This is a tale of Two Professors of Science.

One, epitomising the ‘old-school’, a member of those energetic, dedicated, rigorous and forever curious scientists who observed nature and then asked why? How does that work? What secrets can we unlock, and how can we use those secrets to benefit our society?

They came from an era governed by merit, where scientists were respected for what they did and achieved, not for who they were with regard to their background, ancestry or ethnicity.

And the Scientific Method underpinned their work. They studied and respected local (indigenous) knowledge, but then applied the Scientific Method to unlock its secrets.

They were prolific publishers of their work and respected by their peers, here in Australia and overseas.

And another type of Professor, of the ‘new school’, a member whose career path is not via the sciences, but rather via the humanities.

A ‘progressive’ Professor who is willing to challenge the scientific ‘orthodoxy’ that has been painstakingly built up by the ‘old school’ scientists in Australia over the past one-hundred and fifty years.

More famous for who they ‘are, and what they represent’ and how they ‘speak to’ the need for a ‘reconsideration’ of the accepted wisdom, than for what ‘science’ they have actually done.

There is no single accepted Scientific Method for them, but rather they allow for dual, equally valid, ‘ways of knowing’ – a Eurocentric way of knowing and an Indigenous way of knowing.

In my personal opinion, I think Melbourne University is about to make a serious error of judgement in allowing multiple ‘ways of knowing’ to get a foot-hold in the science-based faculties of the University and this will ultimately greatly damage the future prospects of students who believe they are coming to the University of Melbourne to learn the Scientific Method.

To illustrate my concerns, I have chosen to compare the careers of two Melbourne University Professors – Don Cameron, Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Melbourne from 1968 – 2000 and Bruce Pascoe, recently appointed in 2020 as Melbourne Enterprise Professor in Indigenous Agriculture in the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences (FVAS).

The ‘Old School’ Professor – Prof. Don Cameron

Cameron, Donald Prof., MA ScD (Camb) MSc (Qld) PhD (Manc) FRACI
Cameron, Donald Prof., MA ScD (Camb) MSc (Qld) PhD (Manc) FRACI

Prof Cameron has:

Published over 180 scientific papers,

Supervised 91 B.Sc.(Hons) students, 6 M.Sc’s and 42 Ph.D.’s and 20 Post Doc.’s.

Professor Cameron is acknowledged as having made a significant contribution to Australian science through his exceptional achievements in natural products chemistry – that is, the study of the chemistry within our indigenous Australian flora and insects.

These are the plants and insects that Aboriginal people knew intimately and have been part of their ‘Indigenous knowledge’ for millennia.

But Aboriginal people did not know the ‘secrets within’ (Ref. 1) and how to unlock those secrets, which requires the ‘Scientific Method’ as developed by Western Civilization over the past 2500 years. Aboriginal people were brilliant observers, and using ‘trial and error’, or more bluntly, ‘eat, die and learn’ (Ref. 2), they built up a vast ‘knowledge’ on how to use a wide range of Australia’s plants and insects for food and medicinal purposes.

But they did not know the internal mechanics of why each of these plants or insects had the properties that they did, nor did they know how to manipulate the natural products within their flora and insects, to any large extent, to produce new, novel effects that would have been beneficial to their society.

It requires researchers such as Prof. Cameron to apply the ‘Scientific Method’ to release the secrets within the plants and insects.

An excellent summary of Prof. Cameron’s career can be seen here, which gives examples of how his scientific study of our indigenous flora, insects and protozoa led to the identification and synthesis of compounds that were found to be, ‘active against HIV and related retroviruses’, as well as led to the development of, ‘the shortest, simplest, and among the most efficient syntheses of the anthracyclines used in cancer chemotherapy’.

Early in his career Prof. Cameron had won a 1851 Exhibition Scholarship to do his Ph.D under the legendary Arthur Birch at the University of Manchester.

Arthur John Birch AC CMG FRS FAA was a working class boy from Sydney who rose to become one of the greatest organic chemists of the twentieth century.

