I like to read. Actually, I like to read what makes me think. And that makes me a slow reader. On top of that, I am lazy. So it is a rare book that I read cover to cover. But when I do read a book completely, I usually read it all over again. If it is worth reading once, I believe, it is worth reading a second time. One such book is by a favorite author of mine — Marvin Harris. He is an anthropologist. I first read him many years ago. I loved his book Our Kind so much that I ended up buying a dozen copies to gift to my friends. Another of his books that I enjoy giving is Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.

These days I going through his book “Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture” [© Marvin Harris 1979 Random House.] It is a delight. Here are a couple of paragraphs that I would like to share with you.

Science is a unique and precious contribution of Western civilization. This is not to deny that many other civilizations have contributed to scientific knowledge by inventing weights and measures, classifying plants and animals, recording astronomical observations, developing mathematical theorems, voyaging to distant lands, experimenting with chemical and physical processes. But it was in western Europe that the distinctive rules of the scientific method were first codified, given conscious expression, and systematically applied to the entire range of inorganic, organic, and cultural phenomena.

It is both foolish and dangerous for intellectuals in any society to minimize the significance of this achievement. We must recognize that there are many ways of knowing, but we must also recognize that it is not mere ethnocentric puffery to assert that science is a way of knowing that has a uniquely transcendent value for all human beings. In the entire course of prehistory and history only one way of knowing has encouraged its own practitioners to doubt their own premises and to systematically expose their own conclusions to the hostile scrutiny of nonbelievers. Granted that discrepancies between science as an ideal and science as it is practiced substantially reduce the difference between science, religion, and other modes of looking for the truth. But it is precisely as an ideal that the uniqueness of science deserves to be defended. No other way of knowing is based on a set of rules explicitly designed to transcend the prior belief systems of mutually antagonistic tribes, nations, classes, and ethnic and religious communities in order to arrive at knowledge that is equally probably for any rational human mind. Those who doubt that science can do this must be able to show how some other tolerant and ecumenical alternative can do it better. Unless they can show how some other universalistic system of knowing leads to more acceptable criteria of truth, their attempts to subvert the universal credibility of science in the name of cultural relativism, however well-intentioned, is an intellectual crime against humanity. It is a crime against humanity because the real alternative to science is not anarchy, but ideology, not peaceful artists, philosophers, and anthropologists, but aggressive fanatics and messiahs eager to annihilate each other and the whole world if need be in order to prove their point. [pg 27]

The alternative to science is ideology. Jihad.

[Followup post: Science — Part 2]

Author: Atanu Dey


9 thoughts on “Science”

  1. But it was in western Europe that the distinctive rules of the scientific method were first codified, given conscious expression, and systematically applied to the entire range of inorganic, organic, and cultural phenomena.

    so you think that when Indians discovered what is called the pythogoras theorem, or when Sushruta did plastic surgery, they were just achieving things by some kind of hit-and-trial method?

    Yes, as long as we are studying nature, science is universal. On the other hand, something social science is extremely context-sensitive.


  2. The best thing that can be said about codified science is that it is repeatable and does not have any stickies in the form of ideology associated with it. That makes it universally acceptable and adaptable.

    I’ve just finished the fantastic ‘Guns, germs and steel’ by Jared Diamond and was looking for a good follow-up. Thanks for the reco about Marvis Harris.


    Due to the abscence of enough data/evidence , we can only speculate as to how ancient Indian discoveries were achieved. I think the focus of the essay was more on how science can be transmitted better when it is codified in verifiable formulae and such. Regardless of how Sushruta did plastic surgery, had he codified it AND if it were followed/built-on by his successors, we would have achieved a lot. For this to happen, lot of things should have been in place – good sample size of students who are competent enough to understand what Sushruta did, easy access to Sushruta’s knowledge base and several favorable extraneous factors (like a stable empire, absence of invasions etc) and a lot more.


  3. Karthik/ others,

    I think we could benefit by distinguishing the use of terms ‘Scientific temper’ and ‘Scientific thinking” from the study of Physical and Life Sciences.

    Sure, Social science differs in major ways from study of natural phenomena. However, social science can, an dhas benefited greately from adopting the techniques of “Science”.

    If you were to ask me the top few principles that make up the structure of Science, these would be as under-

    1. Observation
    2. Divorce of the observed from the observer- (critical for a dispassionate study)
    3. Experiment

    The tecniques that were codified in Western Europe that we now universaly embrace as Science is what Marvin Harris is referring to. It is quite possible that these very same principles were in play during the time that the great discoveries were made in ancient India. It is sad that we could not build on it- reasons are many and Raghuveer has pointed out some of them most appropriately.


  4. It would be more appropriate to say that all nations and communities have contributed to science and technology but the lattest phase of contributions has come from the western world.


  5. “but aggressive fanatics and messiahs eager to annihilate each other and the whole world if need be in order to prove their point.”

    And guess how they would do it – using science, of course.

    My qualm usually is not with science observation or experimentation, but it is with liberals (they are usually non-scientists themselves) bashing people who believe in God using apparent science as the basis. Any serious scientist knows we don’t understand most of the nature (although there is tremendous progress, especially in the west – imagine the rate of progression of science if Indian and Chinese universities join in full force), but that doesn’t stop the so-called atheists from swinging the bat.

    Agree with Raghuveer on reasons why there was a need for continuity. I think it has mainly to do with the system of education, reading and writing, so that the smart ones could stand on shoulders of previous generations (instability and other factors were in Europe too) – without continuity the wheel has to be reinvented every few generations. Scientific temper probably exists in all society and in all generations – but it has to be allowed to blossom (I know it exists in India – but we don’t invent much).


  6. Great post. I must read Marvin Harris’ book. Regarding the supposed Western cultural bias of science, Meera Nanda’s book “Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism” is interesting. She shows how the extreme Hindu Nationalist view “Vedas are books of science”, “Astrology is a science”, etc. are close cousins of the postmodernist ideas of the likes of Vandana Shiva that science is just a form of colonialism and so local traditions and knowledge are to be preferred. See this.


  7. A couple of the comments above miss the point,

    to doubt their own premises and to systematically expose their own conclusions

    The quoted paragraph itself stop short of introducing the concept of falsifiability of proposed hypotheses. I haven’t read this book but perhaps the author goes on to introduce this concept?

    Falsifiability is one of the key concepts that sets apart the activities of understanding the natural world in the rest of history from the specific development of the scientific method.


  8. atanu… you may want to give this one a look-see…

    Plagues and Peoples – William H. McNeill.

    “Before fully human populations evolved, we must suppose that like other animals our ancestors fitted into an elaborate, self-regulating ecological balance…”


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