Susantha Goonatilake
Toward a global science: mining civilizational knowledge
Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 1995, xxii+314 pp, Rs 495.

Modernism can be defined as belief in the adequacy of hierarchy, formalization and control to achieve desired ends without error. The success of science has long been seen as establishing a ``modern'' outlook, but experiments with ever more ambitious projects has led to awareness of the limitations of modernism. Jean-François Lyotard characterized postmodernism, in contrast, by multiple local language games (a framework popularized by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) that cannot necessarily be unified, or even neatly classified (The postmodern condition, Manchester, 1984).

In the introduction of this book, the author says the modern project is `floundering,' but he finds writings on postmodernism `insightful, but at times the authors are boring and trivial.' He recommends that the new agenda of science has to come from `remnants of earlier certainties that still have validity and the new certainties that can come from other [non-Western] cultures, including other civilizational spheres.' (All quotations so far are from page 3 of the text.) His idea is that there are multiple local sciences, which are already classified and which need to be unified. I do not see modern science as having arisen purely from Western culture, but even granting the author his view, it is a rejection of the postmodern insight and the statement of yet another modern project. The author does not consider the possibility that it might also flounder.

The `global science' of the title should be clear; the subtitle `mining civilizational knowledge' can now be explained. The Enlightenment saw many European ideologues harking back to the early Greeks. Goonatilake wants to hark back to the early South Asians. For example, he suggests, science should take a look at the Ayurveda system of Indian medicine (Chapter 6). Galen's system of humours is in the same broad genre, but Goonatilake does not recommend studying it, because Western medicine grew out of the Galen system. `The enlarged science project of the 21st century must incorporate other civilizational elements.'

After the introduction, the book is divided into three sections. Viewing science without eurocentric blinkers explains how science was active in the ancient world outside Europe. Examples of mining for contemporary science identifies medicine, mathematics and psychology as areas where ancient science might contribute. More imaginative explorations suggests how ancient science could contribute to future technology.

As a teacher in the United States, does Goonatilake take a look at the science of the native Americans for a non-eurocentric view? They find no mention in the first section of this book (or anywhere else). How about the aborigines of Australia or the Andaman islands? Goonatilake concedes that `people of the forest' have searched out and classified plant knowledge, and multinationals like Merck and Monsanto are trying to get it by working with them. But Goonatilake is impatient with these examples of traditional knowledge: `Though suggestive of the universality of the scientific impulse among all humans, yet ... do not touch some of the more abstract, more sophisticated sciences' (p-74). For these we have to go to civilizations, `better candidates as reservoirs of scientific knowledge' (p-75).

The Aztecs? The Mayans? The Incas? The Zimbabweans? None of these civilizations are mentioned in the book. The Greeks are side-stepped because their impact is already present in modern science, the Chinese and Japanese get passing mention. As regards the Arabs, Goonatilake falls into the ``modern'' trap of seeing them solely as transmitters of knowledge. Most of the book is devoted to the South Asian civilization. I think the first section is really ``Viewing science with South Asian blinkers.''

Ayurveda, mathematics and mental practices from the Indian civilization fit Goonatilake's bill, and he discusses them extensively in the second section of the book. Why can't Ayurveda be left to Merck and Monsanto like tribal knowledge? Goonatilake expresses qualms about the ethical soundness of such a procedure, but hedges by saying that since tribal children are leaving traditional pursuits, `if one were arguing from the perspective of a loss of knowledge, one could say ``Let the bad wolf in''---as a lesser of two evils' (p-255). If you notice that the three subjects at the beginning of this paragraph were the Indian science practised by Brahmins, the dubiety of Goonatilake's position becomes clear.

When the author says ---somewhat disagreeably to my taste--- that we can `splice in new genetic information' into the knowledge tree (p-23), the genes he is referring to are Brahmin and Buddhist ones. A large part of the book then revolves around showing how almost everything that was there in European science was already present in the Indian subcontinent in some form, down to what the Encyclopedia Britannica identifies as the three major innovations that transformed British agriculture in the 18th century (p-54).