Birch became fascinated with the beautiful, indigenous natural product chemistry of the Australian bush, with its range of odours from eucalypt trees, brilliant flower colours, and strange coloured resins exuding from the trunks of eucalypts and grass trees, the natural materials that Aboriginal people knew intimately.

He ‘taught himself organic chemistry’ from about the age of 12 and went on famously to invent, amongst other things, the Birch Reduction reaction.

As you read this post, there are probably many hundreds of Birch Reductions going on all over the world, in small labs in Australia, Europe, Latin America and elsewhere, and in massive, commercial, factory batches in the US and China.

The Birch reduction process has wide application, most notably in the commercial synthesis of oral contraceptives, giving rise to Arthur Birch being called, ‘the father of the pill’.

So, a scientific fascination by a working-class boy from Sydney, to unlock the secrets of the natural products used by Aboriginal Australians for millennia, led ultimately to the large scale manufacture of affordable, oral contraceptives, taken today by women, including Aboriginal women, the world over.

In the same way that Prof. Cameron learnt the ‘Scientific Method’ from Arthur Birch, I in turn learnt the ‘Scientific Method’ from Prof. Cameron when he was my Honour’s year supervisor in the late 1970’s, when I majored in Organic Chemistry at Melbourne University, studying the pigment chemistry of the Australia’s indigenous Lac insects.

I, along with very many others, learnt the ‘Scientific Method’ in his laboratory and on graduation we moved into Australian industrial, pharmaceutical and agricultural companies that played their part in contributing to Australia’s massive economic boom from the 1980’s onwards.

The ‘New School’ Professor – Prof. Bruce Pascoe

Bruce Pascoe photographed with (L-R) Professor Marcia Langton, Doctor Kate Howell and Professor John Fazakerley at the FVAS 2018 Research Week. -     Source
Bruce Pascoe photographed with (L-R) Professor Marcia Langton, Doctor Kate Howell and Professor John Fazakerley at the FVAS 2018 Research Week. – Source

In September 2020, the University of Melbourne announced that,

Indigenous author and advocate Bruce Pascoe has joined the University of Melbourne as Melbourne Enterprise Professor in Indigenous Agriculture in the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences (FVAS).

Surprisingly, the announcement seemed to have generated very little media interest, with only one mention we could find in a national newspaper, (The Australian) and one TV coverage, by Andrew Bolt on SkyNews.

All the other main media outlets, many of whom have been reporting regularly on Bruce Pascoe and his book, Dark Emu, seem to have ignored Professor Pascoe’s latest appointment – no mention, that we could find, on the ABC, in The Age, The Guardian Australia, The Saturday Paper, et al. Most unusual.

Maybe the rest of the media have finally come to realise that Professor Pascoe’s, ‘Aboriginal Farming Theory’, is not quite as intellectually sound and newsworthy as his book, Dark Emu suggests?

Perhaps, mainstream Australia agrees with Andrew Bolt when he commented on Professor Pascoe’s appointment,

‘This is a true sign of intellectual decline – Melbourne University has just appointed Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu, as a Professor of Indigenous Agriculture’. – Sky News – The Bolt Report 03/09/2020.

So let’s dig a little deeper to see if we can try to understand what Melbourne University were thinking in appointing Professor Pascoe to a senior role in a Science faculty.

What Can Students Expect from Melbourne University’s Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences (FVAS)?

Their website informs us that students can,

Study veterinary, agricultural or food sciences at the University of Melbourne and join a faculty committed to life-long learning and the application of science to local, national and global issues.

Was it Professor Pascoe’s long list of Scientific Publications that qualified him for the role of Professor in this science-based faculty?

Professor Pascoe’s published works are predominately ‘fiction’, with only one work out of 184 being described as Non-fiction - Source     AustLit     as of September 2020
Professor Pascoe’s published works are predominately ‘fiction’, with only one work out of 184 being described as Non-fiction – Source AustLit as of September 2020

No, it doesn’t look likely.

