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Celebrating diversity means measuring difference - click opera
February 2010
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Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 12:12 pm
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."


Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 11:50 am (UTC)

does no one suggest that the mind shapes the body?

I mean, if you have these proclivities by the time you're 1 or 2, they're bound to have some impact on your behavior and your chemisty.

Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 04:43 pm (UTC)

does no one suggest that the mind shapes the body?

David Byrne (Mr Ectomorph!) has a rather far-fetched song about it on "Remain in Light":

"He would see faces in movies, on TV, in magazines, and in books. He thought that some of these faces might be right for him. And, through the years, by keeing an ideal facial structure fixed in his mind, or somewhere in the back of his mind, that he might, by force of will, cause his face to approach those of his ideal.

"The change would be very subtle. It might take ten years or so. Gradually his face would change its shape. A more hooked nose, wider, thinner lips, beady eyes. a larger forehead.

"He imagined that this was an ability he shared with most other people. They had also molded their faced according to some ideal. Maybe they imagined that their new face would better suit their personality... or maybe they imagined that their personality would be forced to change to fit the new appearance. This is why first impressions are often correct.

"Although some people might have made mistakes. They may have arrived at an appearance that bears no relationship to them. They may have picked an ideal appearance based on some childish whim or momentary impulse. Some may have gotten half-way there, and then changed their minds. He wonders if he too might have made a similar mistake."

ReplyThread Parent
Stanley Lieber
Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 12:50 pm (UTC)

It's not all arbitrary; eugenics, like so many of the disgraced practices you mention, didn't stand up to scientific scrutiny.

I think you're correct to try and redirect the focus to outcomes.


Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 01:35 pm (UTC)

I think this Saunders fellow is a fake. For one, he sounds like he's run out of breath merely by operated his slide clicker.


Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 01:47 pm (UTC)

Evidently yesterday's post with it's references to eugenics was a prelude to this, I was wondering at what point you would logically pursue your interest in 'otherness' into the arena of genetic determinism.
Your research is excellent but I still am rather cautious about this sort of congenital pigeon-holing.
It works of the assumption that we are entirely the product of our genetic make-up and that environment plays no part in what we are.
I am also a little concerned as to how an absolutist adherence to these ideas could be applied, I am not suggesting that this research would lead to a renewal of interest in Aryan-creationist eugenics but rather it's misuse by H.R. managers in search of the ideal blue-eyed middle-management tinpot or the ideal, minimum-wage accepting, invertebrate lickspittle.
Thomas Scott.

Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 02:11 pm (UTC)

It works of the assumption that we are entirely the product of our genetic make-up and that environment plays no part in what we are.

Now Thomas, you seem to have missed the part where I quote Sheldon as saying:

"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."

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Barnyard Royalty
Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 02:12 pm (UTC)

Mmh, it's a tricky topic really in the political climate of the last decade or so, because 'diversity' has become more of a buzzword that means whatever you want it to! When 'tolerance' becomes shorthand for 'I'm so good for not smashing fat-man's face in', and, on a cultural level, does 'integration' mean integrating a culture into a nation's society, or integrating the people from a culture into the prevailing culture?

Sheldon's work sounds rather close to the practice of physiognomy, which was largely debunked for scientific reasons, not political ones. That's where it gets spaghetti-like; Sheldon's work seems (at least at first glance) politically, not scientifically, similar to physiognomy.

Damsté's mistake in that quote is to use the phrase "studies that describe inequality..." Equality (and, by extension, inequality) is another of those terms that can mean whatever what you want it to. For instance, I was once flamed on an internet forum for suggesting that men and women aren't equal. In the sense that 3 and 5 aren't equal either, but - unless you're into numerology or Discordianism - they're both just as important as each other. To take that thought on a huge leap of faith, one might think that this obsession with equality springs from an obsession with money. In money, a higher number is better, therefore an inequality between two sums of money suggests that one sum is better than the other. From that point of view, talking about humans in the same way is really dehumanising, not promoting the rights of the individual.

Alternatively, don't ask me, I just woke up.

Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 02:30 pm (UTC)

In money, a higher number is better, therefore an inequality between two sums of money suggests that one sum is better than the other.

Except when it's a price, a fine, a medical bill, the cost of a space probe that failed... Surely, as in life, everything depends on context?

