HAR editors are pleased to bring you this Special Focus Section, guest edited by Raphael Uchôa, Staffan Müller-Wille and Harriet Mercer. The pieces in this collection will be published on a rolling basis, and the table of contents will be updated accordingly.

The Problem: Science and its Others

This Special Focus Section originated from a workshop that we—Raphael Uchôa, Staffan Müller-Wille, and Harriet Mercer—convened in September 2022 at Darwin College, University of Cambridge. Our workshop brought together a diverse group of scholars from the fields of history and philosophy of science and anthropology. It was the culmination of three years of studies conducted within the context of the “Science and its Others” working group, hosted by the Centre for Global Knowledge Studies (gloknos) and the Ethno-science reading group at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge. Initially, our ambition was to historicize the whole suite of ethnosciences, but it soon became apparent that ethnobotany and to some extent ethnomedicine would form a suitable focus because of their paradigmatic status (on other “ethno-sciences” not discussed in this Special Focus Section, see Alves and Ulysses 2017; D’Ambrosio 1985; Martín 2011; Stiles 1977).

The central purpose of the September 2022 gathering was to understand the emergence of a flurry of seemingly new scientific sub-disciplines in the mid-twentieth century: the “ethnosciences,” which ranged from ethno-medicine to ethno-botany, -zoology, -biology, -pharmacology, -astronomy, -psychology, -cartography, and more. We began with a fundamental, if naïve, question: under what historical and epistemological conditions did Western scientists start to rethink their attitudes to non-Western/Indigenous forms of knowledge, moving away from their derogatory notions of “savage” or “primitive” knowledge to the more equitable twentieth-century term “ethno-science”? In the course of our reading sessions, however, we began to appreciate that the ethnosciences represented another instantiation of a long tradition of defining science in relation to “other” knowledge systems.  

This realization raised a series of further questions: What forms of credit and intellectual property organized these intersections of Indigenous and scientific knowledges? What consequences, if any, did these intersections have for the demarcation of science from non-science? And what are the political consequences of these demarcations, not least for Indigenous communities themselves, and their own perspectives on Indigeneity and science?

To begin addressing these questions, it is helpful to revisit, if briefly, the history of the term “Indigenous” and its relationship to what is called “science.” Ironically, Renaissance herbalists and encyclopedists first deployed the term “indigenous” in relation to Central and Northern European floras and faunas. Herbalists and encyclopedists believed that these floras and faunas needed to be reevaluated vis-à-vis the classical heritage of Mediterranean lore and the flood of “exotic” remedies that inundated European markets as world trade expanded (Cooper 2007).

The survey practices that developed out of this increasing revaluation of local knowledge, and the appreciation of vernacular knowledge holders that accompanied it, soon spread to regions outside of Europe. In regions where powers like Spain and the Netherlands sought to exert imperial and/or colonial control, European naturalists increasingly directed other naturalists and travelers to include in their accounts the knowledge possessed by other cultures regarding natural products, their properties and uses, and their value and ontological significance (Fox 1995; Moravia 1980). Think, for example, of the twelve-volume Hortus Malabaricus edited by Dutch scholars on the Malabar coast from 1678 to 1693 (Manilal 1984).

The texts that resulted from these kinds of encounters between people were full of contradictions and ambiguities. From the seventeenth century, European naturalists began to routinely document Indigenous names and knowledge about the uses, behaviors, and life histories of plants and animals in a matter-of-fact manner. This was information that naturalists had gathered through their interactions with the very peoples they often derogatorily labeled “barbarian,” “uneducated,” “primitive,” or “savage” during field excursions and expeditions in the service of colonial expansion (Schiebinger and Swan 2005, 10–13).

These kinds of ambiguities where Indigenous knowledge was simultaneously derided and desired were deeply inscribed into Francis Bacon’s (1561–1621) utopian program of scientific investigation. On the one hand, the Baconian program emphasized the value of practitioners’ empirical knowledge, but on the other hand it called for the establishment of centralized institutions engaged in the systematization and verification of such knowledge. The real-world model of the Baconian program may have been the imperial institutions that both Portugal and Spain built in the sixteenth century to collate information from overseas and train pilodas accompanying their trade ships (Barrera Osorio 2006; Gascoigne 2009).

