From Whence Science

Back when the earth was still cooling and I was in grad school, I took a class on anthropological theory. Now, I am a semi-postmodern girl, in that I think the truth is highly subjective and relative … but I do think some things are provable data. The graduate school I was attending was, at that point in time at least, not chockablock with postmodernists. The skewed more toward “look at this objective data” theories. One professor in particular was a big fan of Rise of Anthropological Theory by Marvin Harris … or RAT.

Let it be noted that Marvin Harris was a genus of structural-functionalism based anthropology fieldwork and I respect, admire, and agree with a lot of his work, such as Good to Eat and Why Nothing Works. I am not denying in any way, shape, or form that Marvin Harris was less than a great anthropologist. However, Marvin Harris was also a white dude who was born in the 1920s and the worldview he grew up in did peep through in his work.

Harris’s bone-deep Eurocentrism was a little to bold in RAT for me to be thrilled with that textbook. Harris insisted that science originated in the West and was a uniquely Western concept. This is utter poppycock, and I was free with my opinion that such beliefs were rank balderdash.

(Hint to future and present grad students: if your professor adores both Harris and RAT and you dislike RAT intensely, keep that to yourself or it will become an issue when you get your grade. Also, perhaps don’t bring in reams of evidence as to why RAT was full of malarkey, or make your term paper revolve around the lack of concrete truths in anthropological theory. Trust me on this.)

Regardless of what it said in RAT, science most emphatically did NOT originate spontaneously in the West. Leaving aside the fact that the Chinese were developing scientific methodology just as early as Greeks and while the Romans were still counting on their toes, or that Egyptians had invented a working pregnancy test while most people in Northern Europe were crouched around fires checking each other for fleas, there was all the science stuff happening in Sub-Saharan Africa — which too many people in the West have conveniently forgotten to include in the educational system.

It is not just the ancient technological achievements of Africans that are ignored; Westerners have been good about omitting the more modern advances as well. Take, for example, the cesarean section:

“nineteenth-century travelers in Africa reported instances of indigenous people successfully carrying out the procedure with their own medical practices. In 1879, for example, one British traveller, R.W. Felkin, witnessed cesarean section performed by Ugandans. The healer used banana wine to semi-intoxicate the woman and to cleanse his hands and her abdomen prior to surgery. He used a midline incision and applied cautery to minimize hemorrhaging. He massaged the uterus to make it contract but did not suture it; the abdominal wound was pinned with iron needles and dressed with a paste prepared from roots. The patient recovered well, and Felkin concluded that this technique was well-developed and had clearly been employed for a long time. Similar reports come from Rwanda, where botanical preparations were also used to anesthetize the patient and promote wound healing.”

uganda c-section 19th century

(The above drawing — as observed by R. W. Felkin in 1879 from his article “Notes on Labour in Central Africa” published in the Edinburgh Medical Journal, volume 20, April 1884, pages 922-930.)

Thus, in the 19th century Ugandans knew to perform operations, sterilize surgical sites and the surgeon’s hands, and keep wounds clear of infections. In the 19th century Western doctors were so adamant against hand washing that a physician, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, who tried to tell them to scrub up before touching a patient was drummed out of medicine and died alone in a madhouse.

Clearly, I do not give a RAT’s fuzzy butt for the ideology of Eurocentrism.

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