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For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 02:29 pm (UTC)

So it´s the size and not what you do with it that matters?

jordan fish
Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 03:28 pm (UTC)

(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.)


This fellow is already angling to kick sand into my eyes. I avoid his predator's gaze.

all right there's definitely a problem if every time you see an athletic-looking dude you reflexively see him as a bully.

besides that, i agree that differences needs to be understood more scientifically, and not less. i also agree that old science-y stuff is very often beautiful to read. but aesthetics (rhetoric) and scientific validity (logic) are such distinct things, no?

p.s. the modern scientific study of biochemistry covers a lot of these bases, I think. less poetically, yeah, and more from the inside-out, clinical trial style, and less outside-in, where the subjectivity of human perception is so flawwwwed!!!

Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 04:31 pm (UTC)

All the images above are of white people. Even the cartoons.

The problem with any kind of human measurement of people from different 'races' is that it's immediately used by someone somewhere to 'prove' non-whites are inferior.

Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 04:34 pm (UTC)

And this is a reason to [insert action] human measurement.

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Dave Nold
Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 04:40 pm (UTC)

I was an ectomorph until some time in my mid-forties when I became, seemingly overnight, an endomorph.

I feel like the same person except my tits jiggle when I run.

So I don't run.


Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 05:02 pm (UTC)

Interesting further elaboration of yesterday's debate, but I'd like to return to the concept of being out of touch, if I may. Let us try for a moment to imagine a person who is really out of touch with his surroundings, just like the inhabitants of Baghdad's Green Zone are. What would he look like, be like?

He would have no regular job that would force him to go to work every day and face the world on its terms -- he would be out of touch with the work practices of the vast majority of his fellow men. He would live in a country where he doesn't speak the local language and whose customs he does not fully understand -- this would put him out of touch with the life practices of both his adopted and after a while also his native land, which will develop in ways that make it foreign to him.

He would be out of touch with his own age group, and to compensate, he would try to have around him people much younger than he is, and hence much less likely to challenge his sermons (for he would tend to deliver those). He would also choose a mate much younger than himself, as grown up women (as opposed to "normal, pretty, cool girls") frighten him.

Being out of university for more than 20 years, and not having engaged in serious academic discourse for all that time, he would be out of touch with the intellectual currents that formed his mind when it still was impressionable. Not held by the checks and balances that come with academic discourse, he would mix and match the random bits of theory that reach him, and apply them as needed, forgoing considerations of internal or external consistency.

Such a man clearly would epitomize the concept of freedom in an individualistic society. But what would it feel like to be such a man? What would such a man do, free from all constraints that come from having a context? Would he not erect a Green Zone inside the failed state that is his life, a green zone where what he does is the norm for proper behaviour? Would a lingering sense of failure not drive him to justify himself, 500 words per day, by declaring as morally inferior the practices he can only perceive as accusing him?

Would he not create a fantasy society where everything is done together, everything is in touch with everything else, and things works out magically? He would dream of this society, and he would defend his dream as being real. To him, could there be worse a thing than people involved in the study of questions he feels he has the answers to, people constrained and supported by disciplines he does not understand?

A sorry creature that would be, and surely one that can not exist. Let us forget this thought experiment immediately.


Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC)

I must say you're a jolly faithful lieutenant, Der. It takes guts to break into such a heavily-fortified compound as Click Opera with an intellectual grenade as powerful as this one. Why, its ad hominem explosion nearly blew my wig off!

Purple heart for bravery! You know where to get it.

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Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 05:12 pm (UTC)

Ha. Now I know why I might make you uncomfortable, though I'm a little less a mesomorph as I get older. But it pleases me to know I have better chances of becoming a novelist. (Warning: the type of mistrust you describe is exactly what can agitate mesomorphs. We smell fear just like dogs.)

At school, my nickname was *speaks with German accent* "Arnold." I was very docile so my friends would jokingly hit me, often hard; I would not feel anything; they would recoil in pain. But my body build didn't exactly determine my development. In a society that makes judgments on body types, I was pressured into sports, which I played with brawn. I was both appreciated and reviled for my ability to tackle in football. But I didn't like sports, and preferred to face the derision of teachers by reading books, taking up smoking and wearing black clothes to make my point clear. So this is how your judgments of mind through body can lead astray, although I still agree with you for the most part.

