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India and Science

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"Folk" Sciences:

Besides the above examples of Indian contributions to the origins of the so-called "Western" science, there is another category of traditional knowledge called non-literate folk science. Western science as a whole has condemned and ignored anything that it did not either appropriate or develop, by branding it as magic and superstition. However, in countries such as India, which boast of cultural continuity, ancient traditions survive with a rich legacy of folk science.

In North America and Australia, where original populations have been largely decimated, such continuity of folk tradition was disrupted. In Western nations with large colonies in the Old and New Worlds, such knowledge systems were looked down upon once they had been successfully plundered. The process of contrasting Western science with folk knowledge systems has led to the imposition of contrived hegemonic categories.

The distinction between elite and folk science was non-existent in ancient times. India's advanced metallurgy and civil engineering was researched and practiced by artisan guilds. Western science seldom realized that non-literate folk science preserves the wisdom gained through millennia of experience and direct observation, and has been transmitted by word of mouth.

For instance, modern scientists have humbly admitted that the ecological management practiced today by the tribes of India's Northeast is far superior to anything they could teach them. A good example is the use of alder (Alnus nepalensis), which has been cultivated in the jhum (shifting cultivation) fields by the Khonoma farmers in Nagaland for centuries. It has multiple usages for the farmers, since it is a nitrogen-fixing tree and helps to retain the soil fertility. Its leaves are used as fodder and fertilizer, and it is also utilized as timber. One could cite numerous such examples.

The vast majority of modern medicines patented by Western pharmaceutical firms are based on tropical plants. The most common method to select candidates for detailed testing has been for Western firms to scout tropical societies, seek out established "folk" remedies and subject these to testing by "Western science". In many cases, patents owned by multinationals are largely for isolating the active ingredients in a lab and going through rigorous protocols of testing and patent filing. While this is an important and expensive task that deserves credit, these are seldom truly independent discoveries from scratch. Never has the society that has discovered them through centuries of empirical trial and error received any recognition, much less any share of royalty.

Colin Scott writes: "With the upsurge of multidisciplinary interest in 'traditional ecological knowledge', models explicitly held by indigenous people in areas as diverse as forestry, fisheries, and physical geography are being paid increasing attention by Western scientists, who have in some cases established extremely productive long-term dialogues with local experts. The idea that local experts are often



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