Whoops Apocalypse

Alastair Somerville
5 min readAug 10, 2019
Nuclear bomb exploding

The problems of Normal today are embedded in history.

This is not unique.

It’s worth looking at how professional and scientific systems have had embedded problems that affect how they try to create positive change but are trapped by foundational myths that divert them into supporting negative norms.

I’ll talk of four systems here:

  • Anthropology
  • Psychology
  • Neuroscience
  • Service Design

The first three have long histories of embedded problems. The last one is modern but has foundations in the first three. To some extent, this post is a warning to Service Design about what it needs to think about to prevent or minimise what went wrong with Anthropology, Psychology and Neuroscience. Good people today can get trapped by errors made in the past and it’s worth considering that problem.


Anthropology is the study of human societies and cultures. It grew out of the European-centered Age of Exploration — the realisation that not merely were there different lands and people but their social and political arrangements were radically unlike the modes of thinking in Europe.

Anthropology was however, a fellow traveller with Imperialism and Darwinism.

Anthropologists were specifically employed to understand other societies in order to enable colonial control. The work in Africa on tribal systems and mapping of political power was used to find the social levers to successfully manipulate compliance to colonial power with minimum force.

Anthropologists also were caught up in the imperialist reading of Darwinism. As with what happened with the mathematics of Normal, Darwinism shifted from research and understanding of natural diversity to a measurement and ranking of worth anchored to a sense that White Maleness was optimium. Research looped back on itself to justify the racist viewpoint that Black people were somehow below White people in a fake historical of hierarchy of human development.

This may seem merely historical but the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System shows that the past never quite goes away.


Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX