East Africa is famously the birthplace of humankind and the location where our ancient hominin ancestors first invented sophisticated stone tools. This technology, dating back to 2.6m years ago, is then thought to have spread around Africa and the rest of the Old World later on.
But new research, published in Science, has uncovered an archaeological site in Algeria containing similar tools that may be as old as 2.44m years. The team, led by the archaeologist Mohamed Sahnouni, excavated stone tools at the site Ain Boucherit that they estimate are between 1.92m and 2.44m years old. This suggests that human ancestors spread to the region much earlier than previously thought or that the stone tool technology was simultaneously invented by earlier hominin species living outside east Africa.
The artefacts belong to the “Oldowan” – the oldest known stone tool industry. Rounded river cobbles, used as hammer stones, were used to flake other cobbles, turning them into simple cores. The flakes were then transformed into scrapers and various knives by resharpening their edges. Essentially this was a tool kit for processing animal tissue, such as marrow, bone and brain tissue, but also plant material. However, it is not known for sure which hominin species first created Oldowan tools – potentially Australopithecus or Homo habilis.
The stone tools are very similar to those of early Oldowan sites in East Africa. Bones at the site even have cut marks, where a stone tool has gouged into the bone during butchery. The cut marks may mean these hominins were actively hunting.
But we have only ever found early Oldowan tools in the east African rift valley before, more than 4,000km away. We have always assumed that it started there some 2.6m years ago, so we shouldn’t find it so far from its original home at that age unless we have missed something.
Many archaeologists do indeed suspect there is an unseen ghost somewhere in the machine. There have been discoveries of early hominin sites to the south, in Chad, that suggest that some of our earliest ancestors lived well beyond East Africa. Oldowan-like sites have also been found outside of Africa, in Georgia, beginning at 1.8m years ago – which seems surprisingly early.
The new discovery is telling us that our focus on East Africa as the birthplace of early humans is too narrow – we should be doing what Sahnouni and others have done all along and looking elsewhere. The same team recently published findings about another Oldowan site in Algeria that is about 1.75m years old, but to find early Oldowan tools well over half a million years earlier is a bit of a game changer.
It all hinges on how reliable that 2.44m-year-old date really is. Dating specialists will be scrutinising the details very carefully. According to the paper, four different techniques were used. Palaeomagnetic dating measures the direction and intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field in sediments – this is locked into rocks when they form, helping to tell us how old they are.
The team found that the upper level mapped onto a short period of normal polarity taking place between 1.77m and 1.94m years ago. The lower level’s sediments fitted into a long period of reversed direction at between 1.94m and 2.58m years ago.
To get more precise dates, the team turned to a dating technique called electron spin resonance dating, which measures radioactive decay in quartz sand grains. However, they used a less common version of the technique that was operating close to its upper limit of reliability at this age range. The measurement delivered an age of 1.92m years old, younger than suggested by paleomagnetism.
There are some concerns about how suitable this last method is but the team has been honest about that. They also compared the dates with extinction times of animals present at the site, which suggested the date wasn’t impossible.
To get a better idea of the maximum age of the tools, they used a technique for estimating the rates of sedimentation – basically how long the different layers at the site took to build up. You have to throw in some fancy statistical work though, and map it onto the palaeomagnetic results. Extrapolating backwards in time, the team calculated that the actual age of the lower level is 2.44m years old. I suspect dating specialists will be looking at this carefully.
Now to our ghost. The oldest tools ever found outside of Africa are the ones from Georgia dated to 1.8m years ago. There is a small Oldowan-like site in Pakistan from around the same time and more core-and-flake sites in east China at 1.66m years ago. If the Georgian site represents the first move out of Africa, then these early African migrants got to Pakistan and China extremely quickly.
In Georgia, the tools may have been made by early Homo erectus, which dates back to about 1.8m years ago. As there is a Homo erectus specimen from China dated to 1.6m years old, it is easy to assume that Homo erectus must have been the species that spread the tool technology around the world – and much quicker than we had thought.
