Raymond Bradley: Charlatan tohunga alive and kicking

"The old world created by our Polynesian ancestors has passed away, and a new world is in the process of being fashioned." So wrote Te Rangi Hiroa of Taranaki, widely known as Sir Peter Buck, in the epilogue to his book Vikings of the Sunrise.

Athlete, doctor, health administrator, military leader, politician, museum director and famed anthropologist, Sir Peter was a true Renaissance man. For him, the new world was that of science.

So it was for many of his peers. The most distinguished include Sir Apirana Ngata of Ngati Porou, the first Maori to complete a degree at the then University of New Zealand, first Maori politician to serve as Deputy Prime Minister, and well-known promoter of Maori culture and language.

Sir Maui Pomare of Te Ati Awa, the first Maori to gain a medical degree, went on to use his scientific knowledge to better the life of his people. He pressed them to sanitise drinking water.

Verbally attacked at a marae for being brainwashed by Pakeha, he brought out his microscope and demonstrated that the water they were drinking was full of "bully-headed bugs" that could be killed only by boiling. Thus did he, a Maori, introduce the new world of science to free his people from those he called "charlatan tohunga".

These men and other pioneer scientists would have welcomed the research being done now by National Geographic's Genographic Project, a project that seeks to establish, through voluntary DNA sampling around the world, how and when all its people got where they are today.

And all would have deplored the irrationality and muddled thinking displayed by Paul Reynolds, Linita Manu'atu, Michael Mansell, and Mere Kepa in their diatribes against that project, "Stirring up the gene pool", in the Weekend Herald.

For Sir Peter Buck, their criticisms, if taken seriously, would have jeopardised further explorations in the field that was his passion: research into Maori and Polynesian origins and migrations.

One can easily imagine how these learned men of a century ago would respond to each of our contemporary tohunga.

To Mere Kepa's outburst, "I'm tired and exhausted of learning from Western scientists that I'm sad, bad and mad", they might respond: "Western scientists don't say that sort of thing, and neither do we Maori scientists. However, your own claim is self-indicting. It is symptomatic of intellectual paranoia. And paranoia is indeed 'sad, bad, and mad'. "

To Paul Reynolds' claim, "It's race-based research, and therefore can be manipulated and used for political purposes," they might respond: "It's research being facilitated by scientists of all races, including the likes of Maori anthropologist Mike Stevens. It has no preconceptions about what it will yield.

"In any case scientific discoveries have a value in themselves, no matter what practical, religious, or political ends they are made to serve.

"One shouldn't condemn the discovery of fire because fire was used to burn religious heretics at the stake."

To Manu'atu's claim, "For Tongans, we were created in Tonga," they would respond: "The way you put it makes you sound like a head-in-the-sands creationist, with your gods creating Tongans as a special kind of creature with no genetic or geographic links to any other members of our species."

To the claim of Australian Aboriginal Michael Mansell, "We didn't come from anywhere", they would respond along the same lines as to Manu'atu, with perhaps the additional remark: "You can't be serious!"

What is especially troubling about our 21st-century tohunga is that they seem unable to recognise the role and value of myth and its relationship to science.

The Maori graduates of Te Aute College, which produced Sir Peter Buck, Sir Maui Pomare and others such as Rewiti Kohere, Tutere We Rapa, and Edward Ellison, cherished Maori myths about their people's origins for what they were: poetically imaginative stories. But just plain myths, for all that. They were not in rivalry with science, hence were not threatened by it.

But their opponents are akin to the fundamentalists of all races and religions. They insist on taking literally their sacred stories, especially their origin myths.

Isaac Asimov once described such literalists as "armies of the night" intent on riding backward, with their myths held high, into the Dark Ages where dogma triumphs over reason and superstition shrivels the seeds of scientific inquiry.

Maoridom has no need for them. Education should have no place for them. Yet many are teaching in our tertiary institutions. Woe betide those who fall under their spell.

* Raymond D. Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University, and one-time Professor of Philosophy, University of Auckland.

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