George Gheverghese Joseph, The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics. 2nd. ed. London: Penguin Books, 2000. To order this book from Amazon.com, click here.
Reviewed by Abdul Karim Bangura
In her article, "Good-Bye Pythagoras?" (in The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 6, 2000, pp.16-17), Elizabeth Greene cites the following cases of academic institutions where ethnomathematics has been thoroughly embraced:
Greene adds that, in college classes in algebra, calculus, geometry, statistics, and the history of mathematics, among other subjects, and in degree programs for future elementary- and secondary-school teachers, professors are using ethnomathematics to define a new method of teaching mathematics.
All of these professors can now have a valuable text for their coursesi.e. George Gheverghese Joseph's The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics. In this pioneering book, Joseph clearly demonstrates that human beings everywhere have been capable of innovative and advanced mathematical thinking. He traces the history of mathematics from the Ishango Bone in Central Africa and the Inca quipu of South America about 20,000 years ago to the dawn of modern mathematics, when the Arabs changed the contours of algebra around A.D. 830.
What motivated this work is Joseph's desire to correct the widely held belief that mathematics was essentially a European product. This is because, according to him, the standard treatment of the history of non-European mathematics is marked by a deep-rooted historiographical bias in the selection and interpretation of facts, and that mathematical activity outside Europe has as a consequence been ignored, devalued or distorted.
In this second edition, Joseph retains the basic format, content and structure of the first one. These are augmented by updates and second thoughts incorporated into notes on each chapter appended at the end in a new section entitled "Reflections."
Joseph's ability to put together such an effulgent work is a reflection of his life story. Born in Karala, southern India, Joseph lived there for nine years. He received his early schooling in Mombasa, Kenya, when his family moved there. He later studied at the University of Leicester, and then worked for six years as an Education Officer in Kenya before returning to the University of Manchester to complete his port-graduate studies. He has held visiting teaching appointments in many parts of the world, including Central and East Africa, Australia, India, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and the United States.
The essence of Joseph's masterpiece hinges upon what Stuart Glendinning Hall describes in his thought-provoking essay, "Towards a Working Non-Linear Science of Empowerment" (presented at the Ninth Annual International Conference of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences in Berkeley, California, July 23-26, 1999). As Hall puts it, the idea that there could be a "people's knowledge" substantially equivalent to "educated knowledge" is acknowledged by Edwin Lazlo in terms of the "growing convergence between the mystical worldview (predominantly, but by no means exclusively, Eastern) and the emerging paradigm of reality among scientists at the cutting edge of contemporary knowledge." It is rare to find anyone arguing this kind of equivalent in the West because, continues Hall, the colonization of consciousness by the values of need and knowledge has had longer to run: "European mathematics is mathematics; all other mathematics is anthropology. That explains why this other mathematics belongs to what has been called ethnoscience" (a la Thomas Crump in his 1990 work, The Anthropology of Numbers).
What Joseph accomplishes, therefore, is to highlight the myth in the perception that, again following Hall, "people's collective silence is correlated with stupidity, when it is first and foremost an adaptive response to an environment where people perceive they do not have a voice." Thus, Joseph's book is a valuable collection for every scientist, natural, behavioral, or social.
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Copyright ©2001 Kim Williams