But we cannot be sure of that. What if our ghost was an earlier hominin species from Africa predating Homo erectus – such as Homo habilis? Perhaps the Oldowan actually began earlier than 2.6m years ago, and was already widespread throughout Africa by 2.4m years ago.
Maybe our mysterious hominin began to migrate out from Africa before 1.8m years ago, and carried its core-and-flake industry eastwards. That would certainly give it more time to cover those huge distances. Perhaps Homo erectus only migrated eastwards out of Africa later, following in the footsteps of an earlier traveller that we know nothing about.
So that’s a lot of maybes, but then nobody expected there to be Oldowan tools in Georgia when they were first found. It caused a lot of controversy, but now most archaeologists are comfortable with the finding. The Georgian archaeologists went back, did more work and proved their case. I don’t doubt Sahnouni and his team will be doing the same.
ANCIENT WIPEOUT Preliminary evidence indicates that a low-altitude meteor explosion around 3,700 years ago destroyed cities, villages and farmland north of the Dead Sea (shown in the background above) rendering the region uninhabitable for 600 to 700 years. Fightbegin/istock.com
DENVER — A superheated blast from the skies obliterated cities and farming settlements north of the Dead Sea around 3,700 years ago, preliminary findings suggest.
Radiocarbon dating and unearthed minerals that instantly crystallized at high temperatures indicate that a massive airburst caused by a meteor that exploded in the atmosphere instantaneously destroyed civilization in a 25-kilometer-wide circular plain called Middle Ghor, said archaeologist Phillip Silvia. The event also pushed a bubbling brine of Dead Sea salts over once-fertile farm land, Silvia and his colleagues suspect.
People did not return to the region for 600 to 700 years, said Silvia, of Trinity Southwest University in Albuquerque. He reported these findings at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research on November 17.
Excavations at five large Middle Ghor sites, in what’s now Jordan, indicate that all were continuously occupied for at least 2,500 years until a sudden, collective collapse toward the end of the Bronze Age. Ground surveys have located 120 additional, smaller settlements in the region that the researchers suspect were also exposed to extreme, collapse-inducing heat and wind. An estimated 40,000 to 65,000 people inhabited Middle Ghor when the cosmic calamity hit, Silvia said.
The most comprehensive evidence of destruction caused by a low-altitude meteor explosion comes from the Bronze Age city of Tall el-Hammam, where a team that includes Silvia has been excavating for the last 13 years. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the mud-brick walls of nearly all structures suddenly disappeared around 3,700 years ago, leaving only stone foundations.
What’s more, the outer layers of many pieces of pottery from same time period show signs of having melted into glass. Zircon crystals in those glassy coats formed within one second at extremely high temperatures, perhaps as hot as the surface of the sun, Silvia said.
High-force winds created tiny, spherical mineral grains that apparently rained down on Tall el-Hammam, he said. The research team has identified these minuscule bits of rock on pottery fragments at the site.
Examples exist of exploding space rocks that have wreaked havoc on Earth (SN: 5/13/17, p. 12). An apparent meteor blast over a sparsely populated Siberian region in 1908, known as the Tunguska event, killed no one but flattened 2,000 square kilometers of forest. And a meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013 injured more than 1,600 people, mainly due to broken glass from windows that were blown out.
History repeating itself over and over, Iraq and its Capital City Baghdad know how the first to pay is as always those that the mob instinctively understand as being the seat of power. Knowledge that is; so destroying the libraries was like getting rid of the symbols of the civilisation. However, unlike their predecessors, the latest invaders as elaborated here in this article are helping in the endeavour to reconstruct the most significant collateral damage of all through the initiative of an Artist Rebuilding war destroyed Baghdad Library.
“168:01,” an installation now on view at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, encourages visitors to donate books to the University of Baghdad
In 2003, at the start of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, looters set fire to the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad. The college’s vast collection of 70,000 books was destroyed, and 15 years later, students still have few titles at their disposal. So, as Hadani Ditmars reports for the Art Newspaper, an installation at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is asking the public to help replenish the school’s lost library.
