Working knowledge



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The obvious reason for most environmental knowledge is that it is necessary for survival. We need not bother to inquire long about why hunters know everything about deer, farmers know everything about maize, and fishermen know everything about catching their major staples.

For equally obvious reasons, dangerous things are relatively well known. Every society drills knowledge of local poisonous snakes into its young. Poison oak is often the only native plant known to my friends in California. One of the more fascinating bits of lore learned by biologists from traditional people concerned poisonous birds. New Guinea natives warned ornithologists that certain birds known as pitohuis (genus Pitohui, family Pachycephalidae) were dangerous to eat. The biologists “knew” that no birds are poisonous, so they tried a few of the dull-brown pitohuis, and of course got seriously ill. It turned out that the birds eat poisonous caterpillars and deposit the poison in their flesh, as a defense against predators (see e.g. Majnep 1977). Similarly, arctic explorers in the 19th century learned the hard way that Inuit were correct in warning them to avoid eating polar bear livers. Biologists eventually found that the bears store vitamin A in the liver against the long arctic nights, and vitamin A, so necessary in small quantities, is deadly in overdose.

Cultural “scariness” is involved: snakes frighten people more concern than automobiles, though snakebite kills perhaps one American a year and cars kill 50,000. Thus people tend to watch for poisonous snakes and know how to recognize them—or else simply kill all snakes, on suspicion. (Some of this is probably instinctive; all primates apparently fear snakes.) This relates to the notorious problems humans have with risk assessment, a subject well covered in the literature (Beck 1992).

Immediate threats naturally command the most attention. Epidemics always lead to brief flurries of intense interest in the disease in question. Such fascinations wax and wane with current headlines.

Another proof of the sociable nature of humans is that mass disasters or even small disasters that involve several people always displace far wider and more serious problems that kill one at a time and in obscurity. A single mass murderer causes more concern than the huge daily toll of individual killings. A very small epidemic gets more attention and worry than the routine infant and maternal deaths that kill millions of people every year (on such issues see, again, Beck 1992).

However, this is only a beginning. First, what knowledge is necessary depends on what mode of livelihood is present. Americans now have to know a very great deal about computers, cellphones, and other gadgets if they want to be functioning members of society. Most of this knowledge did not even exist fifty years ago. Conversely, the vast majority of Californians today would be hard pressed to survive as hunters and gatherers; the knowledge is almost gone, because we no longer live as Californians did 300 years ago. On a finer-grained scale, traditionally-minded Anglo-Americans know how to bake bread, but almost no traditional Chinese did, because their staple grains such as rice did not work well for baking. A full account of why I know how to bake bread would thus begin at least 12,000 years ago, with the choice to begin domesticating wheat in the Near East.

More interesting still is the true and potentially pragmatic, but extremely arcane and usually useless, knowledge of the world possessed by men like my friend and coauthor Don Felix Medina Tzuc. His formal education consists of two years in a tiny rural schoolroom 60 years ago. His real education includes knowledge of the behavior of dozens of species of almost invisibly small insects, the names for obscure and rare varieties of lima beans, and enough further lore to fill many books. A moment of truth for me was when we spotted a Piratic Flycatcher, a very rare bird in Quintana Roo, and he told me that it was trying to take over an oriole’s nest for its own use. Indeed, this is the habit of Piratic Flycatchers, hence their English name. But knowing such an obscure fact about a bird that we saw only once in two years of work indicates a quite incredible level of ornithological expertise.

The only motive for learning most of this was his native curiosity, which he exercised to the full in a life of rural toil that would otherwise have been boring. The nesting habits of flycatchers could be of no conceivable use to him. Yet, why did his curiosity light on these matters, when even in Chunhuhub (his town of residence) there are many who confine their attentions largely to people’s affairs and town issues? Partly because he is an exceptionally interested individual, but also because he is a traditional Maya. For the Maya, knowledge of the forest and the fields is important and is valued. A Maya who really knows the woods and fields is highly respected. The knowledge is valued and esteemed, exactly as knowledge of computers is esteemed in certain sectors of American life.

