Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Shelling out for Sheldon....again (but without the nudes)!

In the 1940s and into the 50s, WH Sheldon carried out a project on the science, or even (modestly claimed) the new science of human morphological and behavioral science.  The work became known in various ways, but one important term that described it was somatotyping.  

WH Sheldon, from the Wikipage about him
In this project, students at our most Ivied universities were compelled to pose au naturel for front, side, and back photos, so their shapes and ultimately their personal natures could be studied, scientifically!  It should be noted that Sheldon was, after all, at Major Universities for much of his career, so his work must have been Important.

These were in the Olde Tyme hand calipers and graph paper days, without today's more definitive way of taking measurements (that is, using computers to do the measuring).  Means and variances of body shape were computed and, in the usual way that scientists often show the depth of their insight, divided into categories (finding categories makes such tables seem a lot more insightful than mere lists of measures). 

Sheldon used three basic categories to divide up what is in fact a quantitative pattern: he called them endomorphs, mesomorphs, and ectomorphs.  You can call these skinny, normal, and fat (but don't let a scientist hear you using such ordinary language).  To be really scientific, Sheldon devised a 3-number scale for various traits in an individual to reflect how strongly Mes, Ect, or End the trait was in that person. Your resulting somatotype score was with you all your life, from the womb onward, because it represented your very essence, despite how much you ate or whatever (again, recall, this is science).

The tricorn classification.  Each person a mix of the Big Three possibilities.  Modified from Google images

What they really look like in idealized form.  (This image is all over the web, source hard to determine.)

One might expect this sort of work to have been done by anthropologists, but Sheldon was a psychologist. The idea was not just to study body shape, but that shape is a window to the inner soul--Sheldon called this new science 'Constitutional psychology'.  Of course, you know the stereotypes: the jovial Santa-like fat person, edgy skinny one, and manly Heroic (that is, sexily muscled) mesomorph. Sheldon considered (i.e., studied) women, too, but since women aren't very important he mostly cared about men (that is, professionally speaking).

Sheldon wrote his ideas in book form in 1940, as The Varieties of Human Physique, and the 1954 Atlas of Men, and the work was quite influential, surely because of its rigorous scientific quality (that is, not just because of the nude pictures!).  But, he was working in, and part and parcel of, the racist, sexist, and other 'ist' environment of the eugenics era, where experts' value judgments about human qualities were taken as respectable science.

From The Varieties of Human Physique

Sheldon's work did not come out of nowhere. More than a century before Sheldon, Franz Gall, a comparably prominent scientist, made similar in-depth revelations about personality from identifying cranial somatotypes (that field of science was called 'phrenology').  And in Sheldon's own time was his fellow Ivy Leaguer, Carleton Coon, who made his own set of observations about how personality as revealed by morphology demonstrated the racial characteristics of peoples, and the definitive finding that the Europeans were the superior type.

All this other credit aside, Sheldon's work is out of fashion, and out of sight, somehow viewed as rather crude, and embargoed at least in part because at least one photographed subject would go on to become President, and other future movers and shakers posed for Sheldon's eager eye.

Somatotyping redux. . .
Understanding what made you roly-poly and jovial, or gaunt and neurotic was beyond Sheldon's abilities, cramped by the limited knowledge of the time.  Now, of course, we're well past the Sheldon age.  We're beyond daguerrotypes and have real data from DNA sequencers, fancy 3D cameras, CT scanners, and fMRIs. These Big Data technologies now allow us to penetrate a subject's deepest nature, so to speak, and thus objectively reveal the naked truth.  Currently a number of large projects are afoot aiming to do just that in one way or another.  The mega-study called 'GIANT' to measure stature and other anthropometric states is an example.  Of course, whether their estimated thousands of contributing genome regions makes prediction useful is another matter....

With millions of DNA markers or even complete DNA sequence, and moving towards a million or more measured subjects, we will finally be able to relate genetic variation to somatotype (that term itself is no longer in general use, because it smacks of old-style pseudoscience).  We're finding the hundreds or thousands of genes that make your somatotype what it is, which must be predictable from birth, of course, or else the study would largely be of rather less crucial importance to society.  One application, that will be vital, is that the FBI, police, or NSA will be able to use DNA samples from the scene of a crime to predict what the perpetrator looks like.  But, surely they will also be able to use DNA samples to predict the dangerous, antisocial, or undesirable somatotypes they should be on the lookout for as well. 

. . . and more, or is it less?
While the new more deeply intrusive methods will allow sets of genes to be found that explain somatotypic variation, the clear signs are that it will soon go much farther, into territory Sheldonians could only make amateurish guesses about.  For that, three facts are key:  
1.  The traits are already clearly known to be affected by variation in huge numbers (hundreds or more) different genome regions.  That's because interactions among many factors are required to assemble complex physical or behavioral traits. 
2. Most functional genome regions are involved in gene regulation or processing--such as signaling among cells that affect a cell's context-specific gene expression. That's how we develop as differentiated organisms with tissues, organs, and the like. 
3.  Most genes are pleiotropic, that is, they are used in more than one developmental or cellular context or function.  Our total repertoire of genes can be as small as it is because even with limited numbers of genes, there are essentially unlimited numbers of combinations of the genes available for different purposes.
These facts are critical to opening, or perhaps reopening, a rigorous new age of Somatotypology!  Based on the points just listed, the logic goes as follows:

If a given gene is used in more than one context, and one of them makes your somatotype, and another makes your personality, then of course if we know the genetic basis of your somatotype score (new, highly computerized versions of the tricorn figure above), then, obviously, your personality will be predictable as well because the same genes will also be involved in determining your behavior!  A morphological window into your soul.  How you look = how you act! A syllogism so seemingly tight it would make Aristotle smile!

