Biologists Defining Normality

6 11 2004

bass-thumb.jpgToday I ran in to this article in National Geographic (Via Boing Boing) and it reminded me of how natural sciences help build the definitions of normality. It describes how male bass in the Potomac River have started producing eggs – which it describes as abnormal. Of course this article is interested in showing how pollution is affecting our environment, but through its seemingly neutral tone it also creates and reinforces what we perceive as normal.

The problem with biological descriptions is that normality is presented as founded in nature, when from a historical perspective we can clearly see that the concepts normal and abnormal are not so unchancheable as it seems in biological discourse. Rather, through the study of history, normality has been proven as historically contingent and heavily dependent on prescientific ideas as well as our blind trust in “nature as a fact”. The strange thing is that “abnormal” biological variation is inherent in nature (and we have hermaphrodites and freemartins to prove it) – but we still try to define and categorize natural occurences into the normal/abnormal categories.

Thus, it is not nature that defines normality/abnormality – it is biologists and scientists that apply social ideas to nature. We often envision materiality, in this case egg laying capabilities of bass, as reality, but what is often forgotten is how our description and interpretation of biology shapes our understanding of what normal is. (See Oudshoorn, N. who applies Ludwig Fleck’s concept to prescientific ideas to a history of the sex hormones)

Something fishy is happening in the headwaters of the Potomac River. Scientists have discovered that some male bass are producing eggs – a decidedly female reproductive function. …

Some 42 percent of male smallmouth bass surveyed showed signs of intersex development. A second sampling this spring produced an even higher rate – 79 percent showed sexual abnormalities.

Male Fish Producing Eggs in Potomac River

Reference: Oudshoorn, Nelly. (1994). Beyond the Natural Body: An Archeology of Sex Hormones. Routledge.

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