Seeing Through Cultural Bias in Science

Most people now accept that fields like politics and journalism reflect and perpetuate cultural bias. Yet we imagine science as free of unexamined cultural assumptions. This is more or less true for some fields - say, chemistry or physics. My own corner of science, ethology, or the study of animal behavior, is certainly not pristine.

How we look at animals reflects how we view ourselves. The founder of Japanese primatology, Kinji Imanishi, could attest to this. Imanishi argued that nature is inherently harmonious rather than competitive, with species forming an ecological whole. This rather un-Darwinian perspective so upset a British paleontologist, the late Beverly Halstead, that in 1984 he traveled to Kyoto to confront Imanishi. Unconstrained by first-hand knowledge of Imanishi's works, which were never translated, Halstead told him that his theory was "Japanese in its unreality."

What compelled Halstead to be so rude? Why did he later write an article criticizing not just Imanishi's views, but his country? Why did " Nature, " one of the most prestigious journals in science, publish it, in 1985, beneath the patronizing assertion that the "popularity of Kinji Imanishi's writings in Japan gives an interesting insight into Japanese society"? Could not the same be said of Darwin's theory of unremitting competition, which grew out of a society giving birth to free-market capitalism?

Even if Imanishi's ecological and evolutionary ideas were problematic, he and his followers were right about quite a lot. In fact, well before Halstead's contemptuous pilgrimage, Western ethologists began adopting Eastern concepts and approaches--although without being aware of their sources. To understand how this could occur is to appreciate the role of different cultural assumptions about the relations between humans and animals and how linguistic hegemony affects science.