This ambiguous treatment of Indigenous knowledge also helps to explain why the subject of this volume, ethnoscience, turns out to be so historiographically unwieldy. Ethnobotany, as a named discipline, for example, seems to have a clear origin. In 1874, Stephen Powers (1840–1904) introduced the term “Aboriginal Botany” to describe the plant knowledge held by Indigenous tribes in California collectively referred to as “Diggers” (Park 1975). Subsequently, John William Harshberger (1869–1929), a botany professor at the University of Pennsylvania, defined ethnobotany as a field encompassing various subjects of study including “the cultural practices of tribes,” “historical plant distribution,” “ancient trade routes,” and “novel avenues of production” (Harshberger 1896, passim). But as a practice, ethnobotany seems to allow for an endless series of forebears and successors, sometimes traced back all the way to the ancient pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscurides (c. 40–90 AD; see, e.g., Davis 1995, 41).

Roy Ellen’s contribution to this Special Focus Section evinces that more is to be gained than a mere line of “predecessors” by turning back to the diverse array of European sources that predate the coining of such terms as “ethnobotany.” Ellen sheds light on the Dutch naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius (1627–1702), who studied the flora of Ambon, a small island south of Seram. Rumphius’ study was published posthumously in 1741 and Ellen reflects on how, centuries later, Rumphius influenced his own ethnobotanical research on the Nuaulu people of Seram Island, Indonesia (Ellen 2020).

Ellen shows that, being pre-Linnean and pre-Darwinian in approach, Rumphius’s work shared substantial commonalities with his Indigenous interlocutors. However, committing his explorations of Ambonese vegetation to written form fundamentally rendered his work commensurable with later taxonomic practices, occluding the situated and flexible character of oral traditions upon which it was based. This insight serves as a potent reminder of the foundation of plant identification and classification in “communities of practice,” which may be culturally and epistemologically distinct, but also remain open to bridging through practitioners’ willingness to engage with one another (see also Safier 2010).

Ellen’s investigation into the incorporation of oral traditions into naturalists’ writings illuminates a crucial facet of ethnoscience: the accessibility of Indigenous voices and the pervasive dynamics of erasure and transformation inherent in the compilation of natural history data. This thematic thread resonates with another significant contribution in this Special Focus. In “Traces of Polyvocal Botany,” Linda Andersson Burnett and Hanna Hodacs analyze the Linnaean context, focusing specifically on Lars Montin’s interactions with the Sami community in the 18th century. Their study delves into how Sami perspectives were interwoven into scholarly discourse, uncovering the disparities between Sami botanical terminology and their nuanced understanding of plants, often oversimplified in standardized botanical records like flora catalogs. Similarly, Sabina Leonelli’s paper, “Globalizing Plant Knowledge Beyond Bioprospecting?,” explores parallel inquiries within the digital realm, but with a contemporary lens on Africa. Here, she delves into the concept of ethno-data as a manifestation of ethnoscience, scrutinizing how the digitization of Indigenous knowledge perpetuates colonial legacies. Leonelli’s examination, particularly focused on the cassava research framework in Ghana, reveals how this digitization mobilizes Indigenous knowledge without adequate recognition or reciprocity for its creators, thereby perpetuating historical injustices.

The term ethnoscience itself points to yet another, epistemological rather than moral ambiguity: for practitioners, ethnoscience might be understood to designate either a science that an Indigenous group possesses, or a science that investigates Indigenous knowledge and suitably translates it into its own terms. In other words, the ethno- component might alternatively be understood as the agential subject or passive object of the ethnosciences. If we take the example of ethnobotany, we see that for some of its practitioners, ethnobotany is Indigenous peoples’ plant science, while for others ethnobotany results from extracting and translating Indigenous peoples’ knowledge into Western scientific terms.

According to anthropologist Richard I. Ford, the field has undergone a clear evolution in this respect ever since Harshberger coined its name in the 1890s, from “the study of uses of scientifically identified environmental data” to a focus on “the native’s point of view” (Ford 1978, 39). But as we will see in the following, the two perspectives—the emic and the etic, as one might also say—always remain inextricably entwined because understanding another point of view always presupposes some form of translation, while translation always hinges on understanding different points of view (Fleck 1986).

Ambiguities multiply when we turn to the changing ways that both ethnoscientists and philosophers of science have reflected on the relationship of ethnoscience and science tout court. On the face of it, practitioners of the ethnosciences simply apply science, in its latest incarnations, in their repeated efforts to register and translate what others know about a given subject. But in its disciplinary beginnings, ethnoscience was driven by a more fundamental and ambitious desire. Shaped to some extent by the research of Harold Conklin (1926–2016) on color categories among the Hanunóo, and disseminated through his fellow graduate student at Yale, ethnologist William C. Sturtevant (1926–2007), it was defined as a distinct form of ethnography centered on Indigenous classifications.

For its mid-century practitioners, Sturtevant claimed, ethnoscience aligned with earlier anthropological aspirations to “grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world” (Sturtevant 1964, 100). Continuing in the footsteps of this established tradition—which he traced back to some influential works by Franz Boas (1858–1942) (Boas 1911), Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) and Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) (Durkheim and Mauss 1903), as well as Bronisław Malinowski (1884–1942) (Malinowski 1922)—ethnoscientists further developed this emphasis on the “native’s point of view” by expanding the focus of their discipline to encompass both linguistic and cognitive dimensions of knowledge, all while upholding the rigorous standards of scientific inquiry: in Sturtevant’s words, making “cultural descriptions replicable and accurate” by reducing “significant attributes of … local classifications into [the] culture-free terms” of science (Sturtevant 1964, 101-103).

Ethnoscientists like Sturtevant—who was the son of the geneticist Alfred Henry Sturtevant (1891–1970)—may have believed that this mentalistic approach helped them to avoid the discriminatory methods and ideas associated with racist traditions in anthropology and the human sciences more broadly, and instead ensured a more balanced and ethically sound approach to studying cultural phenomena. Powers, in his 1873 “Aboriginal Botany,” had still categorically claimed: “Among savages, of course, there is no systematic classification of botanical knowledge” (Powers 1874, 373). It is certainly no coincidence that, in contrast to this sort of claim, the turn towards classification as a central concern of the discipline coincided with the general reorientation of the human and the life sciences following WWII, and that some of its practitioners spoke of a “new synthesis” in analogy to the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology (Ford 1978; Davis 1991).

Physical anthropologists, but above all population geneticists associated with the modern synthesis like Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900–1975), had maneuvered very carefully in the early 1950s to dissociate their disciplines from a racist past while at the same time saving the legitimacy of studies of human racial and genetic diversity in the UNESCO Statement on Race (Brattain 2007). Moreover, promoters of the scientific anti-racism that found very public expression in the Statement remained wedded to imaginaries of development and modernization that implicitly reinstated old racial hierarchies (Gil-Riaño 2018). Sturtevant reveals the same attitude when, at the end of his article, he emphasized “the relevance of ethnoscience to the study of culture change” (Sturtevant 1964, 123).

The hierarchical understanding of science as a reservoir of “culture-free” terms that provides access to Indigenous knowledge systems while at the same time offering a superior view from “above” has of course not gone unchallenged. Since the 1970s, historical and social studies of science have increasingly revealed that “Western” or “modern” science is simply one of innumerable ways of knowing—or, put another way by Sandra Harding, European science is just another “ethnoscience” (Harding 1997; cf. Latour 1987). While certainly deflating claims to superiority, this stance poses intricate epistemological, ontological and ethical challenges to the prospect of integrating heterogeneous knowledges through collaboration (Ludwig and El-Hani 2020).

An often-overlooked alternative to this prominent stance—and one that is especially alive within the discipline of ethnoscience itself—is grounded in the foundational work of Brent Berlin (1973). Followers of Berlin place the emphasis not on differences amongst knowledge systems, but focus instead on abstract continuities, identifying cognitive structures that run across both “modern” science and traditional knowledges around the world (Atran 1991). This position, with its explicit universalism, faces its own challenge: the universal categories it produces and employs can turn into an abstract grid that again is “etic” in nature and ignores the diversity of contexts in which knowledge is produced (Ellen 1986).

