Working knowledge



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Douglass North (1990) drew on such ideas to develop a general theory of change. He saw institutions as developing or changing when such cost bottlenecks occurred. Specifically, he showed that legal institutions and new business structures emerge when transaction costs get disproportionately high. This could serve as a general theory of culture: people innovate to reduce the difficulties of interacting. Social rituals make socializing easier. Religion makes morality and other social coordination easier.

A predictive theory—now surprisingly forgotten, though it is one of the few successful predictive theories in social science—was Yujiro Hayami and Vernon Ruttan’s theory of induced development (Hayami and Ruttan 1985). They pointed out that innovation can be expected when there is a bottleneck that can be removed or circumvented—especially by using what you do have to replace what you don’t. They proved this from agricultural history. Labor-rich but capital-short and land-poor East Asia developed an agriculture based on pouring a great deal of labor and skill into a system with little capital. Productivity per acre was high, but per worker not so high. Capital-rich and land-rich but labor-short America developed an agriculture based on machines (capital) to spare labor, but had low productivity per acre. Denmark, with limited land and labor but much capital, poured capital into intensive land management as well as mechanization. Nations, universities, and rich farming interests usually did the research, not the ordinary farmers, but the latter did do a great deal of small-scale innovation, especially by breeding all sorts of plants and animals that did better under local conditions.

The current bottleneck, worldwide, is environmental degradation. Fresh water, good farmland, and resources like phosphorus are limiting or will soon be. This will predictably unleash considerable new technology. A few people who care very deeply about the matter at hand, usually because they love it or depend for cultural survival on it, will take the initiative and go against the existing system. They will attract followers who are equally concerned but more shy, or who are less concerned but want to be in on the new and exciting action, or who have a wider sense of social responsibility. Only after these people are active do people join in for economic reasons. The history of saving natural resources shows that they are almost always saved by people who love nature or who are specifically involved with the resource in question. Even people who depend utterly on a resource will not bother to save it if it is purely an economic item.

Errors Become Cultural Knowledge

To many people, the most fascinating thing about culture is the way it can serve as a storehouse of adaptive, useful knowledge, and yet include the most astonishing errors. We have seen, in earlier chapters, how individual humans are trapped into mistakes by their information-processing biases—often by the very best of our skills.

Culture, of course, is merely individuals writ large in this matter. If individuals naturally infer agency until proven otherwise, culture will inevitably create gods and spirits. If individuals naturally misjudge probabilities, culture will create whole systems (like astrology) based on failure to judge probabilities. If individuals wish for a better world, culture will always give them romantic literature, and songs about the joys of Heaven. If individuals want and expect stability and consistency—a major human heuristic—scientists will refuse for years to accept Ice Age glaciations, large floods, and other geological exceptions to simple uniformitarianism (Rudwick 2005), as well as continental drift.

The same heuristic gave us the completely false belief in stable, predictable ecosystems and “plant communities” that maintained a “climax” state. (The obvious disconnect of this model from the real world was written off as due to brief perturbations.) Conservative oversimplifying led to decades of refusal to recognize animal intelligence, and to countless other wrong positions. It now leads to denial of global warming and biodiversity loss, in spite of overwhelming proofs.

From Locke onward, religion has been a particularly salient example of human delusion. Durkheim, however, showed that religion is the collective representation of the community (Durkheim 1995 [1912]), thus allowing us to explain the often-strange beliefs that accompany it. The afterlife usually reproduces the political structure of this life, and God always looks suspiciously like the latest media stereotype of a father. Heaven is everyone’s dream, and cultural groups use the promise of it, as the song says: “Work and pray, live on hay, you’ll have pie in the sky by and by when you die.” Hell is everyone’s fear, and cultural groups always use the latter to scare individuals into doing what society wants. Few indeed are the social scientists who have failed to see religious beliefs as social constructions of personal wants and worries. Religion always serves as an anxiety-reducing device, a social bonding and solidarity device, and a social integrator. It has the role of defining a society and telling who is in and who is out. Heresy thus takes on a particularly heinous character.