Of course, the syllogism happens to be wrong, but we'll let that pass. But you've undoubtedly noticed a major uptick in studies of the genetics of behavior, reviving notions long thought deservedly dead.  Countless newly energized investigators are mapping every sort of behavior, focusing of course on things like intelligence, violence, criminality, liberal politics, ability to make wise pension investments, and (of course) sexuality normal and antisocial.

So why would this neo-Sheldonian revolution make any difference? Do you think we're being far too suspicious or even paranoid that people are going to be suggesting that facial or other physical appearance is diagnostic of behavior based on the above syllogism? This line of thinking is not our invention, even if the first forays are as yet unpublished gleams in some investigators' eyes. 

Yes, readers, DNA-based personality forensics is on the way!  A rebirth of  'Constitutional Psychology' as written in your very genome!  Sheldon could only assume it; science now can prove it.   Sheldon was right, though of course, the new version won't read like Sheldon.  It will be written in impermeable technical, statistical, and genomic language (details and flaws--if any--entombed in Supplemental Information).  And private companies (as well, of course, as the security agencies) will be using this rigorous knowledge to hawk genomic tests for Find-a-Mate or IVF websites.  You and the government will be able to tell who's a robber, rapist, or good candidate for law school or hedge-fund managing....not to mention who qualifies to marry your daughter!

But--and here's the really good part.  Unlike DNA, which you have to needle or swab people to get from them, or find at already-committed crime scenes, all you'll need will be to see someone or get a photo (say from their Facebook page), to scope out the future criminals, sexual abusers, jovial friends, untrustworthy scoundrels and other deviates, and so much more.  Indeed, this time around we'll be able to go a giant step beyond the crude, restricted range of Sheldon's work.  Basically only wealthy white people, mostly men or women merely in search of husbands, attended the Ivies in his day, but now, thanks to more open admissions, we'll be able to show things that have long been intuitively obvious, though only crudely speculated about, in Sheldon's own day.  We'll now dig deeply into the basic personality differences--and consequent relative ranking--of races (just call them 'ethnic groups' if that mask makes you more comfortable), in terms of important behaviors and talents.  This will be a huge advance for (hu)mankind, and for our own national security.

And think of the research money that will be saved!  The DNA sequencers and expensive labs can be dispensed with, once they've shown that all we really need are photos that any old cell phone can take.  So, maybe the threat that all of us will be shelling out once more for Sheldon, since our taxes will be paying for this vital but erstwhile very expensive work, won't come to pass after all.
This is the new wave, real science replacing the former pseudo-science. The charts will be far more aesthetically pleasing than Sheldon's old hand-crafted ones, though new reports will probably not include nudes because you can already see as many of those as you want on the web without having to buy an expensive Body Atlas.  However, don't despair about even that, since one can safely predict that scientific specialists will soon turn their penetrating attention groin-ward in their own highly technical studies.

A new wave replaces the old wave in the nature of things.  How long this tide will stay in is hard to predict.  But you don't want to miss its exciting, not to say titillating, messages.


Rodolfo Valdez said...

It is happening,
Searching for science in India's traditional medicine

Science 24 October 2014; 346 (6208): 410

Ken Weiss said...

Great to hear from you! We'll look for that Science article.

Anne Buchanan said...

Ayurgenomics, wow. I will say that I thought Ken's post might be pushing it a bit, even knowing that people really are already conflating genes 'for' face shape with personality genes. That's not your usual behavior genetics, though, not (yet?) mainstream, so I wondered why point this out. Instead, it turns out he's spot-on. Real life leads the way.

O. Douglas Jennings said...

I resent being pegged with a credit score. Now I have this new means of discriminatory tagging to look forward to. Ugh. Would you say this neo-somatotyping is philosophically underpinned by scientific determinism?

Ken Weiss said...

Our every move will be tracked--indeed, predicted!--from our selfies! Scientific determinism? How could you suggest such a thing!

Anonymous said...

Ken you are more or less the same age as I am so you will surely remember in the 1950s the school nurse coming around with grotesque teaching aids.

One was a hideous set of plastic teeth to teach us about how to brush. Another was even worse stuff about posture. Back then posture was a national obsession. I got a lot of posture propaganda in elementary school and even more in Boy Scouts before I escaped.

We should not mock Sheldon, who was right smack in the mainstream, with his obsession. The "wrong kind" slouched and had poor posture, we had to cure things.

My own view is that do-gooders are the great social evil and Sheldon is in the middle of the pack.