The Science of Tradition

Humans and human societies are complex and amazing and capable of multiple ways of knowing and propagating knowledge.

For years the mystery of how homing pigeons found their way home confounded scientists.  Accurate navigation in adverse weather over long distance flight is a skill that human technology is only now mastering. Yet, pigeons have been doing it for millennia.  Recent research by Hans-Peter Lipp from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, suggests that the pigeons are able to detect subtle changes in the Earth’s gravitational field. As Lipp says, “Birds must have a gyroscope in their brain.” To detect subtle changes in the Earth’s gravitational field, a highly technical apparatus is required. Yet human beings invented even an ordinary gyroscope only in the early 20th century.  How did a pigeon do this? Did the pigeon need to know the theory of gravitation? Did it have to fashion an instrument? Did it need textual knowledge? Does it even need to be able to verbally articulate how and why of its navigation to be able to do so?

No, a scientist would answer, this immense technical know-how is obtained via evolutionary processes. Before we come to the how, let us look at the what. An extremely sophisticated instrument, that doesn’t even easily fit into our five known senses, allows the pigeon to navigate its world. While scientific research is now trying to explain how pigeons fly home, their sophisticated apparatus needed no scientific theorizing for it to be developed and to work. Ordinary people, if not philosophers of science, have bought into the common place dogma of modern science: that the only way to do science is to follow the modern scientific method; that we can only understand something, if we can reduce it to theory and are able to verbalize it; that this verbalizing must be accessible in a textual form and be peer-reviewed; and that this textual articulation of scientific theory is necessary to build sophisticated technology. Yet, till a few years ago all of humankind’s theory-building could not have built the technology that an ordinary pigeon possesses.

Now we may say that the pigeon developed this through evolutionary processes over a long period of time. Let us ponder two questions from there. If a pigeon has such sophisticated technology, what non-textual, ultra-sensory technologies do human beings possess, who are an order of magnitude more sophisticated beings than pigeons. Secondly, what sophisticated non-textual knowledge do human societies accrue over a period of time via evolutionary and other processes? It is this knowledge, accrued over time, which I shall call tradition.

My mother got dengue fever some years ago. My father had recently passed away, and we were very worried for her. She was admitted to the hospital where they were taking regular platelet counts and the count had been dropping. She was being given medicines for dengue, but the platelet count was still dropping. She had become pale. My jijaji, brother-in-law,  said a friend told him the juice of the leaves of the papaya plant is very effective for dengue. We somehow obtained this juice and gave it to her. Overnight her platelet count dramatically improved.

Now we do not understand the processes that went into play into the discovery that papaya leaf juice is a cure for dengue. We also know that my anecdotal evidence that it works as a cure for dengue does not pass muster as a scientifically valid result. It reached us through the word of mouth, not via a journal article (scientific scripture) or from a doctor (communion with the scientific priesthood).  Nonetheless, if a friend told me his father had dengue, I would likely tell him to give him papaya juice leaf, just as a friend had told my jijaji. This result of my non-scientific knowledge would spread as a meme, perhaps the same way that it spread for unknown years.

It is also quite possible that my friend’s father did not get better after administering papaya juice. It is unlikely that he would spread the meme in that case. Over time, through a process of evolutionary experiments certain memes would die out while others would spread. The one’s that survived would possibly have been tested over years to become part of what I’d call traditional knowledge, a knowledge that was not acquired using modern scientific methods. But couldn’t we test this papaya-juice hypothesis via scientific double-blind studies today?  Again, there are two problems with this. The first, such modern scientific studies are very expensive. Who would fund such a study? Certainly not someone who sells papaya at a hundred rupees a kilogram, or one who sells or grows papaya trees. The low value decentralized papaya growing ecosystem could not fund this study. A for-profit medical company would not undertake to do this study, since they wouldn’t be able to patent papayas or papaya-leaf juice at the end of the process.

The way modern patent laws work, they would need to isolate and extract the “active ingredient” in papaya-leaf juice that cures dengue. Then, they could patent it as a chemical molecule and sell a pill that cures dengue.  To get this pill approved, they would then need to spend millions of dollars in several rounds of double-blind studies over some years to prove the results. This pill would likely cost 100x more than the papaya-leaf juice, for them to make up the cost of the research, testing and approval process.

