Postmodernist View of Science as Colonialist Creation

Postmodernist View of Science as Colonialist Creation

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The history of humanity is characterized by many wars and cultural incursions, religious conversions and cultural transformations. Greek and Roman cultures spread beyond the places of their origin, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam spilled over to regions thousands of miles away from the birthplace of their founders. Hindu art, sculpture, and epics have had significant impacts in many countries of southeast Asia, and so on. One of the most dramatic of these was Islamic conquests in the Middle Ages and later into Asia, Africa, Iran and other regions, thanks to which there are more than a billion Muslims in the world today. Another was European colonialism which has left a lasting mark on the rest of humankind through its educational institutions and modern science. By the close of the First World War (1918), almost 85% of the world was under the control of Western powers. All such political and cultural penetrations have had a good deal of highly injurious effects, but also some good consequences.

Ever since non-Western peoples shook off the Western political fetters which had bound them for too long, there has been a resurgence of self-affirmation among the long-oppressed peoples of the world. In their understandable eagerness to rid themselves of all the vestiges of colonial influence and indoctrination, some of the thinkers there began to look upon modern science as a Western construct that is imposed on their native worldviews in order to destroy the latter for self-serving reasons. This is the thesis and argument of postcolonial studies of science.

In the 1960s, Jalam Ali Ahmad,  a deep thinker and scholar put forth with great virulence in a fiery piece in Parsian the idea of the evil that the West had wrought on the non-West. His work was later translated into English as Occidentosis: A plague from the West (1984). Here he justly decried the capitalist framework, in which, as he saw it, there were only two blocs in the world: the one which produces machines, and the one which buys machines. The former is made up of Europe, Japan, South Africa, and Israel. The latter consists of Asia, Africa, and Lain America. The West is the exploiter, the non-West is the exploited. He decried the introduction of Western education – which he regards as Christian – into the non-West, but wants his country to establish factories and build machineries, as if these would spring up from the Qu’ran, the Sharia, and Arab philosophy without a study of mechanics,  thermodynamics, chemistry, and solid state physics.  Indeed this is the dilemma of postmodern intellectuals in the non-West who despise what they call Western science and call for a return to their indigenous roots, while they also want to catch up with the West on the material and industrial planes.

From the perspective of these thinkers, the de-colonized peoples of the world should shake off “Western science” from their intellectual-cultural framework, and re-formulate the science of their ancestors. This point of view has been forcefully articulated by Claude Alvares who has also proposed the formation of a multi-university which would be free from Western influences. He wrote in his proposal ( “For the past couple of centuries, the institution of the university has also been replicated ad nauseam in every nook and corner of the globe. This has been done with the noble intent of spreading a uniform perception of Nature (based on modern Science) and therefore a similar method of research and training across the world. The widespread assumption of the universality of modern Science and – and by association naturally – the superiority of other aspects and products of American and European culture, has provided legitimacy for this action. Replication of the college and university system was made possible due to the dominant position of Europe in the colonial world. As power defined knowledge, the process was easily facilitated. The intellectual centres are located in the West, and they supply the categories and terms for all intellectual debates. We play along. They remain the center, while we keep ourselves at the periphery. They create; we copy and apply. We do not challenge the underlying assumptions. We blandly copy because these disciplines are apparently “well-tested” and “precise,” an officially-recognised body of knowledge. Replication is safer than attempting something different.” Very well stated, and quite inspiring to many, but India and the rest of the world continue to build Institutes of Technology and produce Ph.D.s in physics and biology, as they compete and climb in the international arena. Paradoxically, graduates from such institutions are the ones who have made India the powerful and productive modern nation that she is.

A similar idea was expressed by Glen S. Aikenhead (a Canadian writer) who wrote (Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 2002): “A type of cognitive imperialism pervades school science whenever students, particularly Aboriginal students, are assimilated (some would say “colonized”) into thinking like a Western scientist in their science classes…. Although this article focuses on science education for Canadian Aboriginal students, the reader may find that some ideas and findings expressed here transfer to other contexts familiar to the reader, including science education for Euro-Canadian students, Maori students, Anglo-American students, or Zulu students.” A very generous view which, however well-intentioned, is a prescription for keeping non-Westerners at the level of medieval Europeans forever.

The view that  modern science is Western, and therefore ought to be rejected by non-Western peoples is as insightful as the notion that the concept of zero and the practice of yoga are Hindu, and therefore ought to be rejected by non-Hindus – or that the notion of acid and bases derived from Islamic alchemy should not be accepted by non-Muslims. The so-called Western science was not forced upon Japan through colonialism. That country willingly adopted it in the second half of the nineteenth century, and has since become a member of the international scientific community. Creative scientists from India, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Korea, and other non-Western countries are making solid contributions to science and technology in our own times, and are likely to do so even more in the future, unless some narrow-minded intellectuals and dumb dictators close all “Western-type” universities and teach only chanting from holy books, astrology, medieval alchemy, and shaman medicine  in their schools. Indeed, if one were to adopt the prescriptions of some of the newly emerging confused cultural patriots in the non-Western world and their genuine sympathizers in the so-called liberal West,  that will ensure returning these nations to the pre-colonial and pre-scientific days when they fell easy victims to the better informed West. Fortunately, there is little likelihood that this will happen, although books expounding such scientifically xenophobic theses will continue to be published, mostly in English and French, and will remain appealing until there are significantly more scientists in the Non-Western world: which is very likely the course of the present century.