What is Normal? The Cultural Relevance of a Changing Environment
Simon Goldhill was correct in his assertion in "Love, Sex & Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives," that society, culture, and religion are huge determining factors in defining what are “normal” and “natural” human behaviors. Standards of beauty, body ideals, and normal sexual practices are largely determined by the structural and specific values of the community. But how can we quantify how much of a cultural view of normalcy is derived from these values, and which values determine which lines of separation between “normal” and “abnormal?” What else might be involved in a society’s determination of values, normalcy, and ideals, specifically in relation to the human body, relationships and sexuality? By comparing standards of normalcy for the human form and sexuality between Ancient Greek and early Christian cultures, it can be inferred that there is no universal standard for normalcy, and that opposing values and understandings of “what is normal” are equally valid possibilities. Further, genetic expression caused by environmental factors closely dictates the social and cultural norms regarding health, the body, and the concept of the self in modern Western cultures. Increasingly rapid changes in environmental conditions has affected the physical and biological markers of normalcy today, which are made even more complex by socio-economic disparities. While the global population struggles to allocate dwindling and increasingly polluted resources in an equitable way, epigenetics has become the leading indicator of both physical and mental normalcy.
Cultural perspectives of body in Ancient Greece and Early Christianity
Ancient Greek culture has piqued the interest of many a historian and anthropologist because of its unique views of sexuality, relationships, and the human form. Despite seeming quite bizarre and ethically questionable in comparison to modern Western culture, the Greeks were extremely vocal and celebratory of their cultural perspectives of relationships. This included in the normalized practice of “Greek love,” a mentor-mentee like relationship between men and pre-teenage boys, which resembled courtship and became sexual in nature. In his book, “Love, Sex & Tragedy,” Goldhill describes this type of socially accepted relationship:
What the erastes desires is eromenos, which is usually translated ‘beloved’. This beloved should be what is also called a ‘boy’, and preferably a beautiful boy. This means a youth just before he begins to grow a beard, but after the onset of puberty (Goldhill, 2004).
The erastes is a man who desires, as desire was only acceptable, normal, and natural, for the men in this patriarchal society (Goldhill, 2004). While a sexual or courtship-like relationship between a man and a minor-male might seem morally corrupt by standards of modern Western culture, these relationships were celebrated and protected as part of the normal social structure of Ancient Greece. The Greek had other sexual and body-image related practices that might seem less scandalous, but equally as bizarre to the modern Western world. These included reserving love-making and sexual pursuits to extra-marital relationships, and denying women the opportunity of expressing sexual desire, either toward their husbands, or toward other women. Ancient Greeks also viewed the ideal male body as, “a matter of public concern,” as in, the manifestation of proper civic and social engagement. (Goldhill, 2004). The Greeks also worked out naked, and “the citizen’s body was there to be watched and commented on,” as it was a matter of civic responsibility to maintain good health (Goldhill, 2004). The “citizen,” in this excerpt is of course referring only to the men of Ancient Greece.
Early Christianity, while struggling to take hold globally for its first three centuries, enforced some starkly contrasting social norms regarding the body and sexuality. Goldhill speculates that these upheavals of intimate social norms were a direct and purposeful contradiction to Ancient Greek traditions. He writes, “The Christians’ attitude to pain also articulates their distance from the classical world,” (in describing Christian martyrdom), and again when he concludes the chapter describing the growth of Christianity: “Its radical newness stems from a precise overturning of traditional classical values” (Goldhill, 2004). As a result, Christianity established very different, and very strict social norms on sexuality and the body which were in direct conflict with previously accepted norms. These included reserving sex for marriage, rejecting homosexuality, which was yet to be named or categorized as “abnormal,” and requiring men and women to be married only to God, whenever possible. This meant that in early Christianity, men and women were expected to be celibate priests and nuns, and were required to only be married when sexual desires could no longer be overcome (Goldhill, 2004). The severe contrasts between sexual and body norms between Ancient Greek and early Christian culture can be exemplified through Goldhill’s explanation of their attitudes toward female virginity:
Where Greek doctors saw marriage as the cure to a virgin’s condition, Christians wrote a staggering number of treatises praising permanent virginity as the only source of good health – spiritual and physical – and attacking the sickness of desire and sexuality (121).
These are some of many examples of the juxtaposition of beliefs on two radically opposite ends of the social spectrum, converging at the same historical moment. This comparison indicates that that cultural ideas of “normalcy” are highly subjective, and the result of a complex cooperation of biological, social, spiritual and environmental factors.