Halfway between these two poles of particularism and universalism, we find Claude Lévi-Strauss’s (1908–2009) enigmatic proposal of a “science of the concrete” as a mode of knowing persisting alongside modern science and its abstractions (Lévi-Strauss 1962). His proposal gains perspicuity once one realizes that the French anthropologist himself engaged in ethnobotany in the mid-twentieth century (Lévi-Strauss 1952). That Lévi-Strauss was both involved in ethnobotany and in developing the concept of a “science of the concrete” is indicative of the way ethnoscience has been used to define science in relation to “other” knowledge systems.

All these emphases on ideational and cognitive dimensions, contrasting with material and embodied viewpoints, drew early criticism from materialist anthropologists, including followers of Marvin Harris (1927–2001), who deemed ethnosciences excessively mentalistic (Harris 1968). In the 1990s, the ontological turn revitalized this debate, particularly in consolidating the study of non-Western ontologies, characterized by their underlying logical relations and cosmological assumptions (Viveiros de Castro 1992; Kohn 2015; Ellen 2016; Holbraad and Pedersen 2017).

One of the most transformative outcomes of the ontological turn was the realization that modern science is steeped in deeper theological and metaphysical roots than many practitioners have been willing to concede. The ontological turn showed that these foundations fostered a commitment within the natural sciences to notions of the universality of human nature and to dichotomies between nature and culture, and body and mind. Moreover, the ontological turn has engendered productive dialogues, often adopting the form of metalogues, seeking to explore the potential (in-)commensurabilities between diverse systems of thought (Lloyd and Vilaça 2020; Lloyd and Vilaça 2023).

These dialogues serve as exemplars for this Special Focus Section, chiefly because they accentuate the inherently open-ended nature of the issues under consideration, thereby encouraging an ongoing and exploratory approach. They indicate that the conflation of subject and object in the term “ethnoscience” outlined above is not just a sign of confusion. It is constitutive of the discipline and makes it a privileged site for investigating the relationship between “Science and Its Others.”

Ethnoscience’s tendency to conflate subject and object is also illustrated by the case study presented by Raphael Uchôa and Silvia Waisse in this Special Focus Section. They cast a spotlight upon the often-overlooked contributions of James Mooney (1861–1921), a figure of considerable significance in the history of North American ethnoscience. By unraveling the layers of Mooney’s involvement with the Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891), the authors unveil the profound potential that these formulas had as pivotal historical sources compiled by one of Mooney’s informants, “Swimmer.” Although we know little about this person, it is obvious that “Swimmer” saw value in committing traditional Cherokee knowledge into a now lost manuscript reminiscent of the “formularies” of the ancient Mediterranean.

Alongside Mooney, Uchôa and Waisse engage with the perspectives of other interpreters, including Boas and Frans M. Olbrechts (1899–1858), and analyze them through the three pivotal spheres of analysis conceptualized by the Brazilian historian of chemistry Ana Maria Alfonso-Goldfarb (2008): historiography, context, and concepts. This approach, the authors propose, can be applied beyond their immediate focus to form a versatile framework that can be effectively wielded to decipher a broader array of historical ethnoscience documentation and acts of interpretation.

The acts of interpreting and translating other knowledges that Uchôa and Waisse investigate in this way can serve as a reminder that, as a set of sub-disciplines, the ethnosciences are rooted in Western conceptual frameworks which place value on precision and accuracy. The significance of accuracy for Western science, as historian Michael Bravo has stressed (1996), cannot be understated as it underpins the Western assertion of scientific hegemony. Much like a protective barrier, it establishes a perimeter within which the criteria for evaluating other knowledge systems are defined.

Therefore, Harding’s proposal to address modern science as just another “ethnoscience” risks inadvertently obscuring the reality that the very notion of “ethnoscience” is intrinsically tied to Western ideologies relating science to other knowledges, as outlined above. Strictly speaking, there is no “ethnoscience” outside of “science” proper, however it may be understood. To overlook this relationship between ethnoscience and Western conceptual frameworks can in turn lead researchers to miss or understate the range of uneven power dynamics that have characterized the ethnosciences and continue to do so to this day.