More confusing and often nearly impossible to explain is the vast catalogue of ordinary human error that gets culturally constructed: astrology, alchemy, flying saucers, the War on Terror. Usually, the wish-fulfillment aspect of such beliefs is clear. Alternatively, normal human fears can explain things like shunning black cats (creatures of the scary night) and ghosts (projections of one’s guilt about how one treated living persons—among other things). The wondrous conspiracy theories that propagate in modern America include a belief, apparently quite widespread, that the world is run by giant reptiles from another galaxy who live in caverns underground (Barkun 2003). This began with a science fiction story, but is now taken seriously, and the reptiles have even gotten involved with the Trilateral Commission and other things that conspiracy addicts love to fear.

In addition to assuming too much order and stability to the world, cultural groups follow individual humans in assuming too much perfectability in it. Hope runs far ahead of sense. Astrology is the perfect case of a self-serving belief turned into a cultural institution. The universe literally revolves around me—the stars are there just to tell me my future.

Control and security needs explain all manner of defensive mechanisms in culture. Repression of women, for instance, correlates best with a history of brutal mass warfare with rape as a weapon of choice. Contra some media myths (more conspiracy theories!), it does not have anything to do with plow agriculture, Islam, Christianity, or the Indo-Europeans. It correlates most obviously with the length of time that a society has been civilized; it is most extreme in the core areas of the Near East, India, and China. Here the power state has been around for the longest, and has dominated through imperial wars. More remote or sheltered areas in those parts of the world—the Caucasus, South India, south China—are notably less hard on women, though they have plow agriculture and the rest. Several areas of New Guinea and native Australia also keep women repressed and sheltered, and they too are areas with histories of warfare that targets women.

Areas with relative equality or opportunity for women are precisely the opposite: frontier or thinly settled regions where the major threats were from nature, not culture. Where one’s problems were hail, wolves, crop blights, and tornadoes, women have to cope. So they move toward equality—though rarely reaching it. Scandinavia, Mongolia, frontier America, and the wild mountains of south China serve as examples.

IX: Culturally Constructed Knowledge of the Environment
“Every day will have its dog.” Erving Goffman (cited Collins 2001:5).
The Accuracy of Traditional Ecological Knowledge

My own expertise in cultural matters lies in studies of traditional ecological knowledge (“TEK”). This gives me a relatively positive view of culture, since such knowledge normally includes much of the most accurate, useful, and adaptive body of knowledge that a cultural group has.

Anthropologists who study traditional ecological knowledge bear some of the blame for neglect of the extreme accuracy and value of traditional knowledge. Anthropologists notoriously love the exotic, and often would rather write about dogs that dream the future (Kohn 2007), glaciers that hate the sound of frying meat (Cruikshank 2005), and mile-long fish that cause earthquakes (Sharp 1987, 2001) than about more conventional matters. Moreover, anthropologists are no longer routinely trained in biology, and too many now dismiss the old emphasis on really long-continued field work. A few months in the field is inadequate to get at the depths of traditional environmental knowledge. It takes a full year to make a good beginning, and then only if one is biologically trained and works in cooperation with actual biological researchers. And by “the field” I mean the field—out there in the forest or on the water or on the tundra, not back at headquarters.

Many anthropologists study indigenous groups that have been sadly shattered by conquest, colonization, brutal oppression, attempts to destroy their languages and cultures, and even outright genocide. Amazingly, environmental knowledge persists, but is inevitably impacted. Studies of traditional plant knowledge among the Northern Paiute have been conducted since the early 20th century, and show a steady decline in knowledge (C. Fowler 1992); and the Paiute had been subjected to appalling massacres and oppression even before the first study. The Tohono O’odham also show drastic loss of knowledge, especially when language is lost (Hill 2003). The first knowledge lost is apt to be the relatively arcane material that is least likely to be known to international biological science and thus potentially the most valuable to the world.


