Tech billionaire Elon Musk has weighed in on criticism of the inclusion of mātauranga Māori in New Zealand’s school curriculum following a column denouncing the policy by prominent international scientist Richard Dawkins.
But a leading Kiwi researcher has slammed the scientist - saying the opinions are “embarrassing, inaccurate and full of racist tropes”.
Dawkins - an evolutionary biologist and writer and author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion - wrote a column for UK magazine the Spectator calling the teaching of mātauranga in science classes “ludicrous”.
The Oxford University fellow and former professor said the policy was “ludicrous” and changes to the curriculum were “adolescent virtue-signalling”.
He referenced a letter from seven University of Auckland professors criticising the policy - a letter which has since been rubbished by other scientists.
Dawkins went on to criticise the use of te reo Māori in Government documents and questioned its use when few people were fluent.
“To grasp Government intentions requires a little work, because every third word of the relevant documents is in Māori,” he said.
“Since only 2 per cent of New Zealanders (and only 5 per cent of Māoris) speak that language, this again looks like self-righteous virtue-signalling.”
Dawkins said mātauranga Māori provided “valuable tips on edible fungi, star navigation and species conservation” before adding, “pity the moas were all eaten”.
He criticised mātauranga as “vitalism” where students would be “confused by the doctrine that all life throbs with a vital force conferred by the Earth Mother and Sky Father”.
“This is pernicious nonsense,” he said.
Dawkins then took to Twitter, saying: “My NZ friends are betting local media won’t dare [publicise it].”
Musk, owner of Tesla, Space X and Twitter then replied: “This is insane.”
Dr Tara McAllister, whose research has sought to address the under-representation of indigenous scholars in academia, responded to Dawkins’ column.
“It is boring, embarrassing, inaccurate and full of racist tropes,” she told the Herald.
“It is clear Richard Dawkins has no expertise on mātauranga.”
She said Dawkins’ comments were damaging and - like the public letter from the University of Auckland professors - “function to embolden other racist scientists in Aotearoa”.
“Dawkins’ comments are, however, a great example of how clearly white supremacy is ingrained in Western sciences globally, and how colonising scientists continue to attempt to undermine the global resurgence of indigenous knowledge, which I will incorporate into my teaching and research,” she said.
“It is abundantly clear that Dawkins knows nothing about mātauranga Māori.
“We have plenty of experts in mātauranga, like Rereata Makiha, Rangi Matamua and Ocean Mercier. Richard Dawkins is clearly not one of them. He has no relevancy here in Aotearoa.”
McAllister said there was “a very long history” of mātauranga Māori being excluded and marginalised in Aotearoa since colonisation.
“I believe that its incorporation into the curriculum, in principle, is an important step in the right direction,” she said.
“Being a scientist and a researcher involves doing research. It appears that despite being a ‘world-renowned’ scientist in his heyday, Richard Dawkins has forgotten the basic premise of research, which involves doing actual research before speaking on a topic.
“People who agree with Richard’s poorly researched [reckonings] need to check their racist assumptions about what is and isn’t science and read a book.”
She said the function of Dawkins “inherently racist column” was “a distraction”.
“It functions to distract us from the fact that mātauranga Māori is science, and there are already so many great examples of how mātauranga can enhance science.
“Mātauranga Māori will continue to be incorporated into the curriculum, celebrated and used alongside “Western” science in research and elevated within all facets of New Zealand society, regardless of what Richard Dawkins thinks.”
- Additional reporting Raphael Franks