Posted by: cochinblogger | March 26, 2010

Who Was Kinji Imanishi?

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“Yesterday in a restaurant in Tokyo, someone at the table next to us lit up a cigarette. I asked my Japanese host if no one ever asked smokers to go outside. His answer took me by surprise: one is not allowed to smoke on the street. Inside is fine, outside is wrong. It’s the opposite of what we are used to in the West.

The point is not so much the reason for the Japanese rule (which is that a walking smoker often holds his or her cigarette at children’s eye level, hence may accidentally blind a child – apparently, this has happened!), but the fact that cultural differences often baffle us. This is because we assume our own perspective to be the only one that matters or makes sense. The same applies very much to my field of primatology, which owes much to Japanese pioneers.”

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“Plato’s “great chain of being”, which places humans above all other animals, is absent from Eastern philosophy. In most Eastern belief systems, the human soul can reincarnate in many shapes and forms, so all living things are spiritually connected. A man can become a fish and a fish can become God. The fact that primates, our closest animal relatives, are native to many Eastern countries, has only helped to strengthen this belief in the interconnectedness of life. Unlike European fables, which are populated with ravens, rabbits, foxes and the like, Eastern folk tales and poetry are laced with references to gibbons and monkeys. The three wise men, or magi, of the Bible are matched in the East by the three wise macaques of Tendai Buddhism (of “See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil” fame).  [Photo shows the three wise monkeys in a carving at the Toshogu Shrine.]

Feeling humility towards animals affects the way we study them. If we believe the soul can move from monkey to human and back, there are no grounds for resisting the idea that we are historically connected. So, it’s hardly surprising that evolution was never controversial in the East: it was a logical and welcome thought.”

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“Naturally, you speak your own language faster and better than any other. This can make it impossible for those who are not native English speakers to keep up at international meetings. It is worse on those occasions when an English speaker doesn’t pull any punches while debating with a scientist whose English is poor.

I have seen it happen often. The English speaker rises from the audience, articulates a penetrating question, sometimes with a joke mixed in, and barely takes the time to listen to the clumsily phrased reply of his opponent. Since English speakers dominate every discussion, they form a class of great minds strutting around in the secure knowledge that no one will challenge them.”

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This is a thought-provoking article on several levels. For one thing, confess, dear reader: Had you heard of Kinji Imanishi? I hadn’t. But I was familiar with the work of Dian Fossey (gorillas) and Birute Gladikas (orangutans). Perhaps there is a Western bias in science. I have a cousin, a botanist, who has always maintained that scientists in India who do excellent work do not get the recognition they deserve. I’d always dismissed this as an excuse — but now, I wonder.

So, smoking is banned on Japanese streets but allowed in restaurants? It hadn’t occurred to me that kids walking on the street could get burned by a cigarette! Surely, a freak accident? Smoking is banned in public places in Kerala, except on the roads (not sure about this!). Increasingly, offices are becoming no-smoking zones.

The parts of the article dealing with cultural differences toward animals and why evolution has not been controversial in the East are illuminating. I had thought the “man at the top of the pyramid, animals below” worldview was Biblical, but apparently it is a Platonic concept. Perhaps they are interconnected.

The importance of English as the international link language, and the problems this poses for some, is something I can understand. In India, English is the language of the elite — it is the magic key that unlocks access to every kind of advancement. Again, there are many who suffer on this account.

All in all, a wonderful article!

Posted from Diigo.

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