Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you
— Yeats, from The Stolen Child
I came across an article today called “It’s taken thousands of years, but Western science is finally catching up to Traditional Knowledge”.
So, an anecdote about the behaviour of some birds is being investigated by “Western Scientists” and they’re finding there might be some truth to the anecdote. So . . . Western Science is catching up to traditional knowledge?
No. Some scientists are investigating an hypothesis formulated on the basis of a traditional understanding of a certain behaviour of a certain type of bird. Western Science is, as it most often has, considering traditions and weighing the actual evidence in support of or against the validity of those traditions. “Traditional knowledge” has little to teach “Western Science” about vast areas of research and discovery. One might argue that “traditional knowledge” has a lot of catching up to do.
It would be foolish to accept uncritically, as the mentioned article seems to suggest, all or even most, or even some or even any traditional knowledge. That road leads to an acceptance that the Flood covered the Earth, the Ark is on Ararat, The walls of Jericho fell at a trumpet blast, Troy burned because of a woman named Helen, St. Brendan sailed a hide boat to a sleeping whale’s back and woke the beast with his campfire, Beowulf slew Grendel, Arthur will return at the time of England’s greatest need, a man can have visions of his ancestors by sticking a stingray spine through his penis, Mohammed split the moon, and there’s a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.
Science offers us the tools to discriminate between traditions that truly reflect the world on the one hand and, on the other,traditions that may rather reflect the symbolic world of society or of psychology or of something else or of simple fancy. To dismiss “Western Science” as “finally catching up” is disingenuous at best. Science isn’t “catching up” to traditional knowledge of “firehawks”; scientists have gotten around to investigating one hypothesis among an infinitude of hypotheses waiting to be investigated.
I would rather celebrate the wonderful world “Western Science” shows us every day, a world far more full of wonder than any world offerred us by traditional systems of ordering things.