Reading Sarah Chaney’s Am I Normal? for new Scientist, 10 August 2022
In the collections of University College London there is a pair of gloves belonging to the nineteenth-century polymath Francis Galton. Galton’s motto was “Whenever you can, count”. The left glove has a pin in the thumb and a pad of felt across the fingers. Placing a strip of paper over the felt, Galton could then, by touching different fingers with the pin, keep track of what he saw without anyone noticing. A beautiful female, passing him by, was registered on one finger: her plain companion was registered on another. With these tallies, Galton thought he might in time be able to assemble a beauty map of Great Britain. The project foundered, though not before Galton had committed to paper some rude remarks about Aberdeen.
Galton’s beauty map is easy to throw rocks at. Had he completed it, it would have been not so much a map of British physiognomic variation, as a record of his own tastes, prejudices and shifting predilections during a long journey.
But as Sarah Chaney’s book makes clear, when it comes to the human body, the human mind, and human society, there can be no such thing as an altogether objective study. There is no moral or existential “outside” from which to begin such a study. The effort to gain such a perspective is worthwhile, but the best studies will always need reinterpreting for new audiences and next generations.
Am I Normal? gives often very uncomfortable social and political context to the historical effort to identify norms of human physiology, behaviour and social interaction. Study after study is shown to be hopelessly tied to its historical moment. (The less said about “drapetomiania”, the putative mental illness discovered among runaway slaves, the better.)
And it would be the easiest job in the world, and the cheapest, to wield these horrors as blunt weapons to tear down both medicine and the social sciences. It is true that in some areas, measurement has elicited surprisingly little insight — witness the relative lack of progress made in the last century in the field of mental health. But while conditions like schizophrenia are real, and ruinous, do we really want to give up our effort at understanding?
It is certainly true, that we have paid not nearly enough attention, at least until recently, to where our data was coming from. Research has to begin somewhere, of course, but should we really still be basing so much of our medicine, our social policy and even our design decisions on data drawn (and sometimes a very long time ago) from people in Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic (WEIRD) societies?
Chaney shows how studies that sought human norms can just as easily detect diversity. All it needs is a little humility, a little imagination, and an underlying awareness that in these fields, the truth does not stay still.