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Science, Technology and Human Development

Science, Technology and Human Development
By Vijay Bedekar, PhD

Wednesday, 21 February 2001

Man, the Homo sapiens has existed and even flourished for millions of years and it is largely believed that he civilizationally advanced from a food-gathering jungleman to e-commercial urban man of today. However, the emphasis on science and technology, almost to the oblivion of human spiritual values, leading to the identification of science and technology to that of the past 300 years – the period of Enlightenment and Industrialization of the Western Society – needs to be corrected. Due to this, Science and Technology is invariably taken as synonymous with and an inseparable part of Human development. This approach hides the undesirable, ugly and darker side of Science, Technology and growth achieved in the Western world. UNESCO states this explicitly in the Preamble of Declaration on Science and the use of Scientific Knowledge,1

In addition to their demonstrable benefits the applications of scientific advances and the development and expansion of human activity have also led to environmental degradation and technological disasters, and have contributed to social imbalance or exclusion. As one examplescientific progress has made it possible to manufacture sophisticated weapons, including conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. There is now an opportunity to call for a reduction in the resources allocated to the development and manufacture of new weapons and to encourage the conversion, at least partially, of military production and research facilities to civilian use. The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed the year 2000 as International Year for the Culture of Peace and the year 2001 as United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations as steps towards a lasting peace; the scientific community, together with other sectors of society, can and should play an essential role in this process.

The correction should first come from the admission of the injustice of offsetting of millions of years of human existence with the last 300 years, which latter has also generated a linear model and mindset of human – even technological – progress. Unconsciously, because of this mind-set, we have come to use phraseology, conceptualizations and parameters of science, technology and human progress and development as derived from the period of last 300 years of Western Science. Earlier Cultures and non-Western Civilizations were equally creative in evolving their Science and Technology to suit their basic needs. Claude Levi-Strauss’ words would be worth remembering,2

When we speak of world civilization, we have in mind no single period, no single group of men: we are employing an abstract conception, to which we attribute a moral or logical significance -moral, if we are thinking of an aim to be pursued by existing societies; logical, if we are using the one term to cover the common features which analysis may reveal in the different cultures. In both cases, we must not shut our eyes to the fact that the concept of world civilization is very sketchy and imperfect, and that its intellectual and emotional content is tenuous. To attempt to assess cultural contributions with all the weight of countless centuries behind them, rich with the thoughts and sorrows, hopes and toil of the men and women who brought them into being, by reference to the sole yard-stick of a world civilization which is still a hollow shell, would be greatly to impoverish them, draining away their life-blood and leaving nothing but the bare bones behind. The true contribution of a culture consists, not in the list of inventions, which it has personally produced, but in its difference from others. The sense of gratitude and respect which each single member of a given culture can and should feel towards all others can only be based on the conviction that the other cultures differ from his own in countless ways, even if the ultimate essence of these differences eludes him or if, in spite of his best efforts, he can reach no more than an imperfect understanding of them. The notion of world civilization can only be accepted therefore, as a sort of limiting concept or as an epitome of a highly complex process. There is not, and can never be, a world civilization in the absolute sense in which that term is often used, since civilization implies, and indeed consists in, the coexistence of cultures exhibiting the maximum possible diversities. A world civilization could, in fact, represent no more than a worldwide coalition of cultures, each of which would preserve its own originality.

Such societies existed and survived happily for centuries in the non-European world without damaging the environment in which they lived. Science, Technology and the Human Development brought by it do not function in vacuum. Nor can the human beings exist isolated in the society. They interact and depend on each other for smooth functioning of life. These earlier civilizations built houses, cooked food, built ships, observed planets, solved mathematical equations and even had highly creative fine and performing arts. They also had their own Medicine, Surgery and science of Language. They learnt this by their successes and failures. Science and Technology evolved through this process was appropriate to their needs. This also gave birth to their social and cultural institutions and belief – systems. Collectively we call this human activity as Culture or distinctive Life style of these respective peoples or Civilizations. Popularly they are called as Indigenous Peoples and their Culture as Indigenous Cultures. On the time scale, these Civilizations precede the present Civilization. They became past and we became present. They became old and we became new. They became backward and we became modern. Thus modern means something new, useful, good, viable and progressive as against past or old becomes, primitive, useless, ossified and backward- incapable of progress. Linear, sequential and anthropomorphic model strengthens this viewpoint. Period of past became the period of infancy. So development or growth became synonymous with modernity and modernity means westernization. S.N.Eisenstadt, a modernization theorist has put it bluntly3

