February 24th, 2007


Celebrating diversity means measuring difference

In the second half of the 20th century it became very unfashionable to talk about techniques of human measurement. Concepts like measurable human intelligence came under attack in universities (alas, poor Hans Eysenck!), with links between certain aptitudes and certain racial groups being most heavily criticized. The anxiety that fuelled this attack on human measurement was rooted mid-century, in the experiments the Nazis had done with cranial measurement, and how they linked human typologies to their ideology of racial hierarchy. Meanwhile, other Nazi enthusiasms -- freeway building, for instance -- somehow avoided stigma.

I think it's a pity that human measurement became so taboo (at least for a while). It's worth pointing out that you can't celebrate diversity without acknowledging difference, and if you can acknowledge difference, you shouldn't be afraid to measure it. What's objectionable is when various kinds of difference get cast as "inferiority" rather than as a neutral matter of aptitude. In other words, what was wrong with the Nazis was their basic view of the world, their hatred of others. To say that everything they touched turned to pure evil, though, is clearly wrong. (Except in the case of freeway building, clearly, which -- rather than cranial measurement -- has turned out, this century, to be destroying the world.)

Lots of good babies got thrown out with the bathwater of Nazi interest in eugenics and phrenology. Take William Sheldon, for instance. I discovered his writings when I was 20, and trying to understand my own problems and potentialities better. Sheldon proposed what seems at first like a very simple way to measure body types. He isolates three basic components: fatness, muscularity and thinness, which he calls endomorphy, mesomorphy and ectomorphy. Every human body contains some measure of these qualities, which are all required to make it function. (So no calls to eliminate anything built into this typology. Actually, built into any typology. That's something people do later, motivated by the politics of hate.) Sheldon rated bodies (which he also photographed extensively at Ivy League universities), giving them numbers between 1 and 7 according to the presence of each of the three types. I remember deciding that I was a 117 -- as low as possible on fatness and muscularity, as high as possible on thinness. That made things easy -- I could just read Sheldon's descriptions of ectomorphy and identify wholeheartedly.

"Ectomorphy means linearity, fragility, flatness of the chest, and delicacy throughout the body," he wrote. "We find a relatively scant development of both the visceral and the somatic structures. The ectomorph has long, slender, poorly muscled extremities with delicate pipe-stem bones, and he has, relative to his mass, the greatest surface area and therefore the greatest sensory exposure to the outside world. He is thus in one sense overly exposed and naked to the world... The facial part of the head is small as compared with the cranial part - just the reverse of mesomorphy. Dolichocephaly (oblong cranium) is common in ectomorphs. The chin is sometimes hypoplastic and receding. The neck is long and slender and projects forward, forming an angle with the body axis. The rounded shoulders hang limply forward, owing to lack of muscular support. Arms and legs are comparatively long, particularly the distal segments."

For comparison, in endomorphs "The body is rounded and exhibits a central concentration of mass. The trunk predominates over the limbs, the abdomen over the thorax, and the proximal segments of the limbs predominate over the distal segments. The bones are gracile and the muscle system is poorly developed. Muscle relief and bone projections are absent. The body displays a smoothness of contour owing to subcutaneous padding. The head is large and spherical, the face is wide with full cheeks. The neck is frequently short and forms in side view an obtuse angle with the chin. The shoulders are high and rounded. The trunk is relatively long and straight, the chest is wide at the base. The limbs are comparatively short and tapering with small hands and feet."

"When mesomorphy predominates, the body is sturdy, hard and firm. The bones are large and heavy, the muscles well-developed, massive and prominent. The heavily muscled thorax predominates over the abdomen. The proximal and distal segments of the limbs are evenly proportioned. The bones of the head are heavy. The face is large in relation to the cranial part of the head. Massive cheekbones and square jaws are the rule. The arms and legs are uniformly massive and muscular, strongly built knees, massive wrists." This fellow is already angling to kick sand into my eyes. I avoid his predator's gaze.

But it wasn't just a case of identifying with a body type. After publishing his "Atlas of Men", Sheldon moved on to his most interesting book, "The Varieties of Temperament". Here he made a link between body type and character. Using the same typology, he developed personality correlates for the body types.

Fatty endomorphs, he said, were viscerotonic in personality. Falstaffian, basically. "There is a special interest in and devotion to food, the preparation and consumption of it in company, coupled to love of ample conversation. Social contact, friendliness, companionship are important for the viscerotonic individual. He expresses his feelings freely and dislikes solitude. He avoids physical effort, is easy going and prefers luxurious environments. The central issues in his strategy to cope with life are, on the material level: assimilating the good things from his immediate surroundings, selecting carefully, and saving enough for times of need; on the immaterial level: making use of gregarious living to full advantage, building a network of social support by exchange of gifts and ideas."

Panther-like mesomorphs were somatotonics, creatures of action. "In contrast to the emotional extraversion of the viscerotonic, the somatotonic shows extraversion in his actions. He hates to sit still, likes movement and exercise. Nothing gives him more pleasure than removing barriers that may stand in his way and exploring the limits of his strength. He is competitive, has a loud voice and can behave recklessly. Little inclined to reflection, he may appear callous and tactless."