The list (see above) of Professor Pascoe’s published works looks overwhelmingly like fiction, general writing, poetry and literature, with only one work, his book Dark Emu, being described as ‘non-fiction’, a description many would take issue with, for example here.

As none of Mr Pascoe’s work appears to be ‘scientific’, Melbourne University can’t have had an employment selection criteria that required Professor Pascoe to have published an extensive list of peer-reviewed, science-based papers or books, as would normally be the criteria for the appointment of a Professor of science.

Maybe it was Professor Pascoe’s ‘bold enterprising plans’ that got him appointed as an ‘Enterprise Professor’?

Using the definitions from the Macquarie Dictionary, an ‘Enterprise Professor’ would be expected to be a person that fits some, or all, of the following criteria.

An Enterprise Professor – a teacher of the highest rank, usually holding a chair in a particular branch of learning in a university – who displays ‘enterprise’ by undertaking projects, especially ones that are of some importance, or that require boldness, an adventurous spirit or energy.

Alternatively, the Professorship may focus on the ‘enterprise’ descriptor and require its appointee to be a specialist in the knowledge of companies or enterprises organised for commercial purposes.

From the Univeristy of Melbourne Media Statement, we learn that, Professor Pascoe,

‘…said his interest in developing traditional Indigenous farming and foods for broader consumption was a particular driver in joining the University.’

“I wanted to be in a position where I could be closer to potential research students,” Mr Pascoe said. “We’re identifying areas all the time where we need some research done.

‘Mr Pascoe also sees an opportunity to open the door to greater collaboration with Yorta Yorta people at the Faculty’s Dookie agricultural campus in the Goulburn Valley region. “Let’s put our food science there…we’re going to need land and we’re going to need a research facility that is Aboriginal-owned or has Aboriginal management.” – [our emphasis]

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but in the ‘old-school’, traditional Science Professors viewed themselves as, ‘intellectual public servants’, there to ‘serve’ their students by imparting and ‘professing’ the knowledge and wisdom that they had accumulated over their long academic careers.

With their research students they were to ‘unlock’ nature’s secrets and publish the results for all of society’s benefit.

They were not there to tap into, as Professor Pascoe admits, ‘potential research students’, as a way to ‘get some research done’ (cheaply?) for who he calls ‘we’ (society, or his off-site business?).

They were certainly not there to get access to cheap land to set-up an enterprise or business that selected its employees and management based on race.

It is totally unbelievable in today’s Australia that a Professor can seem to advocate for the ‘take-over’ of a tax-payer funded research facility at Melbourne University, that belongs to all of us, with the aim of replacing its management and/or ownership with staff who are selected on the basis of their race.

Does no-one at the University of Melbourne raise any concerns at Professor Pascoe’s apparent brazenness? Are we heading towards a new academic Apartheid, which we all know will ultimately end in disaster?

What on earth has the University of Melbourne come to when its science faculties are happy to admit that this is an acceptable criteria for allocating Professorships?

Maybe it was Professor Pascoe’s ‘proven-track record of his enterprising business skills’ that got him appointed as an ‘Enterprise Professor’?

In his book, Dark Emu, Professor Pascoe says,

‘The yam daisy, Microseris lanceolata, would seem [a] logical commercial crop likely to prove attractive to our food-conscious society…[A]t Mallacoota in Victoria, several Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members [of a working group] embarked on a program to grow yam daisy from seed. The trial is still in progress, and in…2012 we harvested our first seed and replanted most of it in…2013…Soon we will be able to sell seed and spread knowledge of the plant across a variety of gardeners and soil types’ – (ibid., 2018 Reprint, p212). -[our emphasis]

Some eight years after Professor Pascoe’s claim to be selling the seed ‘soon’, the reality is that Yam Daisy seeds are difficult to find commercially and, when available, often cost a prohibitive 20c to $1 each.

Most on-line vendors are frequently ‘sold out’ not, we understand, due to excessive demand, but rather due to variable and infrequent supply from producers.

Even Professor Pascoe’s own business, Black Duck Foods’s shop is empty – a visit to the website’s shop just informs customers, ‘Coming soon’.