“168:01,” as the project by Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal is titled, is a stark white display featuring bookshelves filled with 1,000 blank books. Visitors are encouraged to replenish the volumes with titles from an Amazon wish list compiled by the college’s students and faculty; donations can be made by sending the books on the wish list to the museum, or by gifting funds to the project through Bilal’s website.
In exchange for their donations, visitors are able to take home one of the exhibition’s white volumes that represent a rich cultural heritage stripped bare by years of conflict. In turn, the colorful books they contributed to the project will ultimately be sent to the College of Fine Arts.
“I wanted a simple visual representation of what’s been lost,” Bilal told Murray Whyte of the Toronto Star last month. “But what’s important is that, over time, this place comes back to life.”
Though Bilal’s project is focused on recouping the losses of one tragic event, “168:01” calls attention to a long history of cultural destruction in Iraq. The installation’s title refers to the destruction of the House of Wisdom, or Bayt al-Hikma, a grand library possibly founded by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur in the 8th century. Legend has it that when the Mongols laid siege to Baghdad in 1258, the library’s entire collection of manuscripts and books were thrown into the Tigris. The river is said to have run black for seven days—or 168 hours—due to all the ink seeping into its waters. But the “o1” in the installation’s title is meant to signify a new era of restoration in Iraq—one that looks beyond centuries of loss.
Bilal, who came to America as a refugee in the wake of the First Gulf War, often reflects upon the traumas that have taken place in the country of his birth. In one of his best known works, the 2007 project “Domestic Tension,” the artist sequestered himself in a gallery space and broadcasted live on the internet. Viewers could chat with him at all hours—and opt to shoot him with a robotically controlled paintball gun.
“168:01,” by contrast, seeks to move forward from violence. “To be completely frank, when we talk about war and destruction, when you try to bring that image here, I don’t think it resonates,” Bilal told Whyte of the Star. “There’s an obsession, I think, with images of conflict — when war is taking place, you want to engage people with that. But what happens post-conflict? Either you move on, or you look and say, what needs to be done now? I want to reflect the time now, and now is about rebuilding.”
“168:01” was first conceptualized with the Art Gallery of Windsor and curator Srimoyeee Mitra for Bilal’s major solo exhibition at the museum in 2016. The project has since appeared in various iterations at other museums and galleries around the globe—from a tall tower of books at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool to an entire room at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts.
Though the installation at the Aga Khan Museum winds down Sunday, it will be rebuilt for the National Veterans Art Museum Triennial in Chicago next summer.
To date, thanks to visitors who have donated to the project, Bilal has been able to ship 1,700 texts back to Baghdad, contributing to the effort to rebuild the College of Fine Arts’ once prolific collection.
The civilization of ancient Egypt has always been and still is indebted to the Nile River and its dependable water supply that allowed amongst all staple food crops, wheat and barley to be farmed. These are grown throughout the Delta region and all along the banks of the Nile, more recently in the newly reclaimed areas of the western desert. Egypt, the most populous country in the MENA region had for centuries, wheat as a central component of the typical diet of its inhabitants.
The country has lately not only been the largest importer of wheat but also the largest wheat consumer and bread eater per capita in the world. Hence, wheat represents almost 10% of the total value of agricultural production and about 20% of all agricultural imports. However, in 2015, domestic wheat was noticed to be declining as this was found to be less profitable by its producers due mainly to the intervention of Egypt’s government-subsidized bread program. There seem to be an increasing need to reform but at the same time for some Research and Development in all segment of wheat farming. Research on all Genetic Parameters for yield and its components in Bread Wheat would obviously be top of local academic institution’s agenda.