Historically, modernization is the process of change toward those types of social, economic, and political systems that have developed in Western Europe and North America from seventeenth century to the nineteenth…

This not only gives superior states to Western cultures and Science and Technology but a license to civilize non-Western cultures branding them backward or undeveloped. Many colonial administrators in the past and renowned Western scientists even today believed in this premise. Sir Henry Main, a colonial officer, in India (19th century), writes,4

Native thought and literature is elaborately inaccurate; it is supremely and deliberately careless of all precision in magnitude, number and time. The Indian intellect stood in need, beyond and everything else, of stricter criteria of truth. It required a treatment to harden and brace it, and scientific teaching was exactly the tonic, which its infirmities called for.”

Lord George Curzon, another British administrator in India says,5

We are trying to graft the science of the West on to an Eastern stem….. We have raised entire sections of the community from torpor to life, and have lifted India on a higher moral plane…. In proportion as we teach the masses, so we shall make their lot happier, and in proportion as they are happier so they will become more useful members of the body politic.

Even Florence Nightingale believed that creation of a public health department for India is a part of a mission to ‘bring a higher civilization into India’.6

Coming to the recent times no less an authority than Thomas Kuhn in the last chapter of his book Structure of Scientific Revolution writes,7

Every civilization of which we have records has possessed a technology, an art, a religion, a political system, laws, and so on. In many cases those facets of civilization have been as developed as our own. But only the civilizations that descended from Hellenic Greece have possessed more than the most rudimentary science. The bulk of scientific knowledge is a product of Europe in the last four centuries. No other place and time has supported the very special communities from which scientific productivity comes.

There seems very little difference between colonial masters and modern scientists’ mind – set when they have to comment on non-European Cultures and their sciences.

This created many a mischievous myth e.g. that the non-western societies were riddled with superstition, that they had little or no science and technology, that they had negligible scientific literature.  While diagnosing the ” backwardness ” of the non-western world, it has become fashionable to posit that the later inherently lacks ‘ scientific temper ‘ and so lags behind in ‘ development ‘ and that it will be better if it inculcates this scientific temper. Surprisingly, the champions of this false notion of the scientific temper now are not our erstwhile colonial masters but our own kith and kin.8 It pains me to note, in this connection, the opinion of no less a personality than Pt. Jawaharlal Neharu the father of science and technology institutions in India. In a letter written to Mahatma Gandhi in the year 1945, he had this to say about our village-folk, about whose human development we are talking here,9

…A village, normally speaking, is backward intellectually and culturally and no progress can be made from a backward environment. Narrow-minded people are much more likely to be untruthful and violent….

The above mention myths have gained such currency, prestige and credibility that everything non-western is condemned and dismissed as lacking in rationality and scientific temper. All non-western and non-scientific history of mankind was governed by nothing else but superstition, that it lacked logical thinking that it stood in opposition to science. As in commercial cinema the hero is painted all white and villain all black, similarly all that western science stands for is the ‘ only ‘ knowledge and all that had gone before was ‘ ignorance ‘. The so-called scientific temper is credited with having acquired this scientific knowledge. The arrogance of the protagonist of this scientific temper leads them to branches of knowledge, the elements whereof are non-quantifiable such as religion, politics, ethics etc. There are hundreds of examples of great scientist, Newton and Einstein not excluded who did not have THIS scientific temper and yet they ” did ” the highest of science. This scientific temper has less respect for pure science and knowledge for more of an abject obeisance to the colonialists’ disdain for their enslaved colonies. . How can the Blacks and Browns and Yellows have the White man’s scientific temper? What temper do we attribute to the builders of Pyramids, Bamian Buddha and many South Indian temples that compete with modern day high-rises and do not succumb to a slight tectonic tremor? Lot of mathematics, planning, engineering, technology must have gone into the building of these monuments, in the absence of modern machinery and equipment. Will it not be more rational and scientific to admit that the builders of these wonders had a temper conducive to this and methods effective of this? The protagonist of the so-called scientific temper if they have any honest respect for truth, should examine their basics and premises and jettison their borrowed opinions and biases.

