F. David Peat. Blackfoot Physics: A Journey Into the Native American Universe. Fourth Estate, 1996.
Westerners have traditionally shown two responses to other cultures: either to see them as primitive savages to be kicked out of the way, or romanticised as 'Noble Savages' gifted with eternal wisdom and living in harmony with nature, in contrast to our over-sophisticated, materialistic selves. Seldom do we allow them to be like ourselves, with the same mixture of wisdom and folly, virtue and vice. It is, of course, the romantic viewpoint that Peat adopts in this classic of politically correct post-modernism.
He seeks to compare what he calls 'indigenous science' with modern science, almost invariable to the disadvantage of the latter; comparing the former's spirituality and holism with the latter's cold, objective materialistic approach, At times it seems that Peat can only establish the validity of someone else's culture by devaluing his own.
There are a number of problems with this approach. Firstly, there have to be limits to relativism, however politically incorrect it is to soy so. The Earth does revolve around the sun and not vice-versa: this is not just a 'cultural truth', but transcultural. It is, in so for as the words have meaning, 'really true' and was so before human beings evolved. And if we accept radical relativism, where do we start anyway: that it was acceptable for the Aztecs to sacrifice thousands of prisoners to keep the sun on its cosmic journey? If we start on that road we end up arguing that the Holocaust was acceptable because the Nazi's sincerely believed that the world would be a better place of there were no Jews or Gypsies in it.
We should beware of constructing notions like 'indigenous science' as if the 'native Americans' were some sort of uniform mass living a timeless, historic 'tradition'. There were many different native American cultures all changing at a fairly rapid rote, For example, in 1880 the horse was central to many such cultures, yet it had been introduced only 250 years earlier.
What Peat presents as native American culture is a sanitised 'Pocahontas' vision, in which all references to warfare, witchcraft and the extinction by hunting of indigenous species have been eliminated. We do not find it strange that the beliefs and opinions of a Church of England clergyman of 1996 are very different from his counterpart of 1896, let alone 1596, why should we assume otherwise for other cultures and religions? Reinventing yourself to suit changing values and sensibilities is a perfectly sensible thing to do. -- Peter Rogerson. From Magonia 58, January 1997.