This article of the International Network of Natural Sciences dwells on a piece of research titled An Estimation of Genetic Parameters for yield and its components in bread wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) genotypes under pedigree selection as per a study of Abdel Aziz Nasr Sharaan, Kamal Hassan Ghallab, Mohamed Abdel Salam M. Eid of the Department of Agronomy, Fayoum University, Egypt and published by IJAAR on July 31, 2018.
Genetic Parameters for yield and its components in Bread Wheat
Grain yield is a complex trait and is greatly influenced by various environmental conditions. A 3-year field investigation was carried out to estimate genetic parameters for yield and its related traits of wheat under selection in reclaimed soils conditions. Three field experiments were executed at the Experimental Farm of the Faculty of Agriculture, Fayoum University at Demo (new reclaimed sandy loam soil), Fayoum Governorate, during 2012/2013, 2013/2014, 2014/2015 growing seasons in randomized complete block design (RCBD) with three replications. Results revealed that mean square values were highly significant for all studied traits in all seasons of the experiments, indicating the presence of sufficient variability among the investigated genotypes and gave several opportunities for wheat improvement.
Great correspondence was observed between genotypic coefficients of variation and phenotypic coefficients of variation in every one of the traits. The coefficients of variation were high for no. fertile tillers plant-1 (NFT), grains spike-1 (GS), grains weight spike-1 (GWS), grain yield plant-1 (GYP), spikes m-2 (NSM), grain yield (GY), and harvest index (HI). In addition to, Moderate were recorded for heading date (HD) and spike length (SL) in the all seasons, and low were obtained for days to physiological maturity (DPM) in all seasons. Heritability was greater than 80% for all studied traits whereas genetic advance as a percentage of mean (GAM %) ranged from 12.22 (SS) to 77.00 (GY) in the 1st season and from 15.42 & 12.69 (DPM) to 112.07 & 68.35 (GYP) in 2nd and 3rdseasons.
“Scientific future shaped by ICT”: Dubai Science Park Director in a TahawulTech‘s article by James Dartnell is about how and why Marwan Abdulaziz Janahi, the Dubai Science Park’s executive director made such a statement at a time of non-negligible uncertainty not only for that country but for the whole region’s main contribution to the world economy, i.e. hydrocarbons. The highly mediatised UAE’s growing ambitions in Space for notably building a new city on Mars does perhaps come handy in helping to do away with some degree of that uncertainty as well as other things, but what about its ambitions with respect to developing an industry. What about holding on to its present and possibly foreseeable future’s success story in local and regional retail and trade centre? Here is TahawulTech’s article.
“Scientific future shaped by ICT”: Dubai Science Park Director
The executive director of Dubai Science Park has said that the future of the Middle East’s scientific industry will be significantly affected by swift technological advancements.
Marwan Abdulaziz Janahi, who has been confirmed as a judge for tahawultech.com’s inaugural Future Enterprise Awards on 14th October at Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel in Dubai, said that IT was now not only saving lives, but also advancing the pace of scientific research.
Dubai Science Park’s work focuses around four main areas of science: human science, plant science, energy and environmental science, and Janahi believes that all are now being inextricably linked with and transformed by technology. “Across all of these areas, technology is an important component,” he says. “There is more and more of an overlap between ICT and these sectors. The essence of managing green buildings is a building management system, which is founded on ICT. Using data to predict human conditions is another prime example of where technology is needed.”
[Marwan Abdulaziz Janahi is part of the judging panel of TahawulTech.com Future Enterprise Awards on 14th October 2018 at Emirates Towers, Dubai.| Learn more about TahawulTech.com Future Enterprise Awards.]
While Janahi believes that “all” industries are being disrupted by technology, he says that the healthcare industry in particular sets to benefit citizens through its transformation. “The changes we’re seeing in digital health are particularly impressive,” he says. “Data that sits within servers can now be mined and used for forecasting, while telemedicine gives allows people who don’t have easy access to medical facilities a chance to be looked after. Even regular GP checkups can be done remotely.”
