A few weeks ago I was asked a seemingly simple question in a survey: “Do you think that knowledge can currently be seen as a commodity?” After a couple of seconds’ thought, I started writing my answer. Several minutes later, I still hadn’t finished and decided at that point that I should probably stop in order to prevent myself from overwhelming the person in charge of collating the answers with an unnecessary essay.
I used to work in theoretical particle physics, which is a field where knowledge is very highly valued. After all, the raison d’être of myself and my colleagues was to acquire knowledge about the fundamental laws of nature, and then to disseminate it via peer-reviewed papers, thus making it available to everyone. Equally important was that, whilst writing any paper, we carefully cited previous related works, therefore acknowledging the importance of the knowledge acquired by others. I use the word ‘knowledge’ in this sense to mean concepts, methods, techniques, and observations. If the world of science did not work this way, then everyone would be on their own and we would literally be trying to reinvent the wheel every single day.
One of the most famous physicists of all time is Albert Einstein, who is revered so highly because he was one of the very few people who made ‘something out of nothing:’ his theory of Special Relativity was a revolutionary concept not apparently based on anyone else’s work – the idea seemed to be plucked out of thin air. In contrast, the majority of theoretical physicists today perform work which essentially consists of methodical yet (relatively!) simple trial and error. If I had not performed the analyses I did, then one of my colleagues could undoubtedly have done it instead. The same is not true of Einstein’s work – if he had not been born, we might very well still be stuck in the scientific dark ages because it is perfectly possible that no one else could have come up with the theories that he did. Someone of Einstein’s genius is very rare. The rest of us need to extrapolate upon the prior knowledge acquired by others in order to make progress, a fact which applies to the world in general and not just within physics. Check out this fantastic TED talk by Kirby Ferguson, where he argues that we need to Embrace the Remix factor of creativity since nothing in life is original.
So it is not just in academia that knowledge is a commodity to be treasured, but in all situations. This is why it is so important to preserve the ethnosphere that is made up of the total sum of the cultures of the world. Knowledge is preserved within a culture and if we lose that knowledge then we lose not just the direct benefits of that knowledge, but all the possible indirect future benefits too. For example, if indigenous Americans had not cultivated domestic maize thousands of years ago, we would now not only lack our much-loved corn-on-the-cob but also all its modern derivatives: cornsteep liquor that stimulates antibiotic production, resins derived from corn that are used as solvents, dextrose sugar extracted from corn that can be made into biodegradable plastic-like containers, bourbon whiskey.
It is arrogant to assume that seemingly ‘primitive’ peoples cannot offer anything to the ‘civilized’ world. I am not saying that we should expect an Amazon tribe to launch the next internet-like revolution, but we must remember that ‘technology’ exists in many different forms. There is a TED talk called ‘The ancient ingenuity of water harvesting‘ in which Anupam Mishra, one of the founders of the Gandhi Peace Foundation which promotes egalitarian economics, grassroots democracy, and tolerance, talks about the ingenious structures built by the people of India’s Desert of Rajasthan several centuries ago. These traditional stone buildings have carefully and precisely designed sloping roofs and holes, with the purpose of collecting rainwater in one of the driest regions in India, which they do so with astonishing efficiency. They are far more effective than the multi-million dollar government projects designed to transport water to the region using more conventional ‘hi-tech’ methods, many of which have failed.
This example illustrates that indigenous peoples may possess knowledge which is complementary to ours and which could even supersede what we know. As another example, one of the most common modern medicines is aspirin (chemical name acetylsalicylic acid) which was naturally derived from willow (salix) trees until the Bayer Company started to artificially synthesize it in the 19th century. Willow trees are very common in places such as Canada, and the people who have lived there for centuries have been using parts of the willow trees during that time to relieve pain. We have no idea how much more of this type of knowledge is already possessed by indigenous peoples, so where is the sense in driving their cultures to extinction before we make the effort to find out what we could potentially lose? Even if you don’t want to consider their welfare, then think of the potential benefits to the ‘civilized’ world. As one well-cited review paper, written by researchers from the College of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois-Chicago, concludes,
“The body of existing ethnomedical knowledge has led to great developments in health care. With the rapid industrialization of the planet and the loss of ethnic cultures and customs, some of this information will no doubt disappear.”
Indigenous peoples have lived successfully for thousands of years in their current habitat and have acquired vast amounts of knowledge about the resources around them; resources that the majority of us know nothing about because we do not have access to them and are also too distracted by our urban lives. In addition, they know how to manage the resources around them – plants, animals, water – in such a way that they need never worry that these supplies will become depleted. We may see others as primitive because they do not have our advanced technologies and material comforts, but perhaps they would think of us as primitive for not apparently knowing how to sustainably manage our forests and fish stocks. In fact, ancient technologies can hold the promise of solving some of today’s most pressing concerns, like the ancient Maya water management systems found in Guatemala and Mexico.
Besides the medicinal and environmental benefits, we have a lot to learn from different cultures in many other respects too: how communities work together to raise children, and their social and political structures. Knowledge, and the people who have that knowledge, must be treasured and respected if we want the human race to continue to advance.
Can you think of any other reasons why knowledge is important? Please leave a reply below.
Tracey Li is a Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.
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For your reference:
Fabricant, DS, Farnsworth, FR 2001, ‘The value of plants used in traditional medicine for drug discovery’, Environ Health Perspect 109 (Suppl 1) pp. 69-75. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc1240543/>
Miller S January 19th 2012, Ten Things You Wouldn’t Think Would Be Made From Corn, <http://grub.gunaxin.com/ten-wouldnt-be-made-corn/110852>.
Mishra, A November 2009, TED talk, The ancient ingenuity of water harvesting. <http://www.ted.com/talks/anupam_mishra_the_ancient_ingenuity_of_water_harvesting.html>