Environment, biology, and social/cultural norms
The complex relationships between environment, biology and social/cultural factors in determining what is “normal” and what is “ideal” for a society are extremely difficult to separate, and impossible to quantify. Goldhill was correct in his assessment that culture and religion have massive influences on our collective understanding of normalcy, and that “normalcy” is a relative term. But more specifically, the connection between “normal” and “natural” must be examined, in order to understand how deeply codependent human “nature” and environment really are, today. Changes in human biology have driven cultural change throughout the centuries, but both are also closely related to environmental change. Biology and environment have a complex, complementary relationship in forming cultural structure. Goldhill recognized that culture played an integral role in laying the foundations of normalcy for the Ancient Greek and early Christians. However, he failed to recognize the way human behaviors influence environment, and how those changes influence the genetic expression of future generations.
Genetic expression as a result of environment
Medical science has long understood the way that genetic material in DNA determines certain characteristics in humans, specifically in appearance, anatomy, and the expression of chronic genetic illness. Only recently has medical science discovered that environment and lifestyle choices determine approximately 85 percent of our genetic expression, but that our genetic expression and behaviors also have a direct impact on the way we influence our environment (Rappaport, 2016). According to this data, which has repeated in similar experiments, changes in our environment will continue to heavily influence human biology, and therefore, our standards of normalcy for the mind and physical body.
One example is in the way our bodies have begun to react to unnatural stimuli, like blue light from electronics and other artificial light sources, which disrupts our natural sleep cycles. This disruption in sleep cycles then causes inconsistencies in hormonal production and cortisol response, which is strongly correlated with heart disease, obesity, diabetes and depression, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] (cdc.gov). Not only has modern Western culture deemed the experience of chronic disease “normal,” when it is in fact a relatively new phenomenon, but despite these correlations to public health issues, deems spending the vast majority of our lives indoors and exposed to artificial light sources equally as normal. These norms surrounding chronic illness and sedentary behavior are quite different from both the Ancient Greek and early Christian beliefs about the body.
Living our lives predominantly indoors is not only unnatural to our body’s biological needs, it also demands an extreme amount of energy to sustain. As we maintain this unnatural lifestyle, we deplete the Earth’s resources, the resources our bodies and our ecosystem need for their own natural processes. Our exposure to the air, water, and ground pollutants that result is one of many stimuli that directly affect our genetic expression (Rappaport, 2016). Many scientists believe that choices like these, while having dramatic impacts on the global ecosystem, disproportionately affect certain socio-economic groups, and perpetuate chronic disease. Underprivileged groups pay disproportionately for environmental damage done by the global population, and are often more susceptible to disease, as a result. One study in epigenetics details the way those individuals with underprivileged environments have offspring with direct genetic repercussions:
During fetal development, environmental cues can induce the modification of a pliable epigenome, which can result in long-term changes in gene expression that occur in a self-sustaining manner in the absence of the original stimulus. Adverse gestational conditions that arise from inadequate healthcare, poor nutrition, socioeconomic disadvantage and racial disparities are often associated with long-lasting phenotypic consequences in adults, yielding greater risk of diabetes and heart disease (Mazzio & Sullivan, 119).
Many similar studies in epigenetics draw a clear correlation between “normal” or “abnormal” genetic expression and environmental factors. In short, what humans do to their environment, their environment does to human health, and changes in our basic biology and genetic expression dictate cultural and social perspectives of normalcy as a result.
So what is normalcy, and what can we learn by comparing the standards for beauty, body, relationships and sexuality from one culture to another? Normalcy is simply a reality held by the collective minds of a society, based on their perceptions of the human experience. It is not only incredibly subjective, but ever-changing, due to a variety of factors. Whether those factors are biological, environmental, or the singular expression of both, they are complex and immeasurable. Culturally relevant beliefs of “normalcy” in almost all aspects of life are exactly that, and can be guided by spiritual belief systems as well as influential voices of the time. It is impossible to judge the validity of the beliefs of one culture against the beliefs of another. Simon Goldhill emphasizes this when he writes, “what the amazing difference between the ancient world and us reveals is how hard it is to get a clear picture of why we do what we do… and what it says about who we are” (Goldhill, 2004). Humans and their environment are constantly changing, down to the biological level. Therefore, modern changes in environment will continue to alter not only the physical bodies of mankind, but of their measures of normalcy regarding physical and mental states as well.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). Sleep and Chronic Disease. https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/chronic_disease.html
Goldhill, S. (2004). Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives. Chicago: The University of Chiacago Press.
Mazzio, E. A. & Solimon K. F. A. (2012). Basic concepts of epigenetics. Epigenetics, 119-130, DOI: 10.4161/epi.7.2.18764
Rappaport, S. M. (2016). Genetic Factors Are Not the Major Causes of Chronic Diseases. Plos One, 1-6.