An unnatural science

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It Is Extremely difficult to persuade people that science and technology are not the same. Try as I may, I almost invariably fail. But it is a distinction that is essential not only for the understanding of the nature of science, but also because it has very important implications for ethical issues in relation to science. The topic came to the fore again when I debated the issue as to whether indigenous knowledge is really science, with the anthropologist Paul Richards. Do local communities in, for example, Third World countries practice anything that is recognizable as science?

Richards, like many anthropologists and others in humanities, thinks that science is a very natural mode of thought, widely practiced throughout history by many societies and even by children and artists. I, by contrast, have argued that science is a most unnatural mode of thought and that it had but a single origin in Greece.

Richards' view is that science is essentially problem solving which is used in relation to dealing with the local environment, and thus scientific thought is widespread outside the Western scientific tradition. Many non-literate agricultural communities provide a special space in their society for experimentation with, for example agricultural methods, and that this is a form of science. In Sierre Leone, where rice is a staple diet, the local farmers have selected and mixed different varieties and carried out experiments with them to see which was the most suitable for their needs. Similarly, other non-literate societies have an intimate knowledge of the local varieties of birds and other animals, even those that have no direct value for them.

The essence of the debate is whether being involved in technology has similarities with doing science. My answer is an unequivocal "No". For science is about understanding how the world works, while technology is about making objects, changing the world. Science is about general principles while technology deals with particular problems. It is crucial to recognize that it is possible to have remarkable technology without any understanding of the scientific principles that underlie that technology. Science asks quite different questions to those related to technology whose interest is directed towards usefulness, while science is only interested in understanding and finding rules underlying the laws of behaviour of the physical and biological worlds. Most scientific publications are of no practical use whatsoever, but they do contribute to a social shared body of knowledge that can make enormous contributions to technology.

Support for my view comes from history, for science contributed nothing to technology until the late 18th century - the remarkable achievements of our ancient ancestors with agriculture and metal-making was based on inspired and imaginative trial and error but no understanding. All those great churches of the Renaissance were not based on an understanding of mechanics but practical science - imaginative trial and error. The invitation of the steam engine also was not based on science, nor was the invention of the bicycle. Again, all the animals around us, like elephants, and even ourselves, are remarkable machines that were constructed by trial and error during evolution: but evolution knows no science. To use a more prosaic example one can be a quite good cook and understand nothing of the processes involved.

Does experimentation imply science? Again, the answer is no. When I experiment with my forehand drive at tennis I am not doing science. In fact, there is hardly any area of our lives where we are not experimenting, whether it is trying out new ways of pursuing someone of the opposite sex or trying out new dishes. The way we learn about dealing with the world on a day- to-day basis is very much based on trial and error, and underlies common sense.

It was both somewhat strange, but also invigorating, that there was not one other person among the nearly 200 present who shared my views. I had failed again. But I could not resist thinking that perhaps their unconscious political correctness did not allow them to accept that there are many societies who just did not discover science. It is, after all, a most unnatural mode of thought and, as Einstein observed, it is remarkable that the discoveries of science were ever made at at all.

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College London.