So, obviously, it is taken as a given fact that all that has gone before this short period of human history belongs to a non-scientific, illogical, superstitious dark age. And this is patently not true. It will be quite difficult for us to surmount this obstacle in thinking – a colossal bias – created by this dichotomous model of Dark Age Vs Enlightened Age. Modern Science – since Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and others – grow in opposition to the Christian religious dogma, so the protagonists of Modern Science and technology placed other societies and cultures on equal footing with pre-modern Western Society dominated by a tyrannical organized religion. The biggest casualties of this way of thinking were the Indian, Chinese, South American and African, in short, non-western cultures. As Cultures do not evolve overnight, accidentally or by mutation, talk of Science, Technology and Human Development without reference and respect to this time scale will lead to erroneous conclusions. It was sincerely believed that post-industrial Western Europe was the source of light that gradually spread on the dark continents, and certainly it was for the benefit of the latter. So colonization of these parts and imposition of Western Social institutions was not a political-commercial necessity but a cultural-moral obligation on the part of Europeans- the British, the Spanish, the French et al.. Fortunately there are signs of change in this mind set which is reflected in the two recent Documents of UNESCO related to Science, Culture and Human Development1, 2

One more such very pernicious myth is that literacy – mere ability to read and write – is a measure of science and technology and even of Human Development. I challenge this. It has been universally believed that “literacy and education help in inculcating the higher values of life, they build national character and develop truth, patriotism, non-violence and freedom”. These are the precise words of our Vice-President Krishnakant employed while delivering a lecture at the International Literacy Day Celebration organized by the National Literacy Mission and UNESCO in New Delhi on Sept. 8, 2000.10 This is a gross travesty of truth. Most of the Nobel Laureates in science are from the U.S.A., a highly scientifically oriented and technologically advanced society. And what value of non-violence have they cultivated? Theirs is the most destructive chemical, biological, nuclear arsenal and that country is the biggest supplier of military hardware to all warring factions across continents. Is this science and derivative technology human development? The producers and dispensers of this destructive war-machine are highly literate and educated people! Their prosperity is soundly based on the gigantic profits they make by aiding and abetting genocides all around. What is true of the U.S.A. is also true of Great Britain and France in Europe. So, how are we to correlate all this with development of human values which formal education and literacy are credited with inculcating? Our basic premise, therefore, needs radical re-thinking because it has failed in logical, philosophical, human terms. Do we have courage to do this or do we want to continue with high-sounding hollow platitudes? Even in the department of Literacy it may come as a shocking revelation to many that Apararka (12th Century AD), while explaining a verse from YajnavalkyaSmriti extolling Brahmadana and Vidyadana, quotes several authorities such as YamaBrihaspatiBhavisyottarapuranMatsyapuran and Nandipuran. They praise gifts by thousand of pens, inkpots, boxes for keeping writing material and ink. This is a clear-cut literary and paleographical evidence of Literacy in India for many centuries.11 So there is no wonder that even Colonial Administrators like William Adam (1835-8), G.W.Leitner (1850) and T.B.Jervis (1823-4) in their respective reports covering entire India, speak of thousand and lakhs of schools.

India and African countries had a higher rate of the current notion of illiteracy and yet they were never aggressive, they never sowed the seeds of enmity in other societies supplying them with arms to conduct genocidal wars. And these are the very countries labeled as un-developed, under-developed or developing countries. What a travesty of truth! The merchants of destruction are developed and Pacific Societies are not developed! Something is rotten in the state of our thought processes! This gives rise to the notion that Development means Economic Development. And leading economists have started rethinking – trying to develop ‘Economics as if man mattered’.

Does literacy lead to happiness and contentment? Emphatically, not! Perhaps more people in India and Bangaladesh are below poverty line and below literacy line than the entire population of the U.S.A. And yet, as surveys show they are more happy and contented and peace loving. Indians have contributed immensely to the culture of entire East Asia, not by conquest and massacre. Can that not have a lesson for the thinkers of the scientific and technological realms? Before a man becomes a scientist, a technologist, he has to be literate, how very beneficial will it be if he inculcates human values even before that or alongside? We must think in terms of developing social institutions that will promote this. And these institutions need not have direct relation with mere literacy. Equating literacy with culture and illiteracy with lack of culture is a dangerous notion. Human behavior does not depend only upon literacy.