I prefer the blood types: personality and temperament categories. My blood type is B++ (that's a rare B type), and I see this as a good guide for my lifestyle. As hunters, B types cannot live without meat, however environmentally conscious we might get. The scientific research on this has been done, but the link to that article is on an inaccessible intranet site of a previous job of mine. The B personality fits me very well. I've come through a number of extremely mentally and physically testing experiences in my life. One was that I got myself locked up in a Japanese prison for two weeks, just so that I could write about the experience in my novel.

The problem is that the general run of the population will simplify these categories and judge everybody on narrow bases, as many of us have experience growing up. I would have been more comfortable growing up if teachers and classmates took me for the intellectual that I am rather than seeing me as brawny ape. Thankfully, the fact that I smoked when I was young and that I have not devoted myself to sports helps me fit the image I prefer a little more.

Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 05:15 pm (UTC)

Ectomorph pride, man. I have a tattoo of Woody Allen's face on my chest, which might explain why I haven't gotten laid in the past 8 years.


Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 05:17 pm (UTC)

Hi Nick,

A fascinating post! You've misquoted me on the "one of the ten most dangerous explorations" bit - I was quoting Reinhold Messner who described a solo crossing of the Arctic Ocean (something I ended up failing to achieve) as "ten times as dangerous as Everest".

I wouldn't say I'm an entirely typical somatotonic:

"He hates to sit still [not guilty! I'm actually remarkably good at sitting still (and oversleeping)] likes movement and exercise [guilty as charged]. Nothing gives him more pleasure than removing barriers that may stand in his way and exploring the limits of his strength [on reflection, this is pretty fair]. He is competitive [check], has a loud voice [actually I'm a terrible mumbler] and can behave recklessly [er, perhaps]. Little inclined to reflection [not true! I read poetry! I rescue spiders from the bath!], he may appear callous and tactless [crikey, I hope not. I'm actually very easily offended, hence my hasty reply].

The mesomorph-somatotonic is well coordinated [no! I'm useless at anything with a round ball, and I have terrible hand-eye coordination (as does Lance Armstrong, interestingly)], has skilful locomotion [er...], is energetic in the pursuit of his chosen goals [generally, yep], and dominant [not always. Socially, I'm rather introverted]."

This has been eye-opening for me. I've never considered myself threatening before. I hope in person I wouldn't make you as "profoundly uncomfortable" as I appear to have done electronically, and if I ever get the chance to buy you a drink, I'll gladly do so. I'll even try to remember to turn down the handshake grip strength a few notches...

Ben Saunders

Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 05:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Panther-like?!

Hello Ben!

Wow, this is a surprise! The last time this happened (I called the London Times' Asia correspondent's blog "fusty" and he turned up in person to complain) I ended up backing down and apologizing, which is no doubt a very ectomorphic thing to do. We can't afford to fight, you see -- we'd always lose!

Looking back at the video, I've noticed that the editing actually exaggerates the mesomorphic impact -- there are lots of digital zooms and a sort of twitchy, restless feel generated by you (as you rush through the presentation) and the editing together. It isn't exactly the sort of 19th century Royal Geographical Society presentation of exotic otherness that we ectomorphs enjoy. Combine that with sponsorship by that "pantherlike" car, the BMW, and an attitude to nature which sees it as a series of challenges (rather than, say, something endangered and delicate -- you do mention global warming, but don't elaborate much), and perhaps you can see where there might be culture body-type shock.

I'd be delighted to go for a drink if you're ever in Berlin -- or I'm wherever you are -- though. Because, you know, exploration fascinates me as much as anyone else. I've even posed as a polar explorer on an album sleeve:

By the way, do you know the work of artists Olly and Suzi? I wrote something about them here.

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Doubting Pilate
Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 05:18 pm (UTC)
pair o' docs

I would comment on this, but shall instead nurse my deprecated diagnosis
of hebephrenia

exploding plastik snosage
Sat, Feb. 24th, 2007 07:13 pm (UTC)

Howdy. This subject appears to have some fun-filled points of convergence with the Deleuze & Guattari via Antonin Artaud concept of the Body without Organs.

When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic
reactions and restored him to his true freedom.
Then you will teach him again to dance wrong side out
as in the frenzy of dance halls
and this wrong side out will be his real place.
- A. Artaud