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Published 5 April 2018

Science of nature without culture

Dame Ann Salmond | image credit University of Auckland

Bob Brockie’s opinion piece "The Treaty has no place in scientific endeavour" published 26 March, prompted varied responses. Dame Anne Salmond draws on her extensive knowledge of early Māori and European interactions with further commentary.

In his recent Opinion piece on the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in scientific research, Bob Brockie referred to the founding of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1867 by Sir George Grey and others, and ridiculed the Society’s recent interest in mātauranga Māori and its reinstatement of the arts and humanities among its disciplines. In so doing, he flouted a fundamental principle of the scientific project – that scientists should never claim authority over matters about which they are ignorant.

It is difficult to decide whether Brockie’s ignorance of mātauranga Māori or the arts and the humanities is more profound. If he knew anything about history, for instance, he would know that when the Royal Society of New Zealand (then the New Zealand Institute) was established, many of its founders were dedicated students of mātauranga Māori, including Sir George Grey himself, collaborating with tribal experts and publishing their findings in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute and elsewhere.

He would also know that as the Western scientific project emerged during the Enlightment, the arts and humanities were fundamental to its inquiries. In 1769 when the Endeavour landed a Royal Society scientific expedition in New Zealand, for instance, there were artists among them, and they were as interested in social life as in landscapes, plants and animals. It was only later that the disciplines became fragmented, and a gulf emerged between those dealing with ‘nature’ (the natural sciences) and ‘culture’ (the arts and humanities).

In contemporary times, as scientists try to grapple with a range of ‘wicked problems,’ from climate change and biodiversity losses to the degradation of waterways and oceans, it has become evident that human activity is deeply implicated in the dynamics of these complex systems. As many are now recognising, a radical division between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ is dysfunctional, making it difficult to decipher living systems that straddle this divide, and putting at risk the credibility of the scientific project itself.

Scientists like Bob Brockie, who dismiss the inquiries of thinkers from other cultural traditions (eg Pacific knowledge systems that do not split people from the environment, but see them as fundamentally interconnected – which is the case) and proclaim the superiority of the natural sciences over the arts and humanities, are unhelpful. Far from protecting the scientific project from bias and political interest, they are trying to uphold a status quo based on ethnocentric bias and outmoded dualisms (and the power relations embedded in them), at a time when new ways of thinking about socio-environmental challenges are urgently needed.

In so doing, and by speaking loudly about matters they have not themselves researched in depth and detail, they show deep disrespect, and do science itself a major disservice.

Dame Anne Salmond

Distinguished Professor of Māori Studies and Social Anthropology, The University of Auckland.

Vice-President (Humanities and Social Sciences), Royal Society Te Apārangi

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi