In Defence of Mātauranga

By Dr. Pounamu Jade Aikman

Late last year, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins chastised the Royal Society of New Zealand for not doing more to “stand up for science”, in what he described as a “ludicrous move to incorporate Maori ‘ways of knowing’ into science curricula in New Zealand.” Last month, he continued his rebuke, stating “If there is value in a Māori view of the world, then let it be taught worldwide.”

But for Dawkins, all mātauranga Māori has to offer are “mythological truths”, which, he argues, don’t meet the standard of rigorous scientific inquiry. This is Dawkins’ fatal error, and one which many fall prey to: the wholesale conflation of mātauranga – Māori knowledge systems – with the imagined, fictitious, and mythological. 

By doing so, Dawkins continues a long and racist history of vitiating and denigrating Indigenous knowledge systems, with the implicit assumption that the only form of knowledge within ‘Māori ways of knowing’ are superstitious fantasies and falsehoods. In this, he was quick to frame mātauranga as a form of creationism, which for him is “still bollocks even [if] it is indigenous bollocks.”

His remarks reveal an extraordinary level of ignorance and Eurocentrism. They invoke, as colonisation has long done, the binary of Western science versus Indigenous tradition, built on the assumption that the latter is, by its nature, ‘unscientific’. In this, mātauranga is only useful to the extent it is performative and decorative – not scientifically substantive.  

“True science is evidence-based not tradition-based; it incorporates… repeated experimental testing of hypotheses”, Dawkins continues. There is of course validity in this, for science is a process of repeated observation. But I would argue that the great civilisations of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, from whom we descend, were well aware of this reality. Mastering the art of navigation across the breadth of the Pacific, as our tūpuna did, came from thousands of years of ‘seeing what worked and what didn’t,’ as Associate Professor Ella Henry similarly noted in response to Dawkins. 

And that’s what science is: a process of trial and error, getting things wrong along the way, as we seek to make sense of the world around us. When I first visited Fiji over a decade ago, I spoke with a kaumātua at a village near the university campus in Suva. He held a model of a waka hourua in front of me, as we sat down to kōrero. Taking one of the two hulls, he explained how the curvature on one side was slightly different to the other, meaning a single hull wasn’t a perfect mirror image of itself. This, so he explained, helped create a vortex in the water beneath, thereby increasing the waka’s speed out on the open ocean. 

I sat astonished by this kōrero. But these feats of technological brilliance, and indeed, scientific insights, are the careful results of generations of trial and error, repeatedly testing new approaches and modifying old ones. And I can’t think of a longer ‘test of hypotheses’ than three millennia. 

Dawkins insists that knowledge must be universal, and in that universality, be shared equally across the world. For science isolates and divides the world into smaller and smaller pieces, in making it knowable and legible to us. The kupu itself is revealing, for ‘science’ derives of the old Latin term scire (‘to know’), based off the notion of “separat[ing] one thing from another, …to incise… to cut, divide…[and] split.” 

And this is the critical difference. While Western science finds its mauri in isolation and division, mātauranga finds it in integration and interaction. Atua, for example, are present in all dimensions of life. Dr Ihirangi Heke’s remarkable explanation of the connection between Tāwhirimātea and aerobic training exemplifies this. “When we take Tāwhirimātea into our body”, he explains, “that’s where we turn it into physical activity. Now Tāwhirimātea’s personality traits change. If we go up, and the density changes… or if it gets colder, or if we’re running harder, we need more of him to be able to become more physically active. So when we can see the visible form of Tāwhiri [through our breath turning into water vapour when it’s cold], it’s a unique opportunity for us to know we’re interacting with Tāwhiri.” 

This is the interaction of our bodies with atua, integrating aerobic exercise into the wider environments in which we exist. As a form of knowing – mātauranga – it is one of myriad examples of how we come to know and understand the world before us, but in an Indigenous, localised context.

It is no less valid than other ways of knowing, and Dawkins does a great disservice to himself and the academy of science by universally characterising Indigenous knowledge systems as purely fictional and mythological. 

Debate on what we teach in our schools and kura is healthy, but that debate must be critical and informed. Rhetoric like Dawkins’, echoed by last year’s controversial letter from a collection of Auckland University academics, does little more than fuel the fires of ignorance, to the significant detriment of us all. In a time where global battles are being fought over what ‘truth’ is, I implore Dawkins to carefully consider his statements, so as others do not conflate his proclamations with racist, colonial intentions. 


Dr Pounamu Jade Aikman is an independent Māori scholar whose work explores the continuum of racism and settler colonial violence in the Aotearoa New Zealand and United States’ contexts. Of Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Apakura, Ngāti Tarāwhai, Ngāti Wairere, Ngāi Te Rangi, and Ngāti Awa descent, his research investigates Indigenous relationships to land and environment, and the ongoing impact of settler colonisation and corporate exploitation upon this.

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