The true definition of an expert, whether in the rainforest of Quintana Roo or the labs of Silicon Valley, is that such a person knows far more than necessary about a subject. He or she is so fascinated with the subject that learning becomes an open-ended task. Motives include sheer pleasure, winning more prestige and respect, having knowledge in case it is needed, reaching closure or completeness, winning higher social position, and even the joy of beating a rival in expertise. Often the highest motive is helping: an expert knows a great deal of material that can potentially save crops or lives. The lowly end of getting more maize or money is not as motivating to such experts.

Consider one of the last areas of folk knowledge that is at all widely known in America: how to cook. Even that skill is vanishing among the young, but many still learn it. In this age of fast food, no more than very minimal cooking skills are necessary, and most Americans accordingly stop there. Yet there remain literally millions who cook for fun, as a hobby, and know hundreds of recipes. They may specialize in midwestern or Chinese or ancient Roman cooking, or in chicken recipes, or in seafood. As a hobby, it produces edible results that can be shared (hopefully with delight) by friends, and that win respect in our society.

This is not an area of great elaboration among the Maya. Many do know Maya cooking far beyond mere need, however, and some are real “foodies” in the American sense, at least as far as Maya cuisine is concerned. (They have little opportunity to learn any other kind.)

By contrast, knowing wild plants is almost a lost skill in the United States. Many Americans do not know the name of a single locally native tree or flower, and do not care in the least. Asking my classes in California over the last 40 years has revealed that most of them know the state flower (California poppy) and state tree (redwood), and often poison oak (as noted above), but very few know any more than that. Some know that “pines,” “oaks” “grass,” and perhaps a few other very broad and vague categories are native.

The reason for this ignorance is obvious: it is of minimal use for daily living, and thus of minimal concern to society at large, and thus of minimal value for prestige. Hobbyists and devotees may learn it, and may even become professional botanists who know thousands of species, but this is truly rare. I probably know most of the professional field botanists in southern California; there are perhaps a hundred of them. It is truly a specialty. Most botanists are now “lab rats,” studying plant genes and chemicals. There is a joke that part of the celebration of a botany Ph.D. is showing the new doctor the actual plant she worked on. This is exaggerated, but it is literally true that bright Maya children know more plants than many botany graduate students.

Thus, knowing accurate and practical knowledge involves several factors. Basically, the knowledge must be useful. It must be seen as useful by the society, and therefore considered important. It must be respected; knowledge known to be useful, but identified as “lower class,” is avoided by those who want to feel “upper class,” no matter how valuable.

Knowledge is learned in direct proportion to how much it is valued by the wider society, and especially by the leaders of the reference groups of the individuals doing the learning. This point should be too obvious to need making, but it appears to be totally lost on, for instance, American politicians; they constantly attack schoolteachers and educators, cut funding until the school is usually the shabbiest building in any American town, and then seem genuinely surprised when children blow off school learning. This could never happen in any traditional society. Life skills are actually valued, and those who excel in knowing them are respected accordingly.
The Sorrows of TEK

The most unkind cut of all to TEK has been the recent attitude of the more radical “discourse” theorists and cultural relativists. Basing themselves loosely on Foucault (e.g. 1980) but going far beyond him, they allege that all scientific discourse, modern or traditional, is mere power/knowledge. Scientific knowledge is claimed solely so that the claimant can take power over those he or she convinces or browbeats into accepting his or her statements about the world.

