The concept of “indigenous ways of knowing” is increasingly popular in North American universities. However, this enthusiasm is largely abstract, for educational institutions have not yet processed the implications. In Venezuela, my experience as an educator has been different. Members of the Bari tribe believe that the semen of multiple men can contribute to the formation of the embryo. Should this be respected as an “indigenous way of knowing”? I posit that it should not, and I urge North American institutions to take note.
In 2005, Richard Dawkins proposed to teach the stork theory of conception in public schools (1). When I first learned about this, I was baffled. How on Earth could Dawkins, the brilliant scientist, make such an outrageous proposal? I soon came to realize that this was typical Dawkins sarcasm. At the time, those pushing the Intelligent Design agenda were requesting educational reforms, so as to introduce new creationist theories in school curricula. According to the argument advanced by the Discovery Institute, to live in a truly democratic society, schools would have to “teach the controversy” (2) and so, Darwinism would have to be taught alongside Intelligent Design. Dawkins then weighed in on this issue, arguing that, if we are to teach such “controversies,” then we ought to teach an alternative to the conventional theory of human reproduction; schools should include the stork theory.
Dawkins won the day. With his stingy yet effective reductio ad absurdum, he made a point: not every topic is open to “teaching the controversy.” For his illustrative purposes, Dawkins chose a cartoonish example. Nobody actually believes storks deliver babies. In fact, although the image of the stork carrying the baby wrapped in diapers has powerful appeal in a variety of cultures, it is rather doubtful that anybody ever held such a belief. For that very reason, this colorful theory served as a perfect example for Dawkins’ affront against the new versions of creationism.
Yet, as an educator in Venezuela, I have encountered students who do have strange theories about human reproduction. The Bari Natives of Zulia State in Western Venezuela are a case in point. Members of this tribe believe that semen from multiple men can contribute to the formation of the embryo. In fact, it is common for Bari women to have multiple partners, and all of them play the role of father to the child the woman may conceive. This works to the advantage of such a child, to the extent that he or she may be nourished and protected by many men. This particular custom can only take place if, indeed, the whole community accepts that all those men have equally contributed their semen to the biological formation of that child.
The Bari are amongst a few other tribes (mostly in South America) who adhere to the concept of “partible paternity” (3). Anthropologists have long been fascinated by this concept, because they see great functionality in this particular belief. For the case of the Bari, anthropologist Stephen Beckerman has closely studied this phenomenon (4). Over the years, Beckerman discovered that the belief in multiple paternity is very useful for the Bari, and it is an optimate cultural adaptation that serves the purpose of protecting children in a very hostile environment, such as the Perija mountains of Venezuela.
As an educator, I perfectly understand that. But my role is to teach science and to train students in the quest for truth. The Bari belief in partible paternity may be functional, but it is not any closer to truth than the stork theory of conception. Some philosophers with pragmatist inclinations might believe that truths ought to be defined in terms of utility. By that standard, if a particular belief is useful for the Bari, then it is true. But, that is sloppy thinking. A statement is true if and only if it corresponds with facts.
Over the years, I have had Bari students argue with me whenever I lay the basic facts about human reproduction. I listen to what they have to say, and I give them every opportunity to explain why their belief in partible paternity serves a purpose in particular tribal settings. But, I do not give in. I present facts, and that is that. In exams, if such students answer that more than one man can contribute semen to the formation of an embryo, they get zero marks. Just as we all agree that to “teach the controversy” regarding the stork theory of reproduction is ridiculous, it seems to me that it would be equally risible to “teach the controversy” about partible paternity.
Until recently, I never had problems with this uncompromising stance. But now, things are beginning to change throughout educational institutions in Latin America. For years, governments in the region have promoted multicultural education, on account of Latin America’s traumatic colonial history. The argument is straight forward: colonialism has inflicted massive damage on the psyche of indigenous peoples, and that needs to change. Justice must be done, and this needs to be reflected in education. This implies decolonizing the curriculum, by focusing less on the Western canon, and giving more educational space to indigenous oral literature, arts, and so on.
This is all great. But, the push to decolonize the curriculum goes much further than that. Just as Canada, Australia, and other Western nations are now doing, this decolonizing of the curriculum also implies the acceptance and recognition of so-called “indigenous ways of knowing.” Such efforts would serve the purpose of doing what postcolonialist scholar Vish Visvanathan calls “cognitive justice”, i.e., the recognition of the right for different forms of knowledge to co-exist (5).
