The Beginning of Average

I just started reading “The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness” by Todd Rose. I am both enjoying it greatly and getting freaked out by it. The author tells the story of Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874), a Belgian astronomer who started applying mathematics to human beings after his observatory (and country) was taken over by rebels. He wanted to understand humanity, and thought measuring them would help. But he went further than merely crunching numbers.

Quetelet developed the view that the “Average Man” was perfect, as God and/or Nature intended, and any variation was a “deformity” or “monstrosity.” What he ended up doing was putting a scientific seal of approval on racial, criminal, and psychological stereotyping, and mid-19th century Europe lapped it up. It fit right in with their program of subjugating the rest of the world and keeping everyone in their place at home. We all know how that turned out.

It took the bloodbath of World War II to discredit this kind of “science,” but general discomfort with the diversity of humans remains. The notion of “average” or “normal” human beings (e.g. “we all want the same things”) is so ingrained in our culture that it takes great effort (and years of therapy) to fully accept others and ourselves as we are. Try as we might to celebrate diversity, the Hydra of conformity sprouts another head and we rush to stuff ourselves or someone else into the locker of normalcy. Perhaps knowing exactly where these ideas came from can help us accept more deeply the unique qualities of every human being.

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2 comments on “The Beginning of Average

  1. Stefanie says:

    Sounds fascinating and terrifying all at once.

    Hope you are well!

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