This cynical view is adopted by many of the recent champions of indigenous peoples. Arturo Escobar (2008) gives a particularly good—and rather merciless—discussion of it, citing dozens of sources. If all alleged knowledge is mere power-jockeying, then traditional knowledge is at least as worthless as modern science. In practice, these scholars treat traditional knowledge as much more worthless than modern science. These scholars reject “truth claims” and “power/knowledge,” but, in regard to modern international science, they cannot possibly live as they talk. They take planes, drive cars, write on computers, eat GM foods, and in every way live by modern science, thus living a lie. They are, however, under no such real-world obligations toward traditional science, and thus reject or ignore all such systems of belief, teaching, knowledge, and wisdom. They reserve the right to claim “real” truth for their own statements and opinions.

Thus postmodernists are practicing racist dismissal of other cultures on the basis of a dishonestly-claimed universal relativism.

We can do better. Most, probably all, traditional systems of thought have special features worth studying, if only because they are achievements of the human spirit, comparable to great poems and works of art.

Conversely, however, those who realize this often go too far the other way. They idealize TEK too far or essentialize it. There is no one “TEK,” let alone a single, ancient, spiritual view of life such as New Age prophets love to promote. Traditional knowledge is local. It differs profoundly from place to place, because it results from deep and long-continued interaction with place and landscape. In so far as one local knowledge system does share basic views with other traditional knowledges round the world, the sharing is apt to be the product of human perception at work, and thus very often the product of human error. Some aspects of the “spiritual” nature of much TEK is arguably a case in point. Gods, spirits, witches and devils exist everywhere in human belief, but nowhere in demonstrable reality.

On the other hand, a broadly numinous, mystical, experiencial vision of the world may indeed be one of the greatest strengths of traditional systems. All such systems are engaged, in that they are the working mental tools of people who are intensely engaged in their landscapes, labors, interactions, and daily encounters with the world. Traditional knowledge is reflective and often highly abstract. It is not merely the “science of the concrete” that Levi-Strauss called it (1962). However, it is also informed by continual, intense interaction with its subjects—rocks, trees, animals, waters. It incorporates rich perceptions and understandings that come from such limited but constantly renewed encounters.
One form of TEK: Traditional Views of Causation

Probably the most famous minor accident in anthropological literature was the stumbling of a small Azande boy over a stump in the Sudan in the 1920s. It achieved fame because it was witnessed by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, then a young field worker, later one of the greatest anthropologists of all time. He heard Azande bystanders mutter “sorcery.” He was surprised, and asked them how they could say this, since—to all appearances—the boy had hit into the stump by accident. The elders pointed out that the stump had always been there, and the boy certainly knew about stumps and was normally careful enough. The only way to explain this particular event—unusual and out of the normal character of things—was through sorcery (Evans-Pritchard 1935:66).

Evans-Pritchard went on to learn that the Azande explained all unusual and unpleasant events by sorcery. More: he realized that it made perfect sense. They knew the world was usually orderly and lawful. They had no place in their scheme of things for purely random but highly disruptive events. Evans-Pritchard realized that it is we of the western world whose belief in chance, however accurate, seems strange to common sense.

People need to explain, understand, and predict. This traps them, because the world is often genuinely unpredictable, and the most logical and reasonable explanations of things are often the wrongest. People are thus fond of inventing causal explanations that are too limited or simple, or are downright wrong, and their fond beliefs about the depth and accuracy of these is yet another of those “positive illusions” we know and love so well (Alter et al. 2010).

As J. W. Powell pointed out as long ago as 1901, traditional small-scale cultures naturally attribute thunder to a giant bird, the creation of hills to the animals in prehuman times, and, in short, all natural processes to active supernatural agents. These are seen as causing anything and everything, especially when other explanations are hard to find. Powell delightfully described his moment of truth:

“Kanosh was the chief of a Shoshonean tribe in the central part of Utah…. I was wont to sit at the feet of the venerable Kanosh and listen to mythic tales. Once on a time he explained to me the origin of the cinder-cone and the scarcely-cooled lava which in times past had poured from it. He attributed its origin to Shinauav—the Wolf [actually coyote] god of the Shoshoneans. When I remonstrated with him that a wolf could not perform such a feat, ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘in ancient times the Wolf was a great chief.’ And to prove it he told me of other feats which Shinauav had performed, and of the feats of Tavoats, the Rabbit god, and of Kwiats, the Bear god, and of Togoav, the Rattlesnake god. How like Aristotle he reasoned!” (Powell 1901:62; Powell’s article started out to deal with the study of imparting instruction, but focused largely on folk knowledge of causation. It is still a very worthwhile read.)

