Ngongas and ecology: on having a worldview


  • Joel S. Brown

J. S. Brown, Dept of Biological Sciences, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago, 845 W. Taylor St., Chicago, IL 60607, USA (


Ngongas provide a metaphor for some of the opportunities and challenges facing the science of ecology and evolution. Ngongas, the traditional healers of the Shona culture, Zimbabwe, fail in the delivery of quality health by today's standards. Their outdated worldview makes most health related issues seem more complicated and more multi-factorial than when viewed through the worldviews of modern medicine. With the wrong worldview, one can work very hard, be very bright and dedicated, and still be ineffective. With the right worldview, one can work much less hard and still be extremely effective. As ecologists, we should be opinionated and possess clearly articulated worldviews for filtering and interpreting information. As ecologists we are also a bit like ngongas – we often fail to provide answers for society's ecological questions and problems, and we excuse ourselves with a belief that ecological systems are too complex and have too many factors. Unlike ngongas, this invites us to pay a lot of attention to promoting and assessing competing worldviews. We should be open-minded to the anomalies in our worldview and the successes of alternative viewpoints. As an admitted ecological ngonga, I discuss the worldview I use in my own research: the Optimization Research Program, a Darwinian research program that uses game theory to conceptualize and understand ecological systems. I use it illustrate how worldviews can synthesize disparate ideas. (I use kin selection and reciprocal altruism as examples.) I use it to show how new ideas and predictions can be generated. (I use root competition in plants and the possibility that increased crop yield may be forthcoming from knowledge of this game.)