Scientific discoveries gave birth to innovative technologies. They claim to make life easier and comfortable. The resources and infrastructures used for manufacturing such goods come from nature. One of the growth indices of human development is the per capital consumption of these resources and manufactured goods, like tin, iron, cars etc. It is known now that consumption of such products in the life style is responsible for ecological imbalance. Obviously, the developed countries with higher indices of this growth are directly responsible for this, more than the under-developed world. But they suffer and will suffer equally, e.g. by global warming to which they have contributed the least and the developed world has contributed enormously. How are we going to reconcile science and technology with human growth and welfare?

Health is a perennial concern of humanity and we see some of the excellent non-invasive nature friendly therapies developed and practiced in the indigenous civilizations. Look at the irony, especially in India.  Ayurveda, the science of life was practiced for thousands of years and it should have, legitimately, been the mainstream medicine. But it is dubbed as alternative or complementary, Allopathic usurping the position of the mainstream therapy. This development is taken to connote that Ayurveda is unscientific. This is the precise view reflected in the recent sixth report of the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Science and Technology dismissing Ayurveda as ‘ unscientific.’12

I am proud to say here that, in India, the vehicle of knowledge, man, was sought to be more refined and matured, through inculcation of Dharma (the complex of obligations and duties), so that he became more conscientious and accountable, even while pursuing truth or knowledge of the realms- physical and non-physical. Man respected man and his environment. That is why complete freedom of thought and expression prevailed in all fields of life in India. Aryabhatta (495 AD) could propound his theory of rotation and attractive power (gravitation) of the earth and Brahmagupta (598 AD) could criticize him on the basis of his observations, whoever ultimately proved right or wrong. Vatsyayana could write his Kamasutra (100 AD), an excellent treatise on the science of sex, without any fear and we find him not criticized by any Shankarachary then or now. There are no religious arbitrators here to take side and mete out punishments. That should be the real scientific temper. It was practiced in India. It stemmed from deeper spiritual roots that recognize many-faceted ness of truth and man’s freedom to pursue it in his own way as per his own psychological make up emotional equipment and physical capabilities. Are we prepared to grasp these parameters of human development and fulfillment and evolved indices to measure real human development? That is the real task before us.

References and Notes

1) 3,of the Preamble of Declaration on Science and the use of Scientific Knowledge, Text adopted by the World Conference on Science (organized by UNESCO at Budapest, Hungary), 1 July 1999, Definitive version

2) Quotation from Introduction-The World Commission on Culture and DevelopmentOur Creative Diversity (Culture and UNESCO). http://www.unesco.org/culture/development/wccd/chapters/html_eng/indes_en.htm

3) Eisenstadt, S. N. (1966) Modernization, Protest, and Change, Modernization of Traditional Societies series, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

4) Cited in Richard Strachey, 1911:297

5) India Office Library and Records, Curzon Papers, IOLR, Mss. Eur. F111/559: (xi&xvi); IOLR Mss.Eur. F111/248 (b).

6) Quoted in E. Cook, The Life of Florence Nightingale, II, London, 1914,p.1.

7) Thomas.S.Kuhn (1963) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p.166-67, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London

8) Kindly see a small booklet A Statement on Scientific Temper brought out by Neharu Center, Mumbai (July 1981) and signed by some top scientist, technologist and intellectuals of that time. For an excellent analysis of this document, scholars can see ‘ The ” Statement on Scientific Temper ” : The Educators in Need of Education ‘ in Readings from PPST Bulletin, Technology Foundation, No 18, Sri Ram Nagar Main Road,  Chennai 600 113.

9) Cited in ‘ What is Development: Recalling an Old Debate ‘ from Readings from PPST bulletin p. 9.

10) UNESCO Newsletter (New Delhi Office), Vol. 9 No. 4 (December 2000).

11) P. K. Gode, (1956) ‘ Some Puranic Extracts quoted by Apararka (c. AD 1125) and their bearing on the History of Indian Paleography and Education ‘ in Studies in Indian Literary History ,Vol. III, Published by: Prof. Gode Collected Works Publication Committee, Pune-4.

12) See Indian Express dated February 15, 2001 for news titled ‘ UK diagnosis of Ayurveda leaves India with hiccups ‘ by Sanchita Sharma.

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