But, for the pill to really succeed in the market, they would need to do two other things. They would need to hide the fact that they isolated this molecule from papaya-leaf juice and that patients could obtain the same cure by simply drinking the juice.  Who would pay 100x for a pill, when simple, inexpensive juice would obtain the same results? But even better, they would simply dismiss the natural cure as “unscientific quackery” and “superstition” or a “hoax.” If they were powerful enough, they could even outlaw giving “nature cures” for dengue, and insist on relying on “professional medical treatment” by a doctor. The doctor, no doubt, would be invited to fancy 5-star conferences, where they would be presented with the scientific evidence for the pills and where the quackery of “alternative medicine” would be soundly derided.

The second problem with the scientific double-blind studies is that they are, of necessity, of limited times and durations. The studies could not possibly test for every different local environmental condition or for different racial or genetic variations in people. It is also possible that the remedy that worked in-context in the papaya juice, without side-effects, may cause serious side effects, when the chemical compound is isolated as a drug.  It may also not be possible to study the effects over a prolonged period of time, or over multiple generations.  And as we know, even with a well-conducted study, the results may soon be overturned later with another study. This is true of many of the results of dietary and nutritional science.  At one point, scientific studies “proved” that mother’s milk was bad for babies and nursing mothers. This science was published and pushed by milk food companies.  So a natural process followed for thousands of years was deprecated on the basis of modern science. Later, after numerous health studies found otherwise, these results were overturned.

Now, the argument is that this is the natural progression in science—the results are always tentative and ever improving. But, the problem arises, when that tentative science is used for real life choices. I learnt that I was not breast fed as a child, my father was a modern and scientific man, who would have none of it. I was a sickly child, prone to catch cold and fevers easily. Was this correlated? I don’t know. But, I do know that mothers stopped breastfeeding babies, since science said so. Stopped using ghee and used hydrogenated oil, since science said so. Hydrogenated oil was pushed as the healthy alternative to ghee based on science.  When I was about ten, our family switched to dalda– hydrogenated vegetable oil, from traditional ghee. As it turns out, the latest research shows that the trans-fat produced by hydrogenation is “the worst type of dietary fat” there is.  How many millions of people were pushed into being heart patients by this science?  Now “science” grandly informs us that ghee is actually quite good for health. The problem arises, when traditional knowledge of hundreds of years is overturned by the arrogance of flimsy tentative knowledge based on limited isolated tests, because it comes stamped with the authority-claims of science.

I remember my grandfather, who lived to his healthy late 90s every day used to eat pinnis, essentially made up of ghee, flour and shakkar (traditional sugar).  When we told him it was bad for his health, he would laugh it off, saying one should eat what one wants. He would walk miles even in his 90s and had no health problems till the end of his life. Modern science would tell us that anecdotes don’t make for good research, and I agree. But “good research” apparently isn’t one to bet on either. The good research that said fat is bad, and pushed people to low fat diets, is now determining that fat wasn’t bad after all, and low fat diets may have caused greater health problems.  Over twenty years ago, I remember reading a book called “Dr. Abravanel’s Body Type Diet” that recommended diets based on a person’s “body type” that became very popular in the US, ending with some exercise postures.  Later, when I encountered Ayurveda and Yoga, I realized that the “body types” were based on Ayurvedic Doshas and exercise postures were Yoga Asanas, all used without acknowledgment.

Traditional knowledge accumulates both via a natural methodology comparable to the scientific method as well as by the researches of different healers and preceptors, who may cognize knowledge based on experience and intuition. The process of evolutionary memetic selection that I described is one of the ways the method works. The advantage of traditional knowledge is that it is rooted in the local environment, in local conditions. In most cases, it doesn’t try to push that specific local knowledge as universally applicable. Local plants, herbs, and materials are often more appropriate for maintenance of health. Traditional systems of building and architecture in the Himalayas, for instance, allows construction of houses that show better earthquake resistance than buildings created using the knowhow of modern construction and modern science.  This is true not only in India, but of traditional societies like the Incas that built amazing earthquake-proof structures. Traditional knowledge and solutions are also more rigorously tested by decades of accumulation and are often more natural and cheaper. Knowledge of side effects, if any, and how to counter them also comes packaged together.When I was a child growing up in Chandigarh, we often used to visit relatives in Kasauli, a nearby hill town. The children would wander off for hikes into the hills, but we had to be aware of one plant—bicchu butti. This plant would cause a stinging, itching sensation when touched. But nature provided its own remedies. There was this palak patta that also grew nearby. The juice of this plant, when rubbed, would quickly relieve the sting.  The local children knew this, and so we learnt. It was certainly more practical than trying to rush off to find the doctor.