Then, What Is Working Knowledge?

Ethnographers quickly realized, after research in the field, that knowledge develops through interacting with people and things. This is true not only of ecological knowledge but of other kinds of knowledge: kinship, medical knowledge, and language. It is only secondarily abstracted into formal systems. It is genuinely working knowledge. As Marx and Engels said (Engels 1966), it develops as people work (and play) together to get their necessities and wants satisfied. As such, it is inseparable from experience, and is often best understood through phenomenology (Ingold 2000) or, better, through direct practice (Bourdieu 1977, 1990; Lave 1988).

It is often truly embodied knowledge (Mauss 1979). Ways of planting seeds, gathering wood, making stone tools, and millions of other vitally important tasks have to be learned by doing. They cannot be taught by verbal instruction. The learner has to keep trying, under the direction or at least following the example of a mentor (Anderson ms; Greefield 2004; Lave and Wenger 1991). The necessary eye-hand, or eye-ear-nose-body, coordination requires much physical practice until it becomes automatic. As Marcel Mauss brilliantly pointed out, the muscles actually grow and change accordingly; when he learned to swim “properly” instead of dog-paddling, his whole arm and shoulder musculature became visibly very different. Social skills are also learned at such a deep level that they cannot always be brought to consciousness. Even linguistic rules that cannot be brought to consciousness are true rules—real structures in the brain, certainly with actual neural connections to “embody” them.

This has led some anthropologists to maintain that traditional knowledge lacks formalization, and thus differs from modern science. This is not the case, and it is a most invidious distinction. It relegates traditional knowledge to the level of unsystematic, ad hoc stray facts. At worst, it makes traditional people sound like animals moved by instinct. This is totally wrong. Systematic knowledge exists and is formalized, even in highly “traditional” and “small-scale” societies. However, the full formalization may be confined to experts’ knowledge. My fisherfolk friends in Hong Kong all knew how to use ordinary kinship terms in ordinary conversation, and how to act toward kin, but they rarely knew the whole formal Chinese kinship system. However, there were older experts who did, and they were frequently consulted; for example, if one needed the proper formal term for one’s father’s father’s younger brother. Similarly, among the Maya, everyone knows an incredible number of plant and animal terms; some actually think about the structure and principles of the classification system.

The idea that “indigenous” people find their way around the environment by a rather mindless process was devastatingly refuted in a brilliant study by Istomin and Dwyer (2009). People, including traditional indigenous people, have mental maps, and can draw perfectly good maps when they are used to pencil and paper. Franz Boas and his students showed this long ago, and Istomin and Dwyer greatly extended those earlier findings.

Again, the resemblance to modern science is close (Lauer and Aswani 2009). Actual scientific research involves physically dealing with subjects and data. There is some formal theory-building, but most scientists are busy most of the time in the lab, field, or observatory, dealing with the messy and refractory reality from which they must abstract theories. The public (whatever that means) seems to think that science is a cut-and-dried enterprise in which the scientist generates a formal mathematical theory and tests it by perfectly controlled laboratory experiments. Scientists know better, and now that we have such studies as those of Bruno Latour (1986) and Paul Rabinow (2002) others too can know better.


How Much People Know

That being said, what impresses all of us who have worked with traditional ecological knowledge (by any definition) is how enormous it is.

Consciousness that other people had real science (in the wide sense of the term) goes back to early times. Herodotus credited Egypt and other areas for much of the material the Greeks came to call scientia. Early modern science drew heavily on New World and Asian traditions, and the first really outstanding studies of traditional nonwestern science were done by the Spanish in the New World. Europeans at that time realized that they had much to learn from other civilizations, whose sciences were often as well developed as anything Europe had at the time.