The mesomorph-somatotonic is well coordinated, has skilful locomotion, is energetic in the pursuit of his chosen goals, and dominant. Here's a video of a typical example, one I happened to watch the other night. Ben Saunders is a young polar explorer. Watching this 18 minute presentation about his latest journey, I was made profoundly uncomfortable by his body language, his way of thinking about nature as a personal challenge, and even his rhetorical style (insisting that what he'd done was "one of the ten most dangerous explorations"):

I recoil from Saunders the same way I recoil from trailers that go whump and whoosh. That's because I'm a classic ectomorph, which means that by temperament I'm a cerebrotonic. In ectomorph-cerebrotonics, "the sensory-receptor properties are well developed. As a consequence however the central nervous system (CNS) is soon overloaded and rapidly tires. The cerebrotonic has the gift of concentrating his attention on the external world as well as on his internal world. His vigilance and autonomic reactivity make him behave in an inhibited and uncertain way: introverted behaviour. He has problems with expressing his feelings and with establishing social relationships, and can very well bear to be alone. The elementary strategies of coping with life are perception, reconnaissance and vigilance, cognition and anticipation, and a certain amount of privacy."

Lucien Seve sums it up (disapprovingly) in Psychology and Marxism:

"The life of a viscerotonic individual seems to be organised primarily to serve the gut, the somatonic to experience physical adventure and combat and the cerebrotonic to get conscious attention, which involves an inhibition or “hushing” of other activities of the body."

Seve wants to paint Sheldon's typology as "bourgeois psychologism". But it seems admirably materialist as a theory of personality, something Marxists should embrace. Why shouldn't the body determine personality the same way economic base is said in classic Marxist theory to determine cultural superstructure? Surely it's better than theories which linked our personality to astral bodies or other unworldly things?

Personally, I like people who structure the world boldly, especially if their structurations ring true. I don't take any structuration as holy writ, though -- I like to play with them, snap them together and pull them apart. But I also like it when structurations make for lovely poetry. The way Sheldon describes the cerebrotonic ectomorph has a behaviourist beauty, a 1940s severity. He has "a relative predominance of skin and its appendages, which includes the nervous system; lean, fragile, delicate body; small delicate bones; droopy shoulders; small face, sharp nose, fine hair; relatively little body mass and relatively great surface area".

"The cerebrotonic may be literate or illiterate," says Sheldon, "may be trained or untrained in the conventional intellectual exercises of his milieu, may be an avid reader or may never read a book, may be a scholastic genius or may have failed in every sort of schooling. He may be a dreamer, a poet, philosopher, recluse, or builder of utopias and of abstract psychologies. He may be a schizoid personality, a religious fanatic, an ascetic, a patient martyr, or a contentious crusader. All these things depend upon the intermixture of other components, upon other variables in the symphony, and also upon the environmental pressures to which the personality has been exposed. The essential characteristic of the cerebrotonic is his acuteness of attention. The other two major functions, the direct visceral and the direct somatic functions, are subjugated, held in check, and rendered secondary. The cerebrotonic eats and exercises to attend."

Although I've become somewhat less extremely ectomorphic-cerebrotonic with the passing years, that's still very much me. Here I am paying attention to something intellectual while I eat the odd spoonful of porridge very much as an afterthought. And speculating that this stuff explains everything from my love of the music made by ectomorphs like David Bowie and Howard Devoto (crowds and vigilance are two keywords in his oeuvre) to my fascination with Japan, perhaps the society with the most "ectomorphic-cerebrotonic" shape of any I've visited.

Interestingly, Sheldon met and befriended Aldous Huxley during a residence at a writers and artists' refuge at Dartington Hall in Devon, England. Huxley also recognized himself as an ectomorph and cerebrotonic, and saw it as a limitation:

"I remain sadly aware that I am not a born novelist, but some other kind of man of letters, possessing enough ingenuity to be able to simulate a novelist's behaviour not too unconvincingly. To put the matter physiologically, I am the wrong shape for a story teller and sympathetic delineator of character within a broad social canvas. The fertile inventors and narrators and genre painters have all been rather burly genial fellows. Scott looked like a farmer. Balzac and Dumas were florid to the point of fatness. Dickens was athletic and had a passion for amateur theatricals. Tolstoy was an intellectual moujik. Dostoevsky was physically tough enough to come through imprisonment in Siberia, Conan Doyle was a barrel, Wells is a tub. Dear old Arnold Bennett was a chamber pot on spindly legs and Marcel Proust was the wreck of congenital sleekness. So what chance has an emaciated fellow on stilts? And of course this is no joke. There is a real correlation between shape and mind."

Someone who has taken Sheldon's correlations even further is Dutch psychologist Helbert Damsté. In his book Concentric Man -- Variation of Human Form, Function and Behaviour, Damsté notes that "studies that describe inequality and human diversity are not deemed to be politically correct. The outcome of such studies gives rise to the concern that this will lead to unfair discrimination. Thus a subject of research that has the potential to improve the life conditions of individuals and groups of all ages, is deliberately ignored and left to go waste. Mankind would be better served by the kind of science that seriously takes into account individual talents and aspirations, especially when these are deeply rooted in a person's genetic disposition. Diversity is an asset to mankind. It should be positively accepted as a fact, not negated as an embarrassing impurity. The facile trend of our time -- a uniform treatment of the most diverse human beings -- is in need of revision."