The examples that I have given above are relatively simple. But rural, tribal communities have an immense store, and lore, of local knowledge. Some of these are very sophisticated. In an article on Indian calendars, I had spoken of how Hindu festivals are linked to the moon and thus to insect germination cycles. These in turn may be linked to local deities. Deities can most simply be understood as, ‘what is honored.’ For instance, there is a tradition in parts of India where craftsmen “worship” their tools. Tools are honored, naturally, since a craftsman depends on them. This may also be the time that tools undergo specific maintenance. When an unnatural, literally not based on nature, “God religion” converts the natives, many of these festivals and practices are destroyed, since worship is reserved for the “true God.” Thus religious conversion to monotheistic religion often leads to the destruction of local knowledge systems and practices. Much of the Incan knowledge too was lost, when they were brutally conquered and converted, since their knowledge was connected to their deities and traditions that were dubbed Satanic by the Christian conquerors and wiped out.  When I argue for traditional knowledge, I talk of human wisdom, not of religion with a claim of a historic god-revelation. Revelatory religion, with its claim of infallibility as a “message from God”, is not empirically grounded. It does not have the benefit of testability, which is present in the case of accumulated human traditional knowledge.

Modern science also, unfortunately, plays a role similar to monotheistic religion in some instances. This is when the scientific method is used with the arrogance of knowing rather than the humility of discovery.  Science, then become like a Church, complete with a priesthood with arcane rituals that the non-specialists or “laity” cannot dare question. Anything not stamped by the authority of science is then labeled “superstition”, a word that is lifted straight from Christian theology. Scriptural authority translates into that of “reputed” scientific journals that may be properly cited. Standards and certifications define the limits of interpretation and practice, so that anyone going outside these can be charged with heresy and be guilty of malpractice.  And it cannot wait to ban “superstitious” practices, even though it may not fully understand them yet.  We are made wary of our own intuition and experience, since these are subjective and fallible in comparison to the claimed objectivity and authority of modern science.

The reader must take care here to not assume the converse. I am not against modern science. I was brought up in a “modern” household, one that kept itself abreast of latest scientific news affecting our world and I was trained as a scientist and engineer. I have a great deal of respect for the scientific method. If I am arguing for the legitimacy of certain traditional ways of knowing or pointing out flaws in the scientific approach, which sometime tend to become hegemonic, it is not because I am against science or the scientific method. Instead, I extremely value it. The idea of experimentation and theory building has a lot of value; its fruits are evident, especially in physics, chemistry, engineering and technology. Rather I am arguing for co-existence, tolerance, and a certain humility from scientists and from the cheer leaders of science. (Often monotheistic arrogance about modern science as the ONLY way actually comes from non-scientists or “rationalists” of various hues from the humanities and social sciences). There exist other valid ways of knowing, and the process by which traditional knowledge accumulates and propagates also has validity.

For “lay” people, science comes as another anecdote. We don’t read the medical journals, but read a watered down, perhaps inaccurate news story. Or a friend might claim what the “latest research” says. The doctors we consult may be contradictory; their remedies may be ineffective.  What do we rely on to live our lives? On a practical basis, we may learn more from exemplars, like our grandparents, on how to live, than by the contradictory, variable claims of modern science that we often receive filtered down. Humans and human societies are complex and amazing and capable of multiple ways of knowing and propagating knowledge. It is worth remembering that even a pigeon possesses remarkable technology that modern science barely understands. An animal in the wild possesses knowledge of what to eat and what not to; it rarely falls sick and knows how to heal itself.  While the authority of modern science dazzles us, it is worth remembering that in our innate knowledge, in folk wisdom, our experience and our intuition, we have access to others pools of knowledge and ways of knowing. Even pigeons do.

Sankrant Sanu is an entrepreneur, author and researcher based in Seattle and Gurgaon. His essays in the book “Invading the Sacred” contested Western academic writing on Hinduism. He is a graduate of IIT Kanpur and the University of Texas and holds six technology patents. His latest book is “The English Medium Myth.” He blogs at .