So it seems Professor Pascoe’s ‘enterprising’ skills have not been sufficient enough to produce large, commercial quantities of Yam Daisy seed in his eight years of ‘enterprising’ since his prediction.

Professor Pascoe’s previous business ‘enterprise’ was called, GURUNDGI MUNJIE, BACK TO COUNTRY Pty Ltd, which, in his Dark Emu book, he describes as,

…a Yuin company on the New South wales south coast [which] is planning harvests of a number of grains, and early trials of flour production have had spectacular results’. – (ibid., p214).

The results could not have been that ‘spectacular’ given that the company, which was started in 2015 was, by 2019, in the process of being ‘struck-off’ the ASIC companies register, for what ‘business’ reason we can only guess at.

Professor Pascoe’s most recent business ‘enterprise’, Black Duck Foods Ltd has been set-up as an ‘Unlisted Public Company – Non-Profit Company’, which is surprising to us.

If Melbourne University wish to appoint an ‘Enterprise Professor’, one would expect that they would choose a candidate with a commercially proven background in running an ‘enterprise’ profitably so it can generate the funds needed to invest in its business and research and development program.

The long-term aim of a ‘socially aware’ company should be to meet its equity obligations to our society by paying tax on its profits.

But then, I was brought up in the ‘old-school’ tradition where we believed business enterprises were tax-paying, proprietary companies, and ‘non-profit’ entities were limited to those important charitable institutions like the Salvation Army.

Obviously in today’s world, there are those who want to stretch the definition of ‘salvation’ to include a lot more than just ‘souls’.

Did Professor Pascoe at Least Submit a Business Enterprise Plan During His Interview?

Professor Pascoe inspects some of his yield at his,  ‘farm in East Gippsland, Victoria, [which] is producing native grains for flour and bread using traditional Aboriginal techniques   -   The Guardian 13/5/2020
Professor Pascoe inspects some of his yield at his, ‘farm in East Gippsland, Victoria, [which] is producing native grains for flour and bread using traditional Aboriginal techniquesThe Guardian 13/5/2020

In the FVAS media release, Professor Pascoe claims that,

‘.. his interest in developing traditional Indigenous farming and foods for broader consumption was a particular driver in joining the University.’

It would be nice to know if Professor Pascoe submitted a Business Plan to support this claim and to justify the substantial University funds that will be needed to achieve his goals.

To our mind, the whole indigenous grass-seed to bread theory is just a New-Age fantasy of the ‘Ivory Tower Academics of Sustainability’ at the University of Melbourne.

A large scale grain-to-flour industry cannot be developed in Australia using indigenous grasses, whose claim to fame is the ability to survive over the millennia in the harsh, drought and flood prone environment that is Australia.

Evolution has selected for their properties of being long-term, opportunistic survivors, not regular, reliable heavy producers of high protein grain.

They are very low yielding (50kg/ha) and have very small, hard to harvest seeds that are expensive to produce.

They are commercially useless for flour production when compared to the Australian high protein wheats that yield about 2000kg/ha at much lower unit cost.

In his book Dark Emu, Professor Pascoe discusses the work of Dr Ian Chivers on Aboriginal Grain Management and the potential for Indigenous perennial grasses as commercial cereal crops.

Dr Chivers elaborates on his ideas in a 2012 article in The Conversation, which Professor Pascoe also cites in Dark Emu.

We give some credit to Dr Chivers – at least he believes in his own ideas sufficiently to set up a company, Native Seed Pty Ltd that is trying to commercialize an indigenous grass grain.

But in the scheme of things, it doesn’t seem to be commercially viable to produce native seed flour for bread making, given the price for the native grass seeds that Dr Chivers sells are in the order of hundreds of dollars per kilogram – this makes for a very expensive loaf of bread!

One of our contributors recently purchased some native seeds from Dr Chiver’s company at what could only be described as prohibitively high pricing and totally uneconomic for bread making.

