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Today we celebrate the birthday of Adolphe Quetelet (22 Feb 1796 – 17 Feb 1874), a Belgian mathematician, statistician, astronomer and sociologist. Quetelet made significant contributions in the application of statistics to sociology. He was a pioneer in the field of probability theory, applying it to social phenomena, and crime in particular.

Quetelet developed a unique method to statistically profile people. He defined the concept of the ‘average man’ – a theoretical construct that represented the average value for a wide range of human characteristics. In other words, Quetelet conceptualised a person who was average height, average weight, average age, average intelligence, etc.  Real individuals would therefore be grouped around this average man according to a normal bell curve. Quetelet’s average man was useful in people profiling, as real people could be defined in terms of how much they differed from the average man.

If you walked past the average man, would you recognise him?(© All Rights Reserved)

If you walked past the average man, would you recognise him?
(© All Rights Reserved)

I find this ‘average man theory’ fascinating. Imagine meeting a real version of the absolutely average man. Would he seem average? Or would his incredible averageness actually make him stand out? How will the average people from different nationalities compare? Imagine putting the average American, Aussie, Kiwi, Englishman, German, Frenchman, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, South African, Italian, Russian, etc in a room together (each equipped with Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish, so they could communicate). How do you think they would get along? Who would be the smartest? The strongest? The most obnoxious? The most aggressive? The fattest? Who will be best able to survive in a jungle, Bear Grylls style?

And how has the average man evolved over the past 200 odd years, since Quetelet first came up with the idea? Imagine putting the average men (from a specific nationality of your choice) from 1813, 1913 and 2013 next to each other – how would they differ?  For one thing, Mr Average 2013 would probably be older than his predecessors, given how populations are aging. Depending on the population we are operating in, he may also be more overweight. Will he be more intelligent than those before? Wil he be happier or more prone to depression? Who will be physically the strongest? The fittest? Who will have the best posture?

Of course, given enough statistical data on the different populations, the above answers should be available. I just don’t know what they are, so I can only wonder. And the most interesting thing is that we all have our own preconceptions about different nationality stereotypes. I am sure if you could select Mr Average from each of the world’s nationalities, and had to pick the most intelligent, the strongest, the most obnoxious etc, you would most likely already have someone in mind. The fun bit will be to see, given hard statistical data, just how wrong our preconceptions and stereotyping may be!

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