He also believes healthcare transformation will have a significant knock-on effect on other verticals. “There will be a huge disruption in the insurance industry, and managing the journey of patient, which today is all done offline,” he says. “Wearables will be huge, while technologies for things like blood sugar monitoring that connect to smartphones will have a huge impact. The human and environmental sciences will see the biggest disruption in the scientific field.”
Janahi is a chairing member of the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Equipment Task force of the Dubai Industrial Strategy 2030, which was announced in 2016. The strategy focuses on five other key areas – aerospace, maritime, aluminum and fabricated metals, food and beverages and machinery and equipment – and aims to transform Dubai from being a service-based economy, to one that creates “25%” of its GDP from industrial activity.
“The bulk of Dubai’s GDP comes from logistics, finance and tourism,” Janahi says. “Manufacturing currently creates around 9-10% of it, and we want to increase that number substantially. We want these kinds of enablers to make Dubai more successful, with opportunities for the short, medium and long-term.”
Janahi is keen to broaden his technological knowledge by participating as a judge in tahawultech.com’s Future Enterprise Awards. “I’m really excited to be a judge,” he says. “I’ve seen more and more technology adopted by the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, but for me it’s interesting to see how technology can be deployed, and how we can learn from other industries.”
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The French say “La technologie est neutre ! Tout dépend de l’usage que l’on en fait“, but what about Science? Here is Rohan Deb Roy, of University of Reading‘s view on the issue. Not all international collaborations are equal. We selected the above picture of US Army Africa/Flickr, CC BYso as to best illustrate this article. Does it really matter in this day and age who owns science and technology? Please read on and comment. Dr Rohan Deb Roy, Lecturer in South Asian History at the University of Reading since 2015 todate says the following.
I am particularly interested in the histories of science and medicine, histories of empire and colonialism, environmental history, and animal history. I am the author of Malarial Subjects: Empire, Medicine and Nonhumans in British India, 1820-1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) and co-editor (with Guy Attewell) of Locating the Medical: Explorations in South Asian History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018). I have put together a co-edited special issue on “Nonhuman Empires” (with Sujit Sivasundaram) for the journal “Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East”, (35.1, May 2015). I received my PhD from University College London (2009), and have held postdoctoral fellowships at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta (2009-2010), at the University of Cambridge (2011-2013), and at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin (2013-2015). I have been a Barnard-Columbia Weiss International Visiting Scholar in the History of Science . . .
Sir Ronald Ross had just returned from an expedition to Sierra Leone. The British doctor had been leading efforts to tackle the malaria that so often killed English colonists in the country, and in December 1899 he gave a lecture to the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce about his experience. In the words of a contemporary report, he argued that “in the coming century, the success of imperialism will depend largely upon success with the microscope”.
Ross, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his malaria research, would later deny he was talking specifically about his own work. But his point neatly summarised how the efforts of British scientists was intertwined with their country’s attempt to conquer a quarter of the world.
Ross was very much a child of empire, born in India and later working there as a surgeon in the imperial army. So when he used a microscope to identify how a dreaded tropical disease was transmitted, he would have realised that his discovery promised to safeguard the health of British troops and officials in the tropics. In turn, this would enable Britain to expand and consolidate its colonial rule.
Ross’s words also suggest how science was used to argue imperialism was morally justified because it reflected British goodwill towards colonised people. It implied that scientific insights could be redeployed to promote superior health, hygiene and sanitation among colonial subjects. Empire was seen as a benevolent, selfless project. As Ross’s fellow Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling described it, it was the “white man’s burden” to introduce modernity and civilised governance in the colonies.
But science at this time was more than just a practical or ideological tool when it came to empire. Since its birth around the same time as Europeans began conquering other parts of the world, modern Western science was inextricably entangled with colonialism, especially British imperialism. And the legacy of that colonialism still pervades science today.
As a result, recent years have seen an increasing number of calls to “decolonise science”, even going so far as to advocate scrapping the practice and findings of modern science altogether. Tackling the lingering influence of colonialism in science is much needed. But there are also dangers that the more extreme attempts to do so could play into the hands of religious fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists. We must find a way to remove the inequalities promoted by modern science while making sure its huge potential benefits work for everyone, instead of letting it become a tool for oppression.
