When I was in college in the mid 1980’s, a friend of mine gave me a very odd book. It was an old oversized hardback, entitled The Atlas of Men, by William H. Sheldon. The dust jacket was still mostly intact, though the copyright was from 1954. It may have been the first (and only) edition.
My friend gave me the book because he knew that I liked weird literature, and this was certainly a weird book. It was mostly photographs of naked men, with their genitals and faces whited out. Along with the photographs were arcane graphs and charts. The text that accompanied the graphs and photographs seemed entirely fanciful and pseudoscientific.
At the time, I had never heard of William H. Sheldon, and so had no reference as to how this work was received by the scientific community. In the mid 1980’s, I was more fascinated with the strange theories of Wilhelm Reich, and even back then there was more information available on Reich than on Sheldon. It wouldn’t be until years later that the World Wide Web was able to provide me with some sort of background on a figure as marginalized as Sheldon.
If you start with the Wikipedia entry on Sheldon, like many people would do, you get a rather cursory and dismissive overview of his strange theories. Most people have probably heard the terms “ectomorph”, “mesomorph”, and “endomorph”, used as generalized descriptions of human body types. For Sheldon this was just the start. He attempted to quantify each of those parameters, and furthermore made the claim that each human being possessed a certain amount of each of these qualities.
First off, do the terms ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph even have exact meanings? Obviously skeletal structures and proportions are more or less fixed by adulthood, but beyond that, soft tissue proportions are highly variable, and can change because of any number of factors. These terms might be used occasionally in non-technical senses, but they aren’t used in real science for a simple reason; they just aren’t needed.
There are all sorts of physiognomic indices in use, and they are all very specific in measuring single quantifiable characteristics. Real science tends to avoid complex, multivariate, and especially “fuzzy” definitions.
Not only did Sheldon get off to a bad start with ad hoc definitions of intrinsically fuzzy and complex concepts, but he then tried to tie in physiognomy with human behavioral characteristics. Here he fell into the same trap that bedevils astrologers, namely the belief that broad, commonplace descriptions of human character are scientifically meaningful. Here is how Sheldon characterizes males of the “4 1 5 somatotype”:
“In the male the 4 1 5 is one of the weakling somatotypes, and so obviously or conspicuously so that other youngsters usually treat him with a certain deference or neutrality which at one stage in their development they typically reserve for girls. This is not a somatotype that is ‘picked on’, except perhaps occasionally by other weaklings who are not quite so weak”
But it gets stranger still; as Sheldon went on to imbue his “somatotypes” with animalistic metaphors. Now he’s genuinely off the deep end. Here is how Sheldon characterized the individuals pictured in the illustration, the “3 6 1 somatotype”:
BETWEEN THE CATS AND THE BEARS
Somatotype 3 6 1 (Endomorphic extreme mesomorphy, at extreme ectopenia, 10-level) Wolverines. Sometimes called “cat bears” and also as “weasel bears.” Compact, short legged, giant weasels who know no fear. A wolverine can put to rout a hungry bear and can hold his own against any North American animal except man (who perhaps uses unfair weapons).
Had Sheldon done this once or twice, we could interpret it as a poetic metaphor or even a sly joke, but his animalistic descriptions are included with every single “somatotype”.
The late skeptic Mike Dennett once told me that when a paranormal or “fringe” claim is made, it never goes away, no matter how well debunked it might be. An obvious example is creationism. And so it was with William H. Sheldon. A website called Inner Explorations offers a spirited and lengthy defense of Sheldon. Sheldon also makes a cameo appearance on pages 109 and 110 of Grover Krantz’ book on Bigfoot entitled Big Footprints. Krantz offers the reader a line drawing reproduction of “somatotype 5 6 1” and argues that even if such a specimen were “expanded” to 6’6”, it would not equal the mass and bulk of the Patterson – Gimlin film subject. Krantz argues that the film subject is beyond human proportions. Well, so what? No one but the “lunatic fringe” in Bigfootery argues that it’s a human; even skeptics concede that it’s either the real thing or it’s a guy in a suit. If it’s a guy in a suit, it hardly matters what his “somatotype” is. Given Krantz’ demonstrated gullibility on the subject of Bigfoot, it’s not surprising to find that he would be familiar with, and feel comfortable including, the work of someone like Sheldon.
Sheldon’s work was mentioned some time back when news surfaced of “posture photos” of Ivy League undergraduates had been discovered.
The last tidbit that I think I can extract from the strange saga of William H. Sheldon is the nerdiest one. Considering that each of Sheldon’s “somatotypes” was a three-value datum, the problem became how best to graphically display them as a whole set. Sheldon produced a three-axis map, which upon casual examination, looks like a Reuleaux triangle. Alas, When I broke out my compass to double check, I found that it too fell short; the sides didn’t bow out far enough…