Science

My girl is the queen of the jungle folk

Check out this article about Amazonian medicine, specifically the Caesalpinia pulcherrima. This pretty red and yellow flower holds some powerful medicine, as Western science is just beginning to fully explore. For centuries, it has been used by rain forest tribes for a variety of purposes, from fevers to sores to coughing. The most interesting usage, though, is to induce abortions.

West African slaves used the plant’s brown roots to rid themselves of pregnancies caused by rape, or to save the life of a mother who wouldn’t be able to carry a baby full-term. The article in the Boston Globe gives an overview of how tribes may have figured out the different uses for the plant over centuries of trial and error. They probably used the same scientific method that researchers currently used, it just took them a helluva lot longer to get it all done. Lack of funding can be a bitch.

It’s a well-written article, but I always wince when I read lines like this:

Through their trial and error studies, and some might say over generations of empirical observations, they knew long before we discovered molecular biology that this plant could be used as a medicine.

It strikes me as the same kind of us vs. them thinking that would be immediately looked down upon (rightfully so) if it went the other way (i.e., “they were still chewing plants and dying before the age of 40 when we were inventing vaccines”). It’s “pompous scientist” vs. “wise medicine man,” the modern day equivalent of yesteryear’s “civilized man” vs. “savage beast.” It would be nice if the press could just recognize the value of natural remedies like this while acknowledging the further good that can be accomplished with state-of-the-art testing and refinement. It’s not really about “Western” medicine and “African” or “Eastern” medicine, it’s just medicine, and it either works or it doesn’t. Those tribes practiced science to the best of their abilities — let’s use that knowledge and add to it. That’s science, and science has nothing to do with national boundaries or skin tone.

Whew, I’d better stop there before I have everyone start singing We are the World.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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4 Comments

  1. As an experimental scientist, I fully appreciate the value of the "try it and see" approach to discovery. A lot of time , it's really the only way to make any progress. But that doesn't mean we aren't better off with a detailed understanding of the thing we are trying to study. It's that detailed understanding that allows us to create a truly predictive model which is much more useful, in general, than an empirical model.

    Given a large enough supply of a drug, and a large enough supply of (willing) sick people, it probably wouldn't take too many generations before you had a good list of illnesses treatable with the drug. Of course, you will proabably also have a fair number of dead people, for whom the drug didn't work, or actually made worse.

    Bravo to the Amazonian shaman for using the tools at their disposal. All in all, I prefer the "molecular biology" route, when available.

  2. That's the other line of reasoning that political correctness has driven out of the common discourse — that we do in fact know things.

    We know that there are better and worse ways to learn. We know that molecular biology can teach us truths you can't know just because you rely on a thousand years of Eastern Wisdom (whatever in the world that is). We know that the less of something you have in a dose, the less of an effect it will generally have.

    And it's okay to discuss the relative value of certain kinds of truth-seeking techniques. Not all kinds of thought are equally valuable.

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