As far as I can see, in countries such as Canada, this movement in favor of “indigenous ways of knowing” still remains on a more abstract level. As Josh Dehaas describes it, there may be some veneer of magical thinking and new spirituality in Canadian universities as a result of this push to decolonize the curriculum (6). But so far, in the North American educational scene, there has been no real clash on the ground between science and “indigenous ways of knowing.”
In Venezuela, I have encountered this clash on a far more concrete level. A few Bari students have protested my “stubborn” adherence to the conventional theory of human reproduction, and school administrators are now feeling the heat of bureaucrats who want educators to accommodate indigenous religious beliefs, even if they directly clash with science. This implies giving marks to Bari students who answer in exams that two or more men can contribute semen to the formation of an embryo. It is one thing to enact religious rituals in class so as to make indigenous students feel welcome in seminars (as some Canadian universities now do); it is quite another to accept that folk theories of reproduction are as valid as scientific theories.
The concept of “cognitive justice” flies in the face of a fundamental principle of logic: Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction. Two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time. And yet, this is what “cognitive justice” amounts to. The Bari and the scientific theories of reproduction contradict each other; therefore, it is logically impossible to accept both of them as true. On an epistemological level, they cannot coexist, but somehow, school administrators want them to coexist.
The Bari belief is clearly false, and for that very reason, it cannot be called “knowledge.” This also applies to the wide array of beliefs that in North American academia, are beginning to be honored as “indigenous ways of knowing.” The word “knowledge” has a very specific philosophical definition, as laid out by Plato in the Theaetetus: justified true belief (7). Many of the alleged “indigenous ways of knowing” are either not true beliefs (they are demonstrably false, such as the Bari belief in partible paternity), or they are not justified (such beliefs are arrived at, not by way of empirical finding or reasoning, but by way of mysticism).
Now, of course anthropologists such as Beckerman have a point when they argue that concepts of partible paternity have an inner logic, and have been a useful adaptation for many indigenous tribes. But, I am afraid that education is about the quest for truth wherever it leads. Anything short of that would be a hypocritical disservice to students themselves. Indeed, I have had brilliant Bari students who are eager to continue on to medical school. Would I be helping their cause by telling them that their traditional theory of reproduction is as true as the scientific one? How is that going to help them when, as doctors, they investigate genetic diseases in their own communities? To erroneously believe that multiple men contribute genetic material for the formation of embryos, will certainly not help in treating disorders such as Huntington’s, which at some point was rampant in Western Venezuela.
So far, my colleagues and I have been able to resist, but I do not know if educators in Venezuela (and Latin America at large) will be able to do so for much longer. Ever more, populist politicians in the region appeal to indigenismo, and we have to come to feel the heat of this in classrooms. The same politicians who once laughed at the gringos for having even considered allowing religious fanatics teach that the Earth is 6,000 years old and humans coexisted with dinosaurs, now toy with the idea that, all in the name of postcolonialism, educators ought to accept indigenous beliefs as epistemologically on par with scientific theories.
This should be a cautionary tale for North American educators. Few school administrators have actually given enough thought to what the push for “indigenous ways of knowing” really implies. So far, North American educators pay lip service more than anything else. But, inevitably, if the current trend continues, the time will come when administrators will have to put to test all that lip service, and consider whether or not they are willing to accept the teaching of flat out wrong theories in classrooms. I hope they make the right decision on time.
- Dawkins, Richard & Cone, Jerry. One side can be wrong. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/sep/01/schools.research
- Scott EC, Branch G. Evolution: what’s wrong with ‘teaching the controversy’. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 2003 Oct 1;18(10):499-502.
- Walker RS, Flinn MV, Hill KR. Evolutionary history of partible paternity in lowland South America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2010 Nov 9;107(45):19195-200.
- Beckerman S, Lizarralde R, Ballew C, Schroeder S, Fingelton C, Garrison A, Smith H. The Bari partible paternity project: Preliminary results. Current Anthropology. 1998 Feb;39(1):164-8.
- Visvanathan, Shiv. The search for cognitive justice. http://www.india-seminar.com/2009/597/597_shiv_visvanathan.htm
- Dehaas, Josh. ‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’: Magical Thinking and Spirituality by Any One Name. https://quillette.com/2018/05/22/indigenous-ways-knowing-magical-thinking-spirituality-one-name/
- Plato, Theaetetus, 187b.
- Paradisi I, Hernández A, Arias S. Huntington disease mutation in Venezuela: age of onset, haplotype analyses and geographic aggregation. Journal of human genetics. 2008 Feb;53(2):127-35.