»  National Review Online

December 4th, 2002

  Here's Lookin' At You, Kid — Not!


I have been reading the Complete Essays of Aldous Huxley for review in another magazine. By way of background, and for relaxation, I have also been reading — in a couple of cases, re-reading — Huxley's novels and stories. I'll say what I have to say about Huxley in my review. The only reason I mention this little literary excursion here is that there are some words Huxley was fond of, and used here and there in his fiction and nonfiction, that I had either forgotten or never known, and had to look up. Here they are: "viscerotonic,"  "somatotonic,"  "cerebrotonic."  "Look up" doesn't tell the half of it; I had to do considerable research to get to the bottom of those words. Thereby hangs a tale, and some ruminations.

The three "-otonic" words were coined by a man named William Sheldon. Sheldon was an academic psychologist, who held positions at a number of American universities in the second quarter of the last century. In the late 1920s he came up with a theory of human personality based on body types. Every human being, according to this theory, can be placed somewhere on a triangle whose vertices are labeled "endomorph,"  "mesomorph,"  and "ectomorph."  The pure endomorph is fat, fleshy-soft, and ruled by his digestive tract. He is inclined to be sociable and fond of comfort. The pure mesomorph is well-proportioned and ruled by his musculature. He is active, athletic, and fond of adventure. The pure ectomorph is thin, bony-hard, and ruled by his brain. He tends to be introverted and fond of quiet reflection.

These terms escaped into ordinary language, and most educated people know them. I even wrote a National Review article once, titled "The End of the Ectomorph." To appreciate Sheldon's theories, you have to understand that endo-, meso- and ecto- are only the extreme vertices of the body-type triangle. Any actual person is most likely to be a mix of the three types, the proportion of each type indicated by a number from 1 to 7. Each type comes with traits of personality and behavior, and any actual human personality is likewise a mix of these traits, in greater or lesser proportions. The personality types that go with the extreme body types are "viscerotonic" (goes with endomorphic), "somatotonic" (goes with mesomorphic), and "cerebrotonic" (goes with ectomorphic). A given person might, in the Sheldonian system, be described as "a 3-7-1," that is, three parts viscerotonic, seven parts — the maximum — somatotonic and one part — the minimum — cerebrotonic. According to Huxley, such a person would be "formidably powerful and aggressive." A person of type 4-4-4 would be perfectly well balanced, with gut, muscles, and brain all holding equal power over his personality.

Sheldonian psychology was very popular in its time, peaking in 1951 when Life magazine did a spread on it. Sheldon's prestige was so high that he was able to approach Ivy League colleges for permission to use their archives of "posture photographs" as material for his research. "Posture photography" is a strange little sidebar in the history of higher education in the United States. From as early as the 1880s to as late as 1971, male and female freshmen at elite U.S. colleges were photographed, usually in the nude, as part of their orientation. Thousands of these photographs still exist. You can read about this very peculiar business here. (I am indebted to PattiHausman for directing me to that link.) Sheldon appropriated some of these photo archives for his own researches, and started up some similar projects on his own account.

You will not be very surprised to hear that this program of gathering nude photographs of young college students eventually got Sheldon into hot water. Scholarly opinion turned against him and his theories, he became a sort of academic outlaw, and died in obscurity. (Sheldon's dates are 1899-1977. As well as being the originator of this body-typing theory, he was also a leading expert on the history of the American penny, and wrote a definitive book about it.) A small coterie of admirers keeps the Sheldonian flame alive, but these theories are now well outside the mainstream.

Now, it happened that I was reading about Prof. Sheldon and his theories just when I took delivery of a copy of Carleton S. Coon's book The Living Races of Man, which I found on a second-hand book web site. We had a copy of Coon's book lying round the house when I was a teenager, and the photographs in it impressed themselves on my youthful memory. Coon (1904-81) was a physical anthropologist whose life's work consisted of classifying the various peoples of the world by physical type. The Living Races of Man came up in conversation recently, and I thought I'd like to renew the acquaintance, so I bought a second-hand copy over the internet. (It's been out of print for 30 years.) The book I got must be a different edition from the one we had at home, as none of the photographs are those I remember so vividly. They are the same kind of photographs, though, featuring faces and body types from all over the world: beak-nosed Arabs, stringy Somalis, hairy Ainu, flat-faced Mongolians, Australian aborigines with blonde hair and black skin, and steatopygous*  Hottentot women. The whole human species is here in all its astounding variety, in 128 photographs. The book is absolutely fascinating.

Browsing these photographs, and with Prof. Sheldon's theories and his ignominious fate still in my mind, it occurred to me that I had strayed into territory that is, in the age we live in, out of bounds. We are not supposed to notice that people can be classified into physical types, either by shape, by color, by flatness of face or protrusion of buttocks, or by any other means. To start wondering whether general personality types might be associated, however loosely and approximately, with different physical types, is so far out of bounds as to be actual thoughtcrime. You can be expelled from respectable jobs for saying things like that out loud.

I am going to come out front and center here and say that I think this is absolutely ridiculous. The natural human tendency — tendency? it would be more accurate to call it an instinct! — to sort and classify the world as we move through it, is supposed to be suspended in the matter of human physiology. The honest labors of Carleton Coon, and the (it seems to me, and setting aside the nude-photography aspect of the business) entirely plausible theories of William Sheldon, are regarded as the lowest, most disreputable, most disgraceful kind of pseudoscience, in universities where gibberish flapdoodle like "queer studies,"  "postcolonial feminist theory,"  "critical race theory,"  and "literary deconstruction"  are taken with the utmost po-faced seriousness. Write a paper arguing that words have no meaning, or that Cleopatra's mother tongue was Yoruba, and you'll get a Ph.D., lifetime tenure at the university of your choice, and a talk show on some obscure cable channel. Wonder aloud why the Ainu of Japan look like Scottish highlanders, and you will be cast out into the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Is it me, or is there something weirdly wrong here?

Postscript. After writing the above, I happened to catch the season premiere of Andy Richter's office-worker sitcom on Fox. It was a send-up of the whole "diversity" racket, culminating with Andy trying to figure out how to "celebrate our differences" while, at the same time of course, conscientiously ignoring them. It managed to be breathtakingly non-PC (by TV standards, at any rate, which I agree is not saying a heck of a lot) while remaining good-natured. This seemed to me to be a glimmer of light on the eastern horizon, possibly — one must never be too optimistic in these matters — heralding a new dawn of common sense. When a TV sitcom can be built around the idea that the exquisitely over-cultivated sensitivities of the diversocrats are just plain ridiculous, there may yet be hope that one day our collective sanity in the matter of human differences will be restored to us.

* "steatopygia:  An excessive development of fat on the buttocks especially of females that is common among the Hottentots and some Negro peoples." — Merriam-Webster's Third.