In addition, Dr Chivers recommends using, for the establishment of his native grasses, a herbicide cocktail mix and follow up program that pretty much mimics current agronomic advice for broadacre wheat production in Australia. (See slides below).

So this would appear to make a mockery of Melbourne University’s desire to use Professor Pascoe’s ‘indigenous farming knowledge’ to improve carbon neutrality and sustainability in Australian cereal production. It is not sustainable if we lose money everytime we make a loaf of bread from native grass-seed flour.

So we ask, if an expert of Dr Chivers’s standing (and a graduate of Melbourne University to boot!) after 25 years of hard work does not appear to have been able to, as far as we can tell, commercialise one Indigenous grass seed for use as a commercial food, what chance is there of Professor Pascoe achieving it?

With all due respect to Professor Pascoe, he is 73 years old, an age at which most people have retired and it seems hard to believe that the University believes he is in a position to head up a multi-decade, difficult project such as this.

Screen Shot 2020-09-12 at 3.10.11 pm.png
Screen Shot 2020-09-12 at 3.09.37 pm.png

Figure 1: Extracts from a presentation of Dr Chivers summarising the herbicide and follow-up treatments required to establish an indigenous grass.

A Scientist’s Disappointment

The saddest thing I find about this whole saga is Professor Pascoe’s apparent lack of awareness of all the great science that has already been done working with Aboriginal Australians on developing their indigenous plants for the good of Australian society.

If one were to believe Professor Pascoe, one would think he is the first to ‘discover’ the potential of these indigenous plants, and that ‘colonial’ Australians just blindly, or wilfully, dismissed any Aboriginal indigenous knowledge on these topics.

Melbourne University is also unbelievably naive if they accept that Professor Pascoe is the first to offer insight into the collaboration between the Aborigines, with their accumulated plant knowledge, and the ‘colonial’ scientists, with their Scientific Method.

One has only to consider L.J. Webb’s efforts in the 1940’s to the 1960’s when he repeatedly surveyed Aborigines all over Australia on what medicinal plants they had traditionally used (he identified 124 plants, indigenous to Australia).

Further back, during all of the 19th century, chemists and botanists frequently collaborated with Aboriginal people to determine the properties of the Aboriginal indigenous medicinal plants.

To give but one example, where Professor Pascoe and Melbourne University are arriving about 150 years too late onto the scene, consider the case of the plant family Solanaceae, and in particular its genus Duboisia of which there are only four species, all of quite restricted distribution (apart from the occurrence of D. myoporoides also in New Caledonia), and indigenous only to Australia.

All the Duboisia contain alkaloids with fascinating properties that the Aborigines learnt how to use successfully over many years of trial and error (‘eat, die and learn’).

One of the most important is an Australian bush, Duboisia myoporoides, which has been the subject of a huge amount of collaboration between the early colonists and Aboriginal people in documenting its locations and Aboriginal uses.

Later on, countless chemists, applying the Scientific Method, unlocked its secrets by isolating its alkaloid content and then commercializing its use.

The main alkaloid constituent that is of interest is, hyoscine (scopolamine), which the Aborigines used as a fish poison, but which European scientists discovered was an excellent anti-travel sickness medicine.

Hyoscine was instrumental in the Second World War during the D-day landings. Every soldier sent from Britain on that day on the Channel crossing had a taken a pill containing hyoscine, the old Aboriginal drug, to prevent mass sea-sickness prior to landing on the beaches of Normandy.

Without that contribution from Aboriginal knowledge, the D-day landings may have failed due to mass nausea amongst the Allied troops and a subsequent weakened ability to fight.

So who knows, without the previous collaboration between the Aborigines and colonial botanists and scientists, the first language of the Poms in London might now be German!

Duboisia is grown on many farms around the South Burnett for the pharmaceutical trade  (Photo: Clive Lowe Photography)
Duboisia is grown on many farms around the South Burnett for the pharmaceutical trade (Photo: Clive Lowe Photography)

And the benefits continue today with Australia being the world’s largest supplier of hyoscine, which is harvested from Duboisia plantations in Australia operated by, or contracted to (somewhat ironically you might think) a German pharmaceutical company.