Appreciation of the enormous extent and value of small-scale, traditional, and nonwestern systems thus goes far back. In anthropology, it was emphasized by Lévi-Strauss (1962), among others. Traditional systems of knowledge can be as purely empirical, self-correcting, developing, and truth-driven as any western science (Anderson 2000, 2003, 2005). They also share with scientists a concern with insight, sensed experience, testing and probing, and the like (David Kronenfeld, personal communication, 2004).

It has often been left to biologists and agricultural scientists to be properly amazed at the level of knowledge encoded in small-scale cultures. One of the earliest and still one of the best studies was done by a marine biologist, R. E. Johannes (1981, 1991). He found that the fisherfolk of Micronesia and of the Torres Straits Islands (Australia) knew far more about local marine life and its reproductive cycles than the scientists did, and in fact calculated that he saved himself a lifetime of research by simply taking down their knowledge and checking it quickly.

The Yucatec Maya, the group that I study in the field, first impressed agricultural scientists like Efrain Hernandez Xolocotzi (1987) and biologists like Arturo Gomez-Pompa (e.g. 1987; see also Fedick 1996, Gomez-Pompa et al. 2003). Anthropologists had recorded their agricultural knowledge, but were not always able to dig deeply into it or assess its richness. Recent work has shown an incredible level of knowledge of agriculture, forestry, beekeeping, plant medicine, and other field skills. (My publications review much of it: Anderson 2003, 2005; Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005). Traditional Yucatec knowledge of oriole classification, flycatcher behavior, and bee habits included details discovered (independently) by biologists only in very recent years.

The Yucatec know and use well over 2,000 plant species. The most complete compilation, by J. Arellano Rodríguez et al. (2003), lists 2166 species named and/or used. More have turned up since. I recorded about 700 species known in a small area around the town of Chunhuhub in Quintana Roo. This is certainly an incomplete list. I learn more every time I go down there.

More exhaustive was my list of 136 bird names known and used by the Quintana Roo Maya. I recorded 261 bird species in and around Chunhuhub, probably a fairly complete figure for regular species. The Maya lumped small, not-very-significant birds into broad categories (hummingbirds, warblers, small flycatchers). They had names for two species now extirpated locally. Eugene Hunn’s 118 names for 190 species in a small village in Oaxaca is comparable (Hunn 2008:110).

In fact, Hunn’s meticulous and long-running studies not only of highland Maya (Hunn 1977) but also of the Sahaptin Indians of Washington state (Hunn 1991) and the Zapotec of Oaxaca (2008) show an incredible level of knowledge, extending to insects and other small invertebrates. Hunn found that the Sahaptin correctly differentiated two species of Lomatium (wild parsley) that had not been recognized as distinct by biologists until very recently.

Hunn finds that most small groups know about 500 plant species and 500 animal species, and that a typical local small community will have about 500 named places in its range. He has thus tentatively proposed that 500 is a good round figure for the number of items in a given domain that a person can easily to learn and remember, though an expert may know many more (Hunn 2008). The Yucatec figure above does not contradict this; though the total Yucatec Maya community of over a million people knows far more than 500 names, no one community seems to have much more than the 700 plants and about 500 animals I recorded for the Chunhuhub area. Fairly complete lists of plant knowledge among other Maya groups approximate these totals.

Similar studies could be cited from around the world. What is impressive is how much the local people know that is unknown to biologists. This is especially true of arcane but potentially useful matters like bird nesting and behavior, snake habits, marine animals’ life cycles (Johannes 1981), local soils and their agricultural value, and tree saps and gums (Langenheim 2003).

Books by Ian Saem Majnep (1977, 2007) about the biological knowledge of his Kalam people in highland New Guinea confirm the testimonies of many biologists about the incredible knowledge of New Guinea’s indigenous peoples. Western biologists have learned much from this data base. In South America, many birds known only from specimens brought in by indigenous hunters have only recently been found in the wild by Euro-American biologists. Some still remain unknown to outsiders.

