in a way not unlike a graduate student would in a Western lab. Plotkin's experiences with mosquitoes, new languages and unpleasant foods, as well as his excitement in seeing dramatic treatments, remind us of the work of scienceCfrequently missing in the classoom and disguised by textbooks. The field ethnobotanist must press plants, as well as collect adequate samples, the basic work prior to any chemical analysis or animal investigations.

    The second science is the native medicine itself. How did the shamans come by their extensive knowledge, which often shows subtle distinctions in uses of plants, their preparation, dosages, etc.? There is testing, surely, but hardly done on large clinical populations or recorded in lab notebooks. How is the knowledge stored and transmitted? (There are no textbooks or libraries, here!) For example, in the Tirió tribe of southern Suriname, practices about women's reproductive health remain with women and were unavailable to a male visitor. Plotkin also reminds us that the typical Amazonian shaman "served not only as physician but also as priest, pharmacist, psychi-atrist, and even psychopompCone who conducts souls to the afterworld" (p. 96). We must reconsider how we divide the world and how we set boundaries for "science." Are the periodic incantations not part of the biology of the cure, even if mediated through the mind? What is minimally essential to developing reliable knowledge and how is it integrated with society?

    Plotkin has, in a sense, participated in the indigenous science himself by recording it, returning it to the tribes he visited, and helping them translate it so that future generations will have a more premanent record. Indeed, two of his tribal guides later became apprentices to the shaman he interviewed.

    Plotkin also highlights how the Amazon basin is special: one of every four plant species grows there. As Western culture expands, native cultures and their knowledge are lost. So, too, are the plants that offer us potential cures.

    Readers eager for information will find both a good bibliography and glossary.

  • Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Jared Diamond. W.W. Norton (New York, 1997). ISBN 0-393-03891-2. $27.50 cloth.

    How did China become Chinese? Why did white people develop so much "cargo" (material goods) and carry it to New Guinea, while the black people there had so little cargo of their own? Given our common evolutionary origins and the spread of humans around the globe from some ancestral population, why have some cultures flourished more than others? These are the formidable yet compelling questions that motivate Jared Diamond in this wide-ranging and sometimes dizzying volume.

    Diamond launches his analysis with a striking description of the "collision at Caja-marca," where Pizarro confronted the Incans in 1532 and where 168 Spaniards defeated over 80,000 Incans in a single afternoon. Diamond pieces together several vivid first-person accounts that dramatize the asymmetry that would lead to more than a century of devastation by Europeans in the New World. This event serves as a benchmark for posing the question: why did Pizarro conquer Atahuallpa, rather than the reverse? Why did Incans not cross the ocean and conquer Europe?

    Diamond's answer is partly conventional but, as a biologist, he adds some novel and provocative claims. The title image of guns refers to armaments of all kinds, and steel refers to both metal weapons and other forms of technology, including ocean-going vessels. Both of these contribute in obvious ways to how one culture dominates another. But Diamond gives equal credit to germs. The transfer of diseases and the ability to cope with them have proven crucial in many cultural encounters. For example, smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, bubonic plague and other infectious diseases "imported" from Europe killed nearly 95% of the Pre-Columbian Native American populationCfar more than ever succumbed to gunshots or steel blades. In a parallel way, malaria significantly interfered with European colonization of central Africa.

    But do these proximate factors have any deeper, ultimate causes? Here, Diamond's background in biogeography emerges. He notes that where wild plants and animals can move east and west (along similar climatic belts), they exchange genes more freely, leading to a greater number of species. The diversity allows humans options to domesticate them, thereby promoting agriculture. With farming comes food storage and surpluses, the first critical factor in developing a stable population that can truly civilize. With civilization and extra labor (beyond subsistence) comes technology, the source of guns and steel swords.

    The domestication of animals and the close contact between them and humans, especially in stable settlements, means that specialized pathogens more commonly "jump" species and create epidemic diseases among humans. Within a certain locale, fortunately, human populations can develop immunity and pathogens adapt to modest viruluence of their hosts. But when the mircoorganisms come in contact with people from another geographic region, the strange new diseases can overhwelm them. Hence, Diamond's provocative proposal is that human societies are ultimately shaped by the biology of where they live, especially through farming and disease organisms.

    In a book of such scope, Diamond must make some assumptions and disregard many details. Whether his generalizations will survive closer scrutiny remains to be seen, but in the meanwhile, he has provided a startling thesis and a bold scientific conjecture on a subject that brings science to central cultural questions.

    The SHiPS Teachers' Network helps teachers share experiences and resources for integrating history, philosophy and sociology of science in the the science classroom.