Travelcalm Travel Sickness medication is based on the Aboriginal drug ‘hyoscine’ - an example of the successful collaboration between Aboriginal plant knowledge and the Scientific Method
Travelcalm Travel Sickness medication is based on the Aboriginal drug ‘hyoscine’ – an example of the successful collaboration between Aboriginal plant knowledge and the Scientific Method

And, as a contemporary reminder of past collaborations between Aboriginal people, with their knowledge of indigenous plants, and the colonials with their expertise in the ‘Scientific method’, one just needs to just consider the travel sickness medication, Travacalm.

Many Australians, at one time another, have taken this medication, or given it to their kids, not realising that its active ingredient was the Aboriginal drug, ‘onungunabie‘ or ‘ngmoo’, which we now know as hyoscine, the extract from Duboisia myoporoides

It would have been nice if Professor Pascoe had acknowledged some of this Indigenous ‘agriculture’ and colonial collaboration in Dark Emu, but that might have gone against what we perceive as his narrative theme – ‘Aborigines always good – Colonials always bad.’

One Last Word on Why Professor Pascoe’s ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ Appointment is a Bad Omen for the Future of Science at Melbourne Univeristy.

In the media release from Melbourne University announcing Professor Pascoe’s appointment, there are frequent, worrying mentions of the term, ‘Indigenous knowledge’, and its ‘political’ derivatives,

‘University of Melbourne’s, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences (FVAS) has recently appointed ‘Indigenous author and advocate’, Bruce Pascoe as Melbourne Enterprise Professor in Indigenous Agriculture.

’Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences Dean Professor John Fazakerleyis enthusiastic about the greater potential for collaboration with first nations people to shape the direction of teaching and research within the Faculty’.

Professor Aaron Corn, Director of the Indigenous Knowledge Institute, said, “The Indigenous Knowledge Institute was established earlier this year to support communities to help sustain Indigenous knowledge systems, and to champion the inclusion and value of Indigenous knowledge and knowledge-holders in research. This appointment by FVAS helps further those aims with a clear commitment to deepening our understanding and investment in Indigenous agriculture and ecological knowledge. It will open up a range of opportunities for collaborative research partnerships with Indigenous communities and knowledge-holders..”

In past times this would not have worried me, given that the term, ‘indigenous knowledge’, would have been understood as simply being some knowledge known to the indigenous people of an area.

For example, where the Aborigines knew that a particular plant could be found, or what plant extract to use to poison the water-hole where emus drank, thereby stupefying them to allow their easy capture.

In today’s Post-modern world however, ‘Indigenous knowledge’ with a capital “I” is taking on another, all encompassing meaning of its own.

It is being elevated, particularly in countries such as Canada, to mean a separate ‘way of knowing’ that is of equal validity to all other ‘ways of knowing’, such as the Eurocentric Western Science, ‘way of knowing’.

People or groups can have unique local knowledge of plants, animals and the ecology of a their particular region, which they have gained over many years, even millennia.

All mankind, whether they be Aborigines, Brits, Afganis, Australians, or whatever, have a knowledge to varying degrees of their own world that is unique and not readily known by outsiders.

If Melbourne University just defines indigenous knowledge as being like this, that is, based on content, that is fine.

But the danger here is from the ‘slippage’ we can see happening in other counties such as Canada.

Some academic activists appear to be infiltrating the universities and then, under the guise of just wanting to introduce some curricula based on ‘Indigenous knowledge’, they then start to make totally unwarranted epistemological or ‘ways of knowing’ claims for that ‘Indigenous knowledge’.

For example consider this Canadian academic’s thoughts on the issue,

Indigenous knowledge is a growing field of enquiry…particularly for those interested in education innovation. The question, ‘What is Indigenous knowledge?’ is usually asked by Eurocentric scholars seeking to understand a cognitive system that is alien to them. The greatest challenge in answering this question is to find a respectful way to compare Eurocentric and Indigenous ways of knowing and include both in contemporary modern education’ – Dr Marie Battiste, Univ. of Saskatchewas Cananda – here – [our emphasis]

It is critical for the University of Melbourne to maintain its traditional belief that there is only one ‘way of knowing’ and there is only one ‘Scientific Method’ – it is universal – it is not British, Aboriginal, Chinese, Australian or Indigenous. It is human.