Joseph Needham's question of why modern science did not develop in China (or South Asia) is simply brushed away: `our variant question would be, what if science developed in China?' (p-66). And since it seems clear to the author that science and civilization is moving to South Asia, the focus is on what aspects of ancient Indian science can be ``spliced in.''

As an instance, in the second section of the book, Goonatilake approvingly cites an episode narrated by Ashok Jhunjhunwala, where a carpenter he engaged calculated a sum in four minutes, whereas Jhunjhunwala ---`a trained modern mathematician with a Ph.D. from an American university' (p-140)--- took over ten minutes. There is a factual error here: Jhunjhunwala is an electrical engineer. But the more serious error is that calculational abilities will not necessarily lead to developments in mathematics. There is no reason to penalize American universities for letting mathematicians get away with a Ph.D. without checking how fast they can calculate sums!

Goonatilake does distance himself from people who give an overblown account of the East to Western audiences, like Deepak Chopra who ` ``discovered'' Ayurveda' (p-114) and Shirley Maclaine, who is `unselective in references to chakras, cosmic consciousness, and the like' (p-170). But Goonatilake seems equally excited about having discovered Ayurveda, mathematics and mental practices as civilizational ``mines,'' and equally unselective in references to ancient South Asian science.

This becomes quite clear in the third section of the book, which I can only describe as ``Mere wishful thinking.'' I simply do not see the connection between the science of yesterday and the science of tomorrow in the examples quoted below.

Goonatilake talks of how the convergence of information and biotechnology will lead to problems of ethics and identity, studied in Buddhism (Chapter 9); how virtual reality systems will lead to the merging of appearance and reality, about which Indian thinkers asked many fundamental questions (Chapter 10); how Richard Dawkins's view of the body simply as a carrier of its genes has parallels in the Hindu view of soul (Chapter 11, p-237). He ends this chapter saying he has `explored areas where the rich philosophical traditions of South Asia could be mined for modern science. ... It is clear that science is intertwined with the philosophical condition of humans' (p-246).

The examples given by the author do not lend any credence to such a conclusion. Consider, for instance, virtual reality. We are all familiar with one simple form of virtual reality: that which overtakes us in a cinema theatre. Yet film theory has managed to get along fine without recourse to the Upanishads, Jainism, Buddhism, the Nyaya Vaisesikas and Vedanta, the South Asian philosophies Goonatilake discusses in this context. I think he does these philosophies a disservice: the insights they give into cognition are far deeper than can be tailored to gadgets like virtual reality systems.

Carried away by such superficial similarities, in the last chapter `Towards a new millenium,' Goonatilake supports a proposal to create a database of metaphors, which will `help both formulate and communicate insights in science', `spur the imagination,' `touch a deeper level of conceptual understanding than do paradigms' (p-250). It seems a rather impoverished project for global science for a whole new millenium. One could have the same sentiments about a book of Shakespearean quotations.

There is a parallel between the racism of Europeans who believed that Western science went ahead in the Renaissance by mining its Greek roots, and the view that the new global science will go ahead by mining non-Western civilizational knowledge. For instance, these Europeans ignored the fact that the spread of literacy and education among the laity had a lot to do with the growth of science in the modern period. Neither is anything said in this book about ensuring that such processes take place in the non-Western world. Goonatilake must be careful to avoid being labelled an elitist and his views dismissed on those grounds.

Lamenting that South Asians doing science have themselves been socialized completely to the Western frame; Goonatilake says they have crippled minds (p-252). I am one such South Asian doing science. What my crippled mind tells me is this: if you want to read about a non-eurocentric view of science, read Martin Bernal's Black Athena (Rutgers University Press, 1987); if you want to have a feel-good account about the achievements of Indian science, read Bose, Sen and Subbarayappa's A concise history of science in India (INSA, New Delhi, 1971); and if you want to look at more imaginative explorations, read Carl Sagan or Arthur C. Clarke. There is no need to waste five hundred rupees on this book.