The gracious gift of science
When a slave in an early 18th-century Jamaican plantation was found with a supposedly poisonous plant, his European overlords showed him no mercy. Suspected of conspiring to cause disorder on the plantation, he was treated with typical harshness and hanged to death. The historical records don’t even mention his name. His execution might also have been forgotten forever if it weren’t for the scientific enquiry that followed. Europeans on the plantation became curious about the plant and, building on the slave’s “accidental finding”, they eventually concluded it wasn’t poisonous at all.
Instead it became known as a cure for worms, warts, ringworm, freckles and cold swellings, with the name Apocynum erectum. As the historian Pratik Chakrabarti argues in a recent book, this incident serves as a neat example of how, under European political and commercial domination, gathering knowledge about nature could take place simultaneously with exploitation.
For imperialists and their modern apologists, science and medicine were among the gracious gifts from the European empires to the colonial world. What’s more, the 19th-century imperial ideologues saw the scientific successes of the West as a way to allege that non-Europeans were intellectually inferior and so deserved and needed to be colonised.
In the incredibly influential 1835 memo “Minute on Indian Education”, British politician Thomas Macaulay denounced Indian languages partially because they lacked scientific words. He suggested that languages such as Sanskrit and Arabic were “barren of useful knowledge”, “fruitful of monstrous superstitions” and contained “false history, false astronomy, false medicine”.
Such opinions weren’t confined to colonial officials and imperial ideologues and were often shared by various representatives of the scientific profession. The prominent Victorian scientist Sir Francis Galton argued that the “the average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own (the Anglo Saxon)”. Even Charles Darwin implied that “savage races” such as “the negro or the Australian” were closer to gorillas than were white Caucasians.
Yet 19th-century British science was itself built upon a global repertoire of wisdom, information, and living and material specimens collected from various corners of the colonial world. Extracting raw materials from colonial mines and plantations went hand in hand with extracting scientific information and specimens from colonised people.
The British and Natural History museums were founded using the personal collection of doctor and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane. To gather these thousands of specimens, Sloane had worked intimately with the East India, South Sea and Royal African companies, which did a great deal to help establish the British Empire.
The scientists who used this evidence were rarely sedentary geniuses working in laboratories insulated from imperial politics and economics. The likes of Charles Darwin on the Beagle and botanist Sir Joseph Banks on the Endeavour literally rode on the voyages of British exploration and conquest that enabled imperialism.
Other scientific careers were directly driven by imperial achievements and needs. Early anthropological work in British India, such as Sir Herbert Hope Risley’s Tribes and Castes of Bengal, published in 1891, drew upon massive administrative classifications of the colonised population.
Map-making operations including the work of the Great Trigonometrical Survey in South Asia came from the need to cross colonial landscapes for trade and military campaigns. The geological surveys commissioned around the world by Sir Roderick Murchison were linked with intelligence gathering on minerals and local politics.
Efforts to curb epidemic diseases such as plague, smallpox and cholera led to attempts to discipline the routines, diets and movements of colonial subjects. This opened up a political process that the historian David Arnold has termed the “colonisation of the body”. By controlling people as well as countries, the authorities turned medicine into a weapon with which to secure imperial rule.
New technologies were also put to use expanding and consolidating the empire. Photographs were used for creating physical and racial stereotypes of different groups of colonised people. Steamboats were crucial in the colonial exploration of Africa in the mid-19th century. Aircraft enabled the British to surveil and then bomb rebellions in 20th-century Iraq. The innovation of wireless radio in the 1890s was shaped by Britain’s need for discreet, long-distance communication during the South African war.
In these ways and more, Europe’s leaps in science and technology during this period both drove and were driven by its political and economic domination of the rest of the world. Modern science was effectively built on a system that exploited millions of people. At the same time it helped justify and sustain that exploitation, in ways that hugely influenced how Europeans saw other races and countries. What’s more, colonial legacies continue to shape trends in science today.