Indeed, ethnoscience as a conceptual construct emerged from academic disciplines such as economic botany, which was developed by imperial and colonial powers like Britain, France and Spain and was used by agents of empire to try to extract commodifiable knowledge, annex territory, and at times assimilate Indigenous knowledge and practices. Typically, though not universally, as the case of Mooney shows, nineteenth-century economic botanists expended considerable energy trying to disentangle “useful knowledge”—largely, the names for plants and knowledge of the specific uses they were put to—from what they perceived as a thicket of superstitions, false beliefs and detrimental customs (see, e.g., Brown 1868, 390–396).

Twentieth-century ethnobotanists generally looked at Indigenous knowledge systems more respectfully and considered them in their own right, but the sequential application of the latest scientific approaches throughout the history of ethnosciences—in the case of ethnobotany: Linnaean botany, biochemistry, ecology and eventually molecular biology—demonstrates a dynamic that remains at least partially driven from within the sciences. With its conflation of subject and object, “ethno-science” will always include an intrinsically etic component, which is precisely why it proves to be such a dynamic and diverse field of inquiry (Ellen 2004).

These reflections speak to the inadequacies of simple dichotomies, including of trying to categorize ethnoscience as either a friend or foe of Indigenous knowledge systems. One stance, for instance, involves the recognition that colonial and extractive practices are upheld and perpetuated by the prevailing logics of “Western science” and patent laws that exploit Indigenous peoples’ rights to their knowledge and lands (Hayden 2003; Osseo-Asare 2008; Hardison and Bannister 2011; Pollock 2014).

On the other hand, ethnoscientists played a key role in the mobilization and establishment of legal codes that have erected frameworks for protecting Indigenous knowledge from outright exploitation. Delving into the latter aspect, Graham Dutifield examines in this Special Focus Section the pivotal role of the ethnobiologist Darrell A. Posey (1947–2001) and the “Declaration of Belém”, a document that emerged from the inaugural congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology in 1988. The Declaration compellingly accentuated the importance of recognizing Native communities as stewards of 99% of the world’s genetic resources, underscoring the inseparable nexus not only between cultural and biological diversity, but also between knowledge rights and land rights.

Indeed, the interconnection of cultural and biological diversity stands out as a prominent and recurring motif within the ethnosciences narratives throughout the decades following World War II. Edvard Hviding (2003) highlights how, since the late 1950s, numerous sub-branches of anthropological investigation have emerged under the prefix “ethno-,” loosely connected by their cognitive approaches to “the native’s point of view”. This is not surprising. As discussed above, the ethnosciences consolidated their disciplinary identity in the mid-twentieth century, when colonial dominion was being challenged by new registers of national independence, development policies and autarchy. The emergence of the ethnosciences mirrors a broader paradigmatic shift in the natural sciences and international politics, accompanied by a growing global awareness and calls for the incorporation of “traditional” knowledge, previously considered “savage,” into political and scientific discourses concerning environmental issues, health policies, and related fields (Tilley 2021; Métailié 2015).

This thematic nexus between nationalism, post-colonialism, and the ethnosciences emerges as a key theme in this Special Focus Section, especially in the essays by Abigail Nieves Delgado, Daniela Sclavo and Paula López Caballero working on the Mexican context. Nieves Delgado dissects the concept of “mega-diversity,” deeply ingrained within nationalist identity discourses in Mexico, but also carrying the risk of essentializing ethnic difference. Sclavo, on the other hand, turns to the conjunction of ethnobotany and the patriotic revaluation of traditional agricultural systems in Mexico in the 1970s to counter the excesses of the Green Revolution. As Sclavo also shows, the campesino who emerged as a figure of hope and as a bearer of traditional knowledge occluded female knowledge from the sight of ethnobotanists.

Finally, Paula López Caballero takes us back to a time when the categories and frontiers introduced by the “ethno-” perspective were not yet fixed, by reviewing a set of field diaries produced during ethnographic fieldwork in the village of Zinacantán, Chiapas, in 1942-43. Her analysis of these sources brings out how anthropologists constructed “traditional” medical practices associated with a particular ethnic group, while their Indigenous informants took advantage of access to biomedical therapies from the two-month expedition. These exchanges resulted in hybrid medical practices that were excluded from the reports on the expedition in favor of establishing traditional medical practices as a “social marker of Indigeneity.”