The mention of Aristotle refers to the ancient Greek fondness for using myths to explain all, and justifying the truth of any given myth by appealing to other myths. This was the original “dialectic” method. Indeed, what better way to explain than to have recourse to stories that everyone knows and regards as sacred? We have our own today—the economic theories that have been disproved by every fluctuation in the stock market but are still taken as Gospel by presidents, prime ministers, and the world at large.
A classic argument by David Hume points out that no one can really know, for certain, the cause of anything. If I move my hand to grab a drink, is it conditioned reflexes, or my brain’s neurohumors flowing, or thirst, or random twitching, or my soul, or God, or sheer chance? Or is it all of the above? Or none of them? It is still more difficult to specify the reasons why tigers eat deer, or why stars collapse into black holes.

Yet, humans seem compelled to think causally. This is another inborn habit of thought. We have to find a motive. Typically, we first look for an active, thinking agent. If that fails, we look for a covering law—not usually a formal one, just a rule of thumb that will serve. Only if that too totally fails do we accept blind chance, or probabilistic factors, as a reason (see e..g Nisbett and Ross 1980). As Geoffrey Lloyd says, “humans everywhere will will use their imaginations to try to get to grips with what happens and why, exploiting some real or supposed analogy with the schemata that work in otherwise more mundane situations” (Lloyd 2007:130).

Aristotle described four types of cause, or rather of aition (pl. aitia), which has also been translated “factor” (Aristotle 1952:9, 88f). The first is material cause—what the object we are contemplating is made of. This would not occur to modern people as a “cause”—the hickory wood does not cause the baseball bat—but Aristotle was thinking partly of the elements of Greek thought. Earth, air, fire, and water were generally thought to have dynamic qualities that made them evolve into things. Chlorine purifies water by virtue of its violently oxidizing nature, which destroys bacteria and toxins; this is an example of material cause in action.

Second is formal cause: the definition of the object, its pattern, its essential character. A baseball bat is a rounded stick made of hickory wood, and is patterned so as to hit balls in a game. Third is efficient cause—the direct, proximal cause, specifically the causing agent, of an action. The bat is made by a factory to be sold to a player, who then uses it to hit a ball. The chlorine is bubbled through water, where it reacts chemically with toxins and bacterial membranes. Fourth is the final or ultimate cause, the reason for the action or object: the water is purified so people can drink it safely; the bat is used in a game for the purpose of entertaining people. This last can go into infinite regress: the bat is to hit a ball, so that the game will go on, so that people will be entertained, so that they will enjoy life and buy the sponsors’ products, so that…. And this only scratches the surface of Aristotle’s theory of cause, and he was only one Greek philosopher (see Lloyd 2007:108-130).

The endless debate on cause in philosophy since Aristotle need not concern us, since we are here considering folk and traditional knowledge. In that realm, our heuristics and biases play out at their most florid. Aristotle’s efficient cause is stated in agent terms. This default attribution to intentional action by an agent gives us the universal belief in gods, spirits, and other supernatural beings.

In explaining something, we have to worry about what level to invoke. Andrew Vayda points out that a truly complete causal explanation of everything would have to start with the Big Bang, or even before (Vayda 2009). At the other extreme, my taking a drink is directly caused by my moving certain muscles in my hand, arm, and mouth. But if my wife asks me “Why did you take a drink?” she expects me to answer something like “because I was thirsty from working in the garden.” She does not want to hear “because water is necessary to life” or “because my hand moved the glass.” An amazing thing about humans is that we almost all can instantly and accurately infer exactly what level of cause is intended in questions like that. Out of the endlessly long causal chain from the Big Bang to my finger muscles, we know exactly what level to answer at.

