Georgina Guedes

Why we need Homo naledi

2015-09-21 10:19

Georgina Guedes

It seems that the pursuit of knowledge and the desire to broaden our horizons is being bound by conservatism, religion and plain-old ignorance.

I was delighted by the announcement of the discovery of Homo naledi last week. In the midst of all the terrible news about deaths and refugees and bigotry, here at last was a banner to which we could all flock – news of the expansion of our understanding of where we came from.

Then the inevitable happened. People responded in anger rather than awe and wonder that yet again, the scientists are banging that boring old drum that we’re descended from apes. And through some convoluted process of reasoning, some even saw this great, unifying understanding of our common origins as racism.

Faith requires some acceptance of metaphor

Since I am not religious, I guess I’m not the best qualified person to speak about how science and religion can fit together. I know that science often contradicts biblical truth, but actually, biblical truth also often contradicts biblical truth – so those who follow religious teachings have to acknowledge at least some level of duality or metaphor in their scriptures. Because I think we can all agree the world isn’t flat, right?

However, if I were religious and I were to observe a new boundary recently pushed further out by science, instead of ranting and carrying on about how it’s not a biblical truth and is therefore rubbish, I would instead be delighted about the expansive and astonishing world our creator made for us. I would be quite chuffed that scientists are uncovering more information to broaden our understanding of what he created.

But, that’s just me.

Meanwhile, in the USA

On the other side of the globe, a boy was arrested at school for bringing his home-made clock to show his teacher. Instead of applauding him for his pursuit of knowledge, they did their best to knock him down because his skin was the wrong colour and his religion not the same as theirs.

At the same time, a study in the United States revealed that a representative sample of American adults would have only scored a “D” on a quiz of basic general knowledge questions. So there’s a lot to be said for encouraging students – of all colours – to engage with science in that nation.

We need awe and wonder

The same can be said here. We have a dearth of skills in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Little wonder, since when one of the greatest scientific discoveries of modern time takes place in our country, so many of our leaders attempt to argue with simple scientific fact because it offends them on some level.

South Africa needs scientists. We need accountants and engineers, but we also need archaeologists and anthropologists and palaeontologists and biologists. There is an entire public education system to sort out – but giving kids iPads isn’t enough, we have to encourage their spirit of curiosity, their desire to discover, their love of learning. And we do that by applauding the great scientific discoveries of our time, not blabbing ill-conceived rhetoric against them.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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