Latin America has long been acknowledged as playing a crucial role in the transformation of the ethnosciences (Ford 1978), but the specificities brought out in the Mexican context by two contributions to this Special Focus Section suggest a cautious revaluation. Though not explicitly dealing with the ethnosciences, recent contributions to the “global” history of science and medicine cast interesting light on the role that Indigenous knowledge has played in the formulation of ethnic, national and transnational traditions of science and medicine (see, for example, Leong et al. 2021). Thus, the development of ethnoscience in Brazil and Mexico—where disparate traditions unfolded concerning the interplay between modern science and Indigenous knowledge systems—challenges the notion of a homogenized “Latin America.”

The diversity in ethnoscientific traditions is equally manifest in the European context (Svanberg et al. 2011), and has endured from much earlier times, as exemplified by the Portuguese and Dutch cases analyzed in this Special Focus Section by Ferraz and Alfonso-Goldfarb. While there was a dearth of references to Brazilian native plants in Portuguese medical writings during colonial times, including those of significant figures like the Jesuit José de Anchieta (1534–1597), Dutch sources from the short-lived seventeenth-century colony in Surinam provide a valuable perspective on Indigenous practices, accentuating the significance of medicinal plants. Intriguingly, Ferraz and Alfonso-Goldfarb’s piece also shows that appropriation of Indigenous knowledge was not a conditio sine qua non of colonialism—at least not in the form of published, formalized, “scientific” knowledge.

To date there are no sustained histories of the mid-twentieth century emergence of the ethnosciences. To be sure, the exchange of knowledge between diverse peoples has been a topic of increasing study by scholars of global history and especially global histories of science. These histories show that Western efforts to collect, curate, and convey Indigenous knowledge is not a mid-twentieth century phenomenon born with the disciplinary emergence of the ethnosciences. Instead, they demonstrate that articulations of “scientific” with “other” knowledge systems have a long history going back (at least) to early modern European state formation and colonial expansion. (Fox 1995; Moravia 1980).

But these global histories have not yet connected these earlier epistemological encounters between peoples to the mid-twentieth century efforts of (mostly) Western scientists to turn the study of Indigenous knowledge into a formalized series of disciplinary sub-fields. So far, it is the practitioners of ethno-science who have tended to give the formation of their discipline more sustained attention. Professionals in the fields of ethnobotany and ethnobiology have reflected upon its societal significance, from Richard E. Schultes’ influential edited volume, Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline (1995), to recent calls for decolonizing the field of ethnobiology (McAlvay et al. 2021).

In this context, a few scholars, largely from within the discipline, have also dedicated efforts to mapping the contributions of various authors throughout the history of ethnobotany and ethnobiology (Murray 1982; Clément 1998; Hunn 2007; Wyndham et al. 2011; D’Ambrosio 2014). Yet, whereas global histories of encounter tend to lose sight of twentieth century disciplinary developments, these practitioner-based accounts of ethnoscience have overlooked the larger context and deeper origins of their sub-fields.

Accordingly, the primary objective of this HAR Special Focus Section is to present a series of propositions, methodological challenges, and conceptual problems that reveal the rich potential that a historiography of the ethnosciences—conceptualized as “Science and Its Others”—possesses for the history and epistemology of anthropology and its complicated relationship with the sciences. Each unique context presents a plethora of historical sources and gives rise to epistemological challenges tied to the (in)commensurability of knowledge systems and classifications. Numerous issues, geographies, and institutional and political contexts remain unexplored. The essays presented in this series serve as an initial endeavor to engage researchers from the history and philosophy of science, science and technology studies, anthropology, as well as ethnobotany and the ethnosciences more generally, in explorations of this vital theme.

Read another piece in this series.

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Raphael Uchôa: contributions / ru224@cantab.ac.uk / University of Cambridge
Staffan Müller-Wille: contributions / sewm3@cam.ac.uk / University of Cambridge
Harriet Mercer: contributions / hjm51@cam.ac.uk / University of Cambridge