The Archaeology and Philosophy of Health: Navigating the New Normal Problem

In Anton Killin & Sean Allen Hermanson (eds.), Explorations in Archaeology and Philosophy. Cham: pp. 101-122 (2021)

Carl Brusse
University of Sydney
It is often taken for granted that notions of health and disease are generally applicable across the biological world, in that they are not restricted to contemporary human beings, and can be unproblematically applied to a variety of organisms both past and present (taking relevant differences between species into account). In the historical sciences it is also common to normatively contrast health states of individuals and populations from different times and places: e.g., to say that due to nutrition or pathogen load, some lived healthier lives than others. However, health concepts in contemporary philosophy of medicine have not been developed with such cross-lineage, non-human, or diachronic uses in mind, and this generates what I call the ‘new normal’ problem. I argue that the new normal problem shows that current naturalistic approaches to health (when based on biological reference classes) are worryingly incomplete. Using examples drawn from evolutionary archaeology and the human fossil record, I outline an alternative, function-based strategy for naturalizing health that might help address the new normal problem. Interestingly, this might also reconstruct a certain uniqueness for humans in the philosophy and science of health, due to the deep history of obligate enculturation and cultural adaptation that archaeology demonstrates.
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