Evolutionary Process and Normalcy

This is perhaps more of a heuristic extension of natural process to culture and draws together a disparate group of ideas about human tendency (both as products of environment and natural selection and as cultural products and producers). That caveat stated, I wanted to think about modernity and conformity but place it within a frame of evolutionary process on the macro scale of what Darwin called incipient species.

There are many ways to view incipient species in the modern academic and scientific arena. In The Origin of Species, Darwin described certain species as having very wide geographical ranges such that at the extreme margins of these ranges, local mating groups were semi-isolated from other marginal groups. He called these incipient species because polar opposite subgroups who are likely to not interbreed due to distance may accumulate enough differences over time to distinguish them from their ancestral parent group. This is particularly true if the geographic range of the group transects a diversity of environments to which local adaptations may be increasingly the result of specific natural selection. This idea that greater isolation occurs at the margins of a species’ range has fueled ideas of the process of speciation. Colin Groves (among others) counter-argues that the speciation is taking place in the center of the region. This debate is beyond the idea that I want to discuss so I will leave that discussion there.

The idea of incipient species, whether in the center or the margins of the geographic range, is appealing above and beyond its evolutionary implications (on the macro and micro scale). This idea is what I want to take forward in thinking about normalcy. The idea of normalcy is an undercurrent in human history. Does normalcy describe the state of a society at the center, where the population is most dense, and abnormality as variable states of society at the margins (incipient cultural norms rather than incipient species?).

What is normal and how is it created? Is normal the mean for the population on a bell curve or the data midpoint? In either case, the norm would be described by an area delineating the statistically greatest density along the continuum. This can and may be problematic if we take those data to describe a normal trait or behavior. Take fidelity. There are many discussions and statistics available on the subject. In this one, the views on what constitutes fidelity are extremely variable (from sexual intercourse to holding hands with someone else). Even if we limit infidelity to having sexual acts outside the primary relationship, the average (normal) behavior may well describe someone who is unfaithful. But, these are statistics and may be disparate with culturally norms such that most societies define parameters of fidelity and find those who stray to be abnormal (even if the behavior to stray is more common than not). Thus, statistics often exist outside cultural values of normalcy, even if they sometimes intersect with these concepts. Cultural normalcy often describes not what people do but what they ought to do. .

In the context of conformity and modernity, we use the word normal as a goal. Normal is a reachable goal for which we all have potential to achieve. It is normal to seek this goal and so the goal, or reaching that social ideal, eventually becomes normal (even if the ‘average’ person fails to achieve it). This idealization of certain behaviors creates a set of expectations for those in the public eye, certainly politicians and religious figures. But, it also places pressure on every member of society to conform to this image as well.

At this point, we are dangerously close to ideal type, an outdated concept in biology popularized in the 19th century that, when led to the practice of typology, categorizing based on relationship to ideal type. The ideal type describes a few things. It could be the perfect specimen in a class of specimens or a specimen statistically created from a n average of traits (whether skull shape and size or sexual norms) from a reference population. All new specimens are categorized based on their relationship to ideal type. We can assume that the farther you are from the ideal, the less normal you are, the more pathological you are.

Anneli Rufus describes this in her book, The Loner’s Manifesto. She argues that people rejected by society, people who want to belong but are not socially accepted are mistakenly called loners. For her (and she presents a strong argument), the term loner actually refers to people who enjoy and prefer their solitude despite the fact that they may be welcomed into society and may have friends who yearn for their company and want to see more of them. A recent misuse of the term is related to the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Seung-Hui Cho, the killer, is called a loner, but is he? He was shunned much of his life due to a variety of reasons so his ‘alone’ status is not necessarily the result of a desire to be alone. He was a loner because society made him a loner by rejecting. This is a semantic debate that explores a class of people who are not normal with regards to sociability. We are social animals and anyone who is not social is not normal and to be feared. There is no distinction made between those who shun most society of their own volition and those who are rejected by society and may harbor malice as a result. Both are viewed as equally pathological.

There are many examples sliding scales of when an abnormality becomes pathological or dangerous to the health of the individual or the health of others: eating disorders, autism, schizophrenia, OCD, and so on. The appeal for many people to continue in psychology as a major field of study is finding out what is “wrong” with themselves. But, the “average” person has many things “wrong.” This is because there isn’t anyone that is statistically normal. Literature and media have spoofed this idea time and time again.

There is a tremendous danger in fitting oneself, one’s children–any individual in society–to the normal curve, within one standard deviation. Why? Because this practice seeks to eliminate variation, variation which is the cornerstone of survival. To return to the incipient species idea, this variation is what ensures survival of the species. Without variation, a species is too specifically adapted to a set of conditions. So, if those conditions change drastically, that species is now no longer fit and will not survive (wherein fitness is relative and refers to net reproductive success, having offspring that have offspring).

Again, I do not intend to extend evolutionary process to cultural patterns except as heuristic device, a useful analogy for advocating a revised view of norms that includes the dangers of adhering to closely to achieving them as a society. I would argue that the construction and practice of normalcy are increasingly and fatally under-considered in our society, where conformity is more important than critical thinking about what constitutes the standards to which we conform.


Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

3 thoughts on “Evolutionary Process and Normalcy

  1. I have to agree with a lot of this, though like race, even if normalcy is constructed it is still a lived experience. What it means to “fatally under-consider” this construction is certainly a critical question.

    Someone who took an interesting perspective on this is Ian Hacking. He wrote a somewhat skeptical book on social constructionism called the Social Construction of What?.

    More recently he has collected some of his writings, including his classic paper “Making up people” in Historical Ontology.

    PS, off-topic: Science word of the day is “baramin” and baraminology. Ok, just joking.


  2. “conformity more important than critical thinking about the standards to which we conform.”
    Fascinating. A bit of a catch 22 though. If we don’t conform to the accepted standards,the ‘normal,’ whether or not we have thought critically on the subject, are we not then behaving in an nonconformist or abnormal way? We become the ‘loners’ or the ‘crazy loners’ that society abhors, that society fails to separate into the ‘alone,’the ‘rejects,’and those with treatable disorders among other abnormalities. Of course,nonconformity by enough people helps change the definition of normal.


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