There Is No Useless Knowledge

We moderns like to think that knowledge seeking, as a widespread attitude and activity, is a modern invention. It’s typically considered that prior to recent history societies didn’t put much priority on gaining and passing on information. After all, formal education was rare until these past centuries.

In ancient Greece, the Sophists were the first professional teachers and they were teaching useful knowledge, not knowledge for knowledge’s sake. That was one of Socrate’s complaints about them — as a wealthy slaveholding aristocrat with a lot of time on his hands, Socrates found himself drawn toward what others deemed as the useless activities of questioning and doubting, just because he could. It wouldn’t be until the Enlightenment Age (and to a greater extent after industrialization) that larger numbers of people would have the luxury to become preoccupied with the seemingly useless.

Of course, what is useful and useless is in the eyes of the beholder. The very idea of useless knowledge is rather modern. And it is an interesting topic, such as what is useful in the short term vs the long term (see: Abraham Flexner, Nuccio Ordine, and Robert Dikgraaf). But maybe the conceptual frame of useless knowledge is misleading. It is easy to assume that supposedly ‘primitive’ people had little use for knowledge as such, beyond what was immediately applicable such as practical skills. Yet many tribal societies maintained and categorized enormous amounts of info about the world around them, even though it served no obvious and immediate purpose.

It appears the love of knowledge is an ancient human trait. Humans are naturally curious and enjoy learning. As modern Westerners, our failure to recognize this in other societies may not indicate any genuine lack in those societies. Any society able to maintain some basic level of stability over centuries will accrue vast knowledge and will find ways to organize it for purposes of transmitting it from one generation to the next, be it oral mnemonics or writing systems. Humans keep knowledge because it has been advantageous to do so, in that it has helped the species survive and societies to prosper.

What may appear useless in the present may prove to be useful in the future. Ultimately, there is no useless knowledge. Even knowledge for knowledge’s sake has its uses.

* * *

Ancient Memory

“First came the temple, then the city.”

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 2947-2953

It would be naïve to limit the consideration of animal and plant knowledge to that which is essential for survival, or even that which is merely useful. All humans store knowledge for its own sake. In fact, Lévi-Strauss writes: ‘The thirst for objective knowledge is one of the most neglected aspects of the thought of people we call “primitive”’ (1966, p. 3). He goes on to give a range of examples of biological knowledge from non-literate cultures and concludes that ‘animals and plants are not known as a result of their usefulness; they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known’. This aspect of ‘native’ science, Lévi-Strauss argues, ‘meet intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs’ (1966, p. 9).

The Memory Code
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 94-109

Orality, I soon discovered, was about making knowledge memorable. It was about using song, story, dance and mythology to help retain vast stores of factual information when the culture had no recourse to writing. It was the first step to understanding how they could remember so much stuff. The definition of ‘stuff’ was growing rapidly to include not only the animal knowledge I was researching, but also the names and uses of plants; resource access and land management; laws and ethics; geology and astronomy; genealogies, to ensure they knew their rights and relatives; navigation, to ensure they could travel long distances when there were no roads or maps; ideas about where they had come from; and, of course, what they believed. Indigenous cultures memorised everything on which their survival—physically and culturally—depended.

Kindle Locations 215-231

At the most obvious level, there is a need to know all the plants and animals in a tribal territory, often encompassing many different environments. If I mention hunter-gatherers, I conjure up the image of a hunter chasing a crocodile, kangaroo, mammoth or buffalo, but the vast majority of the creatures with which indigenous people interact are fish, small reptiles and, critically, invertebrates; there are thousands of insects, spiders, scorpions, worms, crustaceans and other little creatures in every landscape. It is necessary to know which ones can be eaten, which can be used for other products and which must be avoided. Every environment houses animals that bite, sting or maul, and some are deadly.

As Indigenous Australian Eileen McDinny of the Yanyuwa people of the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia’s Northern Territory explained: ‘Everything got a song, no matter how little, it’s in the song—name of plant, birds, animal, country, people, everything got a song.’2

The North American Navajo, for example, named and classified over 700 species of insect for zoologists a few decades ago, recording names, sounds, behaviour and habitats in myths, songs and dry sand paintings.3 Only one is eaten (the cicada) while some are bothersome (lice, gnats, mosquitoes, sheep ticks, flies). The vast majority of the 700 insects, the Navajo elders told the scientists, are classified because the Navajo love to categorise. And that study only included insects. All people, literate and non-literate, possess curiosity, intellect and a love of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. But beyond simply identifying the species, a knowledge of animals and plants is often important because of what they indicate about seasonal cycles, and they often feature in stories that contain lessons about human ethics and behaviour.

Despite being active in natural history groups, I know no one today who could identify all the insects they may encounter even with a guide book, let alone all animal species. Yet, that is common practice among indigenous people.

Kindle Locations 1011-1018

It is not just their domestic products that are critical to the Pueblo way of life. The Pueblo retain a detailed understanding of numerous mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, spiders and insects in mythology, which is relayed through ritual. The stories help elders recall accurately how to use migratory birds as calendrical indicators, the optimum timing of hunting and fishing expeditions, how to ensure that sufficient breeding stock of non-domesticated species are left in the wild, how snake venom is stored in the snake and the impact when it is injected into humans. One Tewa ethnozoological study from the beginning of the twentieth century included details of molluscs and corals that were not found in Tewa territory. Seventeen long-extinct bird species were described while the insect list included many unknown to science at that time. Curiosity and the desire for knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a human trait, not a Western one.

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