Agriculture and food technology may be the fields most enriched by traditional knowledge. Local potato knowledge in Peru, Bolivia and Chile has been a world resource for centuries. Chinese agricultural innovations, such as the raised-bed system of cultivation (sometimes miscalled the “French” system), have gone worldwide. And of course all our common food technologies—the ways we make bread, wine, soy sauce, yogurt, cheese, fish pastes, dried meats, smoked sausage, and all—were developed millennia ago by nameless but brilliant minds.

An area taking specialized research knowledge and methods is the study of mushrooms. Two recent studies have explored this seriously: Aaron Lampman’s study of highland Maya ethnomycology (2008) and Sveta Yamin-Pasternak’s studies in Alaska and Siberia (forthcoming). They found local knowledge of edible forms, and how to make marginal ones edible, was well ahead of most biologists’ knowledge. Lampman found a number of medical and nutritional uses of fungi that await further research.

Areas like this, rather little studied by biologists but of real practical importance to local people, present frontiers for ethnoscience. Superficial studies of “TEK” miss them entirely, and thus sadly misrepresent and underrepresent cultural knowledge. Alas, tentative, incomplete, poorly-done, and preliminary research on traditional thought was the rule in early days, and led to endless nonsense about the “primitive,” “prelogical,” and “rudimentary” thought-processes of the nonwestern world. It has taken a hundred years to scratch the surface of Maya knowledge. One is reminded of the misinterpretations of traditional religions that still overwhelmingly dominate much of the sociological and religious literature. Emile Durkheim wrote Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1995 [1912]) on the basis of the first preliminary descriptions of Australian Aboriginal religion. Had he lived to see our modern knowledge base, built on more than a century of further study, he would have realized how very far from “elementary” those forms were.

The most research has been done on medicine, because pharmacology began with traditional field knowledge and has continued to profit from it ever since. A large percentage of our everyday biomedical drugs is derived from folk remedies. Countless new ones are out there, but again the intellectual property rights issue prevents using most of them. Some idea of the future is found in the fact that the leading, and often only, effective malaria cure today is artemisinin, the active principle in the ancient Chinese malaria cure qinghaosu (Artemisia annua). Artemisias are also still used for many other parasite treatments. China’s classic herbal, from 1593, described 1897 remedies; the Chinese Great Medical Dictionary (Zhong Yao Da Zi Dian, 1979) brought the total to 5767; I estimate the current known total of traditional and folk medicines at around 30,000 species.

Among the Yucatec I found 350 plant species with known medicinal uses, again comparable to 215 turned up by Hunn in Oaxaca (Hunn 2008:163). Many of the Maya remedies are effective and are unknown to bioscience. Some are more effective, for me at least, than anything I can find in the drug store. Alas, my lips must be sealed, pending the resolution of intellectual property rights issues that currently tie up indigenous medical knowledge in legal knots.
Why People Know What They Know and Not Something Else

“This…may give us some light into the different state and growth of Languages, which being suited only to the convenience of Communication, are proportioned to the Notions Men have, and the commerce of Thoughts familiar amongst them; and not to the reality or extent of Things…. From whence it is easy to imagine, why, as in some Countries, they may not have so much as the Name for a Horse, and in others, whre they are more careful of the Pedigrees of their Horses, than of their own, that there they may have not only Names for particular Horses, but also of their several Relations of Kindred one to another” (Locke 1979 [1697]:349-350).

Of reasons to believe something, the foremost is, obviously, that it is true and useful knowledge. We are fascinated with error precisely because it is unusual and needs explaining. The vast majority of what we know is basically correct. Since we are mortal beings, all knowledge incomplete and imperfect, and much of it is distorted, but at least it gets us through the day.

Even so, error is common enough that accurate knowledge needs some explaining. Humans are prone to mistakes. They also tend to be lazy—learning only what they absolutely need to know, and not always even that. The sort of curiosity that leads scientists and explorers on into uncharted realms is by no means confined to modern society, but it is by no means universal, either.

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