Canadian evolutionary psychologist, Gad Saad has spent a lot of time thinking about this and his views are instructional,

‘A person of a particular racial or ethnic identity does not hold an approach to knowledge that is different to the accepted epistomology of the scientific method. There aren’t multiple ways of knowing’.Gad Saad, – See here for film clip for his view on ‘indigenous’ science.

If the Scientific Method has a primary purpose, it is to correct for human biases. The reason it has surpassed all other systems is that, no matter how strong your belief is in something, Science will tell you if it is wrong if you do the Science correctly.

In summary, the academic staff at The University of Melbourne are at an intellectual crossroads. Let us all hope that they reflect wisely and choose the correct path forward.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Aboriginal people did not develop a more sophisticated ‘material tool kit’ and their society did not develop ‘higher’ human secular skills such as pottery-making, the wheel, metallurgy, advanced weaponry, advanced trading and exports, or the looms to manufacture textile fabrics, is due to what anthropologist Peter Sutton describes as the, ‘profoundly foreign approaches to the problem of knowledge’ between Aborigines and European anthropologists and scientists. (See Sutton, P, The Politics of Suffering, MUP, 2009, p184). He concedes that there are many commonalities in the approach of Aboriginal knowledge and Western knowledge, namely the,

‘appeal to empirical observation as evidence for propositions, and a basically identical approach to deductive logic. But these sit alongside some deep differences, such as the role of publication and secrecy, the acceptability of questioning, and the nexus between religious power and the privilege of being right.’

This is the point of our post here. Aboriginal knowledge was brilliant up to a certain degree with regard to content.

But, it was bound in by culture and religion, not unlike pre-Renaissance Classical Western knowledge being stifled by the Church in Europe. Aboriginal ‘free-thinkers’ and blossoming ‘scientists’ were continually put-down if they strayed too far from the accepted norms set down by the Aboriginal elders.

The Western Scientific Method, which is the only successful ‘way of knowing’, was never able to develop in Aboriginal society.

A good example of this, is the case of pituri and its hidden drug hyoscine, which we describe above.

If Aboriginal society had developed a ‘Scientific Method’ and a ‘free-thinking society’ they may have been able to develop a massive, indigenous pituri export industry along the lines of the Spice Islands not far to their north in SE Asia.

But they didn’t, or couldn’t, possibly due to the strong religious and secrecy customs imposed by the Elders with regard to pituri, as explained by George Aiston in his 1937 paper here.

In my mind, this is the fundamental problem with the University of Melbourne potentially elevating ‘Indigenous knowledge’ as an equivalent ‘way of knowing’.

The time will come when research and the pursuit of a truth will need to be compromised because its disclosure to those outside a particular group, or its publication, or even discussing it, will cut across some perceived Aboriginal tradition, ‘secret business’ or internal, political power-base.

Many a time in my career as a technical advisor, I have been asked, as a man, to leave the room so the Aboriginal women can discuss the project in hand. Not surprisingly, the project faltered and collapsed into political group power-plays.

All evidence to date suggests that Indigenous Knowledge is not a good way for a society to develop materially.

The Australian agronomist and plant breeder William Farrer and ‘his’ wheat graced the $2 currency from 1966 until 1988 when it was replaced by the $2 coin below - Designed by Gordon Andrews. - Source     Wikipedia
The Australian agronomist and plant breeder William Farrer and ‘his’ wheat graced the $2 currency from 1966 until 1988 when it was replaced by the $2 coin below – Designed by Gordon Andrews. – Source Wikipedia

Australia formerly celebrated someone for what they did – in the case of the two-dollar banknote, William Farrer (1845 – 1906) a leading Australian agronomist and plant breeder who applied the Scientific Method to make significant improvements in both the quality and crop yields of Australia’s national wheat harvest, a contribution for which he earned the title, ‘father of the Australian wheat industry’.