This is not always true in science. Indeed, that is the point of Vayda’s article, which critiques overly broad, general, or remote causes and argues for looking at local, immediate ones. If we want to explain the deforestation of Indonesia, it may be useful to look at global economic forces, but it is certainly useful and even necessary to look, village by village and logger by logger, at just how and why trees get cut. Vayda is generally hostile to high-level explanations, even when they would seem necessary to most observers, but his attention to lower-level, local, proximate causes is highly salutary.

Traditional people have the same problems, and—like other scientists—they can disagree about the appropriate level of cause to look at. Illness may be due to a simple, direct thing (getting in a cold draft) or a more remote one (the generally bad climate these days). It can be a pure accident, or the result of foolishness (drinking a cold drink when overheated), or witchcraft, or divine punishment. If bad luck happens to three or four people in succession, it may be due to three or four random and immediate accidents, but it begins to look suspiciously like the wrath of the ancestors, and the prudent family will check (through a spirit medium, perhaps) whether somebody forgot a sacrifice or broke a taboo. Enough bad luck may call forth a ritual on village or tribal scale, to cleanse the district or even to renew the world.


As scientists, traditional people are limited more by lack of scope and equipment than by lack of some (mythical?) scientific mentality or method. One result is that traditional peoples often explain things by recourse to entities they have had to infer. Modern scientists like to call these “supernatural.”

All cultures encode considerable knowledge of what leads to what. These can be modeled as simple X-before-Y models, flowcharts, entailment chains, decision trees (Gladwin 1989), and so on. To burn a field, one has to know that starting a fire will cause dry vegetation to burn. To catch a fish, one has to know that a baited hook will lure the fish to bite, and one usually has to know also that the fish bite best at dawn or evening, are found in still pools, won’t bite if people thrash around in the water, and so on. This sort of working knowledge leads to the formulation of Arthur Kleinman’s explanatory models (mentioned above; Kleinman 1980).

Humans desperately want or need to know many things that they cannot really understand. It is here the explanatory models are most prone to run far ahead of real knowledge. This is most obvious in the case of illness. It was, indeed, Kleinman’s studies of cultural attempts to explain and cure illness that led him to investigate explanatory models. People everywhere desperately want to heal the sick. Unfortunately, before modern laboratories with all their equipment, there was really no way people could understand bacteria, viruses, or chemical-caused cellular mutation. We still do not fully understand cancer or heart disease. So people do their best—figuring out as much accurate knowledge as they can, and then applying the best guesses as to where that leads. Inevitably, they get it wrong, leaving plenty of room for revision.

In general, there is always a “black box” somewhere between cause and effect, and explanatory models exist to theorize about what is in that black box. Modern science has shrunk most black boxes to very small size, at least when we look at proximate causes. In traditional societies, the black box can be very large, leaving much room for cosmological speculation. Even today, we are at a loss to explain a great deal of mental illness and autoimmune disease, to say nothing of astrophysics, pre-Cambrian life, and the mineralogy of the earth’s core. It is quite astonishing to look back at my undergraduate education and see how much that I learned has been proved wrong since then. One should always be very modest about one’s black-box explanatory models.

Supernaturals act for their own reasons, but people in earlier times knew as well as anyone else when an event is caused by human intention or error. They sometimes added to this a supernatural explanation. An error may be attributed to a devil acting maliciously within the person’s brain. Usually, however, people understand ordinary causation perfectly well.

Contrary to a few thinkers who holds that nobody can predict anything because of the commonness of random events, the vast majority of the things humans deal with are broadly predictable. Throughout human, history, people have worried about whether the sun will continue to rise, over whether days will get longer again after December 21, and over whether sunflower seeds will grow sunflowers and not grass. They have rituals to control all these matters. But they realize that “the rituals work.” These matters are 100% predictable in practice.

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