Modern colonial science
Since the formal end of colonialism, we have become better at recognising how scientific expertise has come from many different countries and ethnicities. Yet former imperial nations still appear almost self-evidently superior to most of the once-colonised countries when it comes to scientific study. The empires may have virtually disappeared, but the cultural biases and disadvantages they imposed have not.
You just have to look at the statistics on the way research is carried out globally to see how the scientific hierarchy created by colonialism continues. The annual rankings of universities are published mostly by the Western world and tend to favour its own institutions. Academic journals across the different branches of science are mostly dominated by the US and western Europe.
It is unlikely that anyone who wishes to be taken seriously today would explain this data in terms of innate intellectual superiority determined by race. The blatant scientific racism of the 19th century has now given way to the notion that excellence in science and technology are a euphemism for significant funding, infrastructure and economic development.
Because of this, most of Asia, Africa and the Caribbean is seen either as playing catch-up with the developed world or as dependent on its scientific expertise and financial aid. Some academics have identified these trends as evidence of the persisting “intellectual domination of the West” and labelled them a form of “neo-colonialism”.
Various well-meaning efforts to bridge this gap have struggled to go beyond the legacies of colonialism. For example, scientific collaboration between countries can be a fruitful way of sharing skills and knowledge, and learning from the intellectual insights of one another. But when an economically weaker part of the world collaborates almost exclusively with very strong scientific partners, it can take the form of dependence, if not subordination.
A 2009 study showed that about 80% of Central Africa’s research papers were produced with collaborators based outside the region. With the exception of Rwanda, each of the African countries principally collaborated with its former coloniser. As a result, these dominant collaborators shaped scientific work in the region. They prioritised research on immediate local health-related issues, particularly infectious and tropical diseases, rather than encouraging local scientists to also pursue the fuller range of topics pursued in the West.
In the case of Cameroon, local scientists’ most common role was in collecting data and fieldwork while foreign collaborators shouldered a significant amount of the analytical science. This echoed a 2003 study of international collaborations in at least 48 developing countries that suggested local scientists too often carried out “fieldwork in their own country for the foreign researchers”.
In the same study, 60% to 70% of the scientists based in developed countries did not acknowledge their collaborators in poorer countries as co-authors in their papers. This is despite the fact they later claimed in the survey that the papers were the result of close collaborations.
Mistrust and resistance
International health charities, which are dominated by Western countries, have faced similar issues. After the formal end of colonial rule, global health workers long appeared to represent a superior scientific culture in an alien environment. Unsurprisingly, interactions between these skilled and dedicated foreign personnel and the local population have often been characterised by mistrust.
For example, during the smallpox eradication campaigns of the 1970s and the polio campaign of past two decades, the World Health Organization’s representatives found it quite challenging to mobilise willing participants and volunteers in the interiors of South Asia. On occasions they even saw resistance on religious grounds from local people. But their stringent responses, which included the close surveillance of villages, cash incentives for identifying concealed cases and house-to-house searches, added to this climate of mutual suspicion. These experiences of mistrust are reminiscent of those created by strict colonial policies of plague control.
Western pharmaceutical firms also play a role by carrying out questionable clinical trials in the developing world where, as journalist Sonia Shah puts it, “ethical oversight is minimal and desperate patients abound”. This raises moral questions about whether multinational corporations misuse the economic weaknesses of once-colonised countries in the interests of scientific and medical research.
To finally leave behind the baggage of colonialism, scientific collaborations need to become more symmetrical and founded on greater degrees of mutual respect. We need to decolonise science by recognising the true achievements and potential of scientists from outside the Western world. Yet while this structural change is necessary, the path to decolonisation has dangers of its own.
Science must fall?