On his wife’s farm, in the present day Australian Capital Territory, he turned his attention to wheat cultivation with a goal to produce a good loaf of bread.

Farrer applied his scientific knowledge to developing wheat hybrids, initially applying cross-pollination techniques to create rust immune strains of wheat.

He readily improvised using hairpins to transfer pollen until he could obtain forceps.

His scientific experiments continued over 20 years and consisted of long days of planting and developing wheat strains.

He used the Scientific Method of Gregor Mendel in his work. The many wheat strains he developed led to a major improvements to Australia’s wheat industry within a few years.

The Federation strain was released to Australian farmers in 1903 and resulted in a trebling of Australia’s wheat harvest over a period of twenty years. Wheat export was to become a world class enterprise.

– abridged from – Wikipedia

A ‘generic’ Walpiri-Anmatyerre man of the Northern Territory of Australia replaces William Farrer in 1988 on the $2 currency,    - $2 coin designed by Horst Hahne - Source  -    Wikipedia
A ‘generic’ Walpiri-Anmatyerre man of the Northern Territory of Australia replaces William Farrer in 1988 on the $2 currency,– $2 coin designed by Horst Hahne – Source Wikipedia

In 1988, Farrer was removed from the Australian two-dollar currency when it was changed from a banknote to a coin.

The reverse of the new $2 coin depicts an ‘Aboriginal Elder’, a Walpiri-Anmatyerre man of the Northern Territory of Australia.

This image of an Aboriginal man is chosen for who he is, rather than for what he has done.

This ‘Aboriginal Elder’ is not intended to depict any person in particular, although it is said to have been inspired by an Ainslie Roberts drawing of Gwoya Jungarai (Tjungarrayi) known as One Pound Jimmy who appeared on stamps and in magazines in the 1930’s and 1950’s as being a fine representative of an Aboriginal man – that is for who he is, not for what he has done.


Ref 1

“Doc” Sutherland, Reader in Organic Chemistry, was an excellent teacher. He punctuated lectures with illustrations from the history of science to drive home key messages: nature does not give its secrets easily, breakthroughs in science demand a deep understanding of one’s discipline and field of inquiry, a lot of painstaking research and even more deep reflection on what the data mean. As part of Maurice Sutherland’s research team, I worked on the structure of the organic molecules responsible for the pigmentation in marine organisms. Once more, working through many a long day and night in the lab, I learned precisely what Dr Sutherland meant’.

– as quoted by Emeritus Professor Colin POWER, AM, BSc, DipED, BEd (hons),PhD (UQ). here .

Maurice ‘Doc” Sutherland was Prof. Cameron’s M.Sc. superviser at University of Queensland in 1958 – [our emphasis]

Ref 2 : Webb, L.J., “Eat, Die and Learn” – The Botany of the Australian Aborigines, Australian Natural History, March 1973, p290-295 – here

Further reading.

Blainey, G.The early Australian pharmacists – May 1977 here


Ratsch, A., et al The pituri story: a review of the historical literature surrounding traditional Australian Aboriginal use of nicotine in Central Australia – 2010 here

This is reposted with kind permission from the wonderful Dark Emu Exposed website which has many other high quality articles which you can find by clicking here:

Roger Karge
Roger Karge BSc (Hons) Melbourne University is A 'Quiet Australian' based in Melbourne Australia, with a background in science and business, who edits the Dark Emu Exposed website. Inspired by thinkers who believe that facts are more reliable than empathy - Thomas Sowell, Douglas Murray, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Keith Windschuttle, Melanie Phillips, Frank Furedi, Jordan Peterson, et al. Currently working with a diverse network of people to get Australian politics and discourse back on track to its historical direction - that of a progressive, egalitarian, free-enterprise and aspirational society, dominated by working and middle classes, who believe in a fair-go for all in an open, democratic, sovereign Australia with freedom of expression and association.