The Danger of Moralizing “Normal”

Why average doesn't always equate to good.

Posted Jun 11, 2019

Close to 10 years ago, I read a powerful perspective on individual variation in the context of the endocrine system. Among other contributions, this piece discussed the “tyranny of the golden mean” and how easy it is to assume that the average is “the optimal” or “the best” or even the "most common" trait of a population. In reality, individuals are just that—individual—and what is “normal” for some may not fit into what others would define as the standard golden mean.

Pixabay/mcmurryjulie
A normal curve. Average doesn't equate to optimal.
Source: Pixabay/mcmurryjulie

On the population level, we look to the average to define for us how we should behave. Too often when we think about an average, we make the assumption that it is right or we associate it with superiority. But moralizing normality like this can be dangerous because normal is only normal against the background by which you measure it. In America, "normal" is a reference to white, Christian, male, cis, and heterosexual. Certainly, there are other qualifiers that might describe "normal" but the dominance by these groups has unintended negative consequences. When we assign moral authority to these groups as being "normal," not only does it undermine populations that don't fit these averages, but it limits our view of the world and the opportunities for growth as climates and cultures shift.  We have evolved from a culture in which the rules of this "normal"  were the "right" or moral ones, but what happens when that environment and culture begins to shift? We might take some lessons from evolutionary biology.

The classic example of this shift in environment is the case of the peppered moth (Biston betularia). The peppered moth shows variance in its coloration pattern with some individuals expressing a light speckled white, while others are dominantly grey.

Self-published work by Chiswick Chap
Light morph of peppered moth
Source: Self-published work by Chiswick Chap
Self-published work by Ben Sale
Dark morph of peppered moth
Source: Source: Self-published work by Ben Sale

The “normal” peppered moth, or the one most abundant prior to the industrial revolution, was the lighter version, as it could easily camouflage itself against the light-colored lichens which grew on trees in its habitat. But the untampered burning of coal at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution covered these lichens in dark soot. The light morphs now stood out against the darkened environment and were easily spotted by predators. As a result, the darker morphs became the new “norm.” They were more likely to survive and reproduce to pass along their genes to the next generation. The “norm” shifted rapidly when the environment did.

So what does this mean for the human population?

With the sudden shifts in our own environment, from new technologies to the explosion in population from 1 to 7 billion people, we are most certainly still wrestling with behavioral norms from our earlier ancestors.

For example, while it was likely perfectly normal for some of our male ancestors to bear children with multiple female partners, this is not particularly encouraged in modern-day, Christian-based Western culture, which has normalized monogamy. And yet our drive for multiple partners has fueled pornography to a $97 billion industry.

So which mating behavior is right?

Which is normal?

Which is moral?

I think these are three very different questions that aren’t often addressed separately despite the fact that their answers are likely just as disparate.

Normal is only normal against the appropriate evolutionary background, and when it comes to our behaviors, we are a far cry away from the environment in which they evolved to be “normal.”

As humans, we are on an evolutionary treadmill. We radically modify our environments so rapidly (remember, 20 years ago only a handful of people had cellphones) that many of our evolved behavioral “norms” are shared common patterns of behavior that are no longer necessarily useful, helpful, or right.

To sort it all out, I think we have to return to the individual—celebrating differences that can drive new “optimal norms” and holding every individual accountable for their own behaviors, positive or negative, against the new environmental backdrop.

References

Williams, TD. (2008) Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 363(1497):1687-98. Individual variation in endocrine systems: moving beyond the 'tyranny of the Golden Mean'. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2007.0003