Thursday, December 18, 2008


I'm on the same morris dance team(s) as Douglas, but I've only occasionally gotten a glimpse at what he does in his day job, which is as a philosopher of science at the U of Minnesota. I can't remember how the subject came up, but my interest was greatly piqued when he mentioned his talk this summer in Brazil (PDF here), on naturalization as a type of error, specifically in biology. Naturalization is essentially what happens when a statistical norm (e.g. two sexes) becomes seen as "natural," and conversely exceptions to that norm become "unnatural."

Douglas uses a few examples: sexual duality and the entirely "natural" exceptions to that statistical norm; the idea of competition as the basis for natural selection (again, a common factor in evolution but apparently originating as a "natural law" in nineteenth-century views of human nature); the transition of exceptional anomalies in human development ("monsters" in popular usage) from atypical "wonders" into being seen as "abnormal" and therefore "mal-formed."

Then he hits us with (to my mind) the big one:
The difference between anomaly and abnormality is basically the difference between pattern and expectation. Similarly, the error with male-and-female is primarily expecting intersexes, hermaphrodites and polysexes to fit the male/female categories because those categories are, or seem, pre-established. In our competitive culture, who is positioned to recognize competition as anything but an expected foundational principle? The errors, then, are ultimately not just about sex or development or natural selection. They are all about expecting nature to adhere to strict rules. That, in turn, is based on assuming a fundamental and enduring universal order. This expectation itself represents, I contend, yet another naturalizing error: the very concept of laws of nature.
Douglas argues essentially that we have created unchangeable laws of nature where there may be no laws, that the very idea of laws is rooted in our cultural or more generally human biases.
Recently, historians have profiled the cultural and religious context that guided the origin of the modern/Western concept of laws of nature (Steinle 2002 [also an interesting read; it's available in part here]). Here, I want only to draw attention to how powerful a hold the concept of laws of nature has on our minds. The very language is highly charged. In human society, laws specify what we ought to do. They ensure social order. We tend to interpret laws of nature in the same way, as guaranteeing the natural order. Laws of nature profile how nature should act. Once established, descriptive laws take on a prescriptive character. Pattern becomes expectation. This is how local regularities, or the familiar, or the "normal," become naturalized.
I think this relationship between description and prescription (or proscription) reflects on the earlier discussion of "the grid."

And on a lot of other notions of ordered systems.

Profound stuff. The whole paper bears a close reading. Thanks Douglas.

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