In October 2016, a YouTube video of students discussing the decolonisation of science went surprisingly viral. The clip, which has been watched more than 1m times, shows a student from the University of Cape Town arguing that science as a whole should be scrapped and started again in a way that accommodates non-Western perspectives and experiences. The student’s point that science cannot explain so-called black magic earned the argument much derision and mockery. But you only have to look at the racist and ignorant comments left beneath the video to see why the topic is so in need of discussion.
Inspired by the recent “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign against the university legacy of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, the Cape Town students became associated with the phrase “science must fall”. While it may be interestingly provocative, this slogan isn’t helpful at a time when government policies in a range of countries including the US, UK and India are already threatening to impose major limits on science research funding.
More alarmingly, the phrase also runs the risk of being used by religious fundamentalists and cynical politicians in their arguments against established scientific theories such as climate change. This is a time when the integrity of experts is under fire and science is the target of political manouevring. So polemically rejecting the subject altogether only plays into the hands of those who have no interest in decolonisation.
Alongside its imperial history, science has also inspired many people in the former colonial world to demonstrate remarkable courage, critical thinking and dissent in the face of established beliefs and conservative traditions. These include the iconic Indian anti-caste activist Rohith Vemula and the murdered atheist authors Narendra Dabholkar and Avijit Roy. Demanding that “science must fall” fails to do justice to this legacy.
The call to decolonise science, as in the case of other disciplines such as literature, can encourage us to rethink the dominant image that scientific knowledge is the work of white men. But this much-needed critique of the scientific canon carries the other danger of inspiring alternative national narratives in post-colonial countries.
For example, some Indian nationalists, including the country’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, have emphasised the scientific glories of an ancient Hindu civilisation. They argue that plastic surgery, genetic science, aeroplanes and stem cell technology were in vogue in India thousands of years ago. These claims are not just a problem because they are factually inaccurate. Misusing science to stoke a sense of nationalist pride can easily feed into jingoism.
Meanwhile, various forms of modern science and their potential benefits have been rejected as unpatriotic. In 2016, a senior Indian government official even went so far as to claim that “doctors prescribing non-Ayurvedic medicines are anti-national”.
The path to decolonisation
Attempts to decolonise science need to contest jingoistic claims of cultural superiority, whether they come from European imperial ideologues or the current representatives of post-colonial governments. This is where new trends in the history of science can be helpful.
For example, instead of the parochial understanding of science as the work of lone geniuses, we could insist on a more cosmopolitan model. This would recognise how different networks of people have often worked together in scientific projects and the cultural exchanges that helped them – even if those exchanges were unequal and exploitative.
But if scientists and historians are serious about “decolonising science” in this way, they need to do much more to present the culturally diverse and global origins of science to a wider, non-specialist audience. For example, we need to make sure this decolonised story of the development of science makes its way into schools.
Students should also be taught how empires affected the development of science and how scientific knowledge was reinforced, used and sometimes resisted by colonised people. We should encourage budding scientists to question whether science has done enough to dispel modern prejudices based on concepts of race, gender, class and nationality.
Decolonising science will also involve encouraging Western institutions that hold imperial scientific collections to reflect more on the violent political contexts of war and colonisation in which these items were acquired. An obvious step forward would be to discuss repatriating scientific specimens to former colonies, as botanists working on plants originally from Angola but held primarily in Europe have done. If repatriation isn’t possible, then co-ownership or priority access for academics from post-colonial countries should at least be considered.
This is also an opportunity for the broader scientific community to critically reflect on its own profession. Doing so will inspire scientists to think more about the political contexts that have kept their work going and about how changing them could benefit the scientific profession around the world. It should spark conversations between the sciences and other disciplines about their shared colonial past and how to address the issues it creates.
Unravelling the legacies of colonial science will take time. But the field needs strengthening at a time when some of the most influential countries in the world have adopted a lukewarm attitude towards scientific values and findings. Decolonisation promises to make science more appealing by integrating its findings more firmly with questions of justice, ethics and democracy. Perhaps, in the coming century, success with the microscope will depend on success in tackling the lingering effects of imperialism.