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Somatotyping, Constitutional Psychology, and Sports

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Charles Darwin

Denis Noble

JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson

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1600 words

In the 1940s, psychologist William Sheldon created a system of body measures known as “somatotyping”, then took his somatotypes and attempted to classify each soma (endomorph, ectomorph, or mesomorph) to differing personality types. It was even said that “constitutional psychology can guide a eugenics program and save the modern world from itself.

Sheldon attempted to correlate different personality dimensions to different somas. But his somas fell out of favor before being revived by two of his disciples—without the “we-can-guess-your-personality-from-your-body-type” canard that Sheldon used. Somatotyping, while of course being put to use in a different way today compared to what it was originally created for, it gives us reliable dimensions for human appendages and from there we can ascertain what a given individual would excel at in regard to sporting events (obviously this is just on the basis of physical measures and does not measure the mind one needs to excel in sports).

The somatotyping system is straightforward: You have three values, say at 1-1-7; the first refers to endomorphy, the second refers to mesomorphy and the third refers to ectomorphy, therefore a 1-1-7 would be an extreme ectomorph. However, few people are at the extreme end of each soma, and most people have a combination of two or even all three of the somas.

According to Carter (2002): “The somatotype is defined as the quantification of the present shape and composition of the human body.” So, obviously, somas can change over time. However, it should be noted that the somatotype is, largely, based on one’s musculoskeletal system. This is where the appendages come in, along with body fat, wide and narrow clavicles and chest etc. This is why the typing system, although it began as a now-discredited method, should still be used today since we do not use the pseudoscientific personality measures with somatotyping.

Ectomorphs are long and lean, lanky, you could say. They have a smaller, narrower chest and shoulders, along with longer arms and legs, and have a hard time gaining weight, and a short upper body (I’d say they have a harder time gaining weight due to a slightly faster metabolism, in the variation of the normal range of metabolism, of course). Put simply, ectomorphs are just skinny and lanky with less body fat than mesos and endos. Human races that fit this soma are East Africans and South Asians (see Dutton and Lynn, 2015; one of my favorite papers from Lynn for obvious reasons).

Endomorphs are stockier, shorter and have wider hips, along with short limbs, a wider trunk, more body fat and can gain muscular strength easier than the other somas. Thus, endos, being shorter than ectos and mesos, have a lower center of gravity, along with shorter arms. Thus, we should see that these somas dominate strongman competitions and this is what we see. Pure strength competitions are perfect for this type, such as Strongman competitions and powerlifting. Races that generally conform to this type are East Asians, Europeans, and Pacific Islanders (see Dutton and Lynn, 2015).

Finally, we have mesomorphs (the “king” of all of the types). Mesos are more muscular on average than the two others, they have less body fat than endos but more body fat than ectos; they have wider shoulders, chest and hips, a short trunk and long limbs. The most mesomorphic races are West Africans (Malina, 1969), and due to their somatotype they can dominate sprinting competitions; they also have thinner skin folds (Vickery, Cureton, and Collins, 1988Wagner and Heyward, 2000), and so they would have an easier time excelling at running competitions but not at weightlifting, powerlifting, or Strongman (see Dutton and Lynn, 2015).

These anatomic differences between the races of man are due to climatic adaptations. The somatypic differences Neanderthals and Homo sapiens mirror the somatotype difference between blacks and whites; since Neanderthals were cold-adapted, they were shorter, had wider pelves and could thusly generate more power than the heat-adapted Homo sapiens who had long limbs and narrow pelvis to better dissipate heat. Either way, we can look at the differences in somatotype between races that evolved in Europe and Africa to ascertain the somatotype of Neanderthals—and we also have fossil evidence for these claims, too (see e.g., Weaver and Hublin, 2009Gruss and Schmitt, 2016)

Now, just because somatotyping, during its conception, was mixed with pseudoscientific views about differing somas having differing psychological types, does not mean that these differences in body type do not have any bearing on sporting performance. We can chuck the “constitutional psychology” aspect of somatotyping and just keep the anthropometric measures, and, along with the knowledge of human biomechanics, we can then discuss, in a scientific manner, why one soma would excel in sport X or why one soma would not excel in sport X. Attempting to argue that since somatotyping began as some crank psuedoscience does not mean that it is not useful today, since we do not ascribe inherent psychological differences to these somas (I’d claim that saying that this soma has a harder time gaining weight compared to that soma is not ascribing a psychological difference to the soma; it is taking physiologically and on average we can see that different somas have different propensities for weight gain).

In her book Straightening the Bell Curve: How Stereotypes about Black Masculinity Drive Research about Race and Intelligence, Hilliard (2012: 21) discusses the pitfalls of somatotyping and how Sheldon attempted to correlate personality measures with his newfound somatotypes:

As a young graduate student, he [Richard Herrnstein] had fallen under the spell of Harvard professor S. S. Stevens, who had coauthored with William Sheldon a book called The Varieties of Temperament: A Psychology of Constitutional Differences, which popularized the concept of “somatotyping,” first articulated by William Sheldon. This theory sought, through the precise measurement and analysis of human body types, to establish correlations comparing intelligence, temperament, sexual proclivities, and the moral worth of individuals. Thus, criminals were perceived to be shorter and heavier and more muscular than morally upstanding citizens. Black males were reported to rank higher on the “masculine component” scale than white males did, but lower in intelligence. Somatotyping lured the impressionable young Herrnstein into a world promising precision and human predictability based on the measuring of body parts.

Though constitutional psychology is now discredited, there may have been something to some of Sheldon’s theories. Ikeda et al (2018: 3) conclude in their paper, Re-evaluating classical body type theories: genetic correlation between psychiatric disorders and body mass index, that “a trans-ancestry meta-analysis of the genetic correlation between psychiatric disorders and BMI indicated that the negative correlation with SCZ supported classical body type theories proposed in the last century, but found a negative correlation between BD and BMI, opposite to what would have been predicted.” (Though it should be noted that SCZ is a, largely if not fully, environmentally-induced disorder, see Joseph, 2017.)

These different types (i.e., the differing limb lengths/body proportions) have implications for sporting performance. Asfaw and A (2018) found that Ethiopian women high jumpers had the highest ectomorph values whereas long and triple jumpers were found to be more mesomorphic. Sports good for ectos are distance running due to their light frame, tennis etc—anything that the individual can use their light frame as an advantage. Since they have longer limbs and a lighter frame, they can gain more speed in the run up to the jump, compared to endos and mesos (who are heavier). This shows why ectos have a biomechanical advantage when it comes to high jumping.

As for mesomorphs, the sports they excel at are weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, football, rugby etc. Any sport where the individual can use their power and heavier bone mass will they excel in. Gutnik et al (2017) even concluded that “These results suggest with high probability that there is a developmental tendency of change in different aspects of morphometric phenotypes of selected kinds of sport athletes. These phenomena may be explained by the effects of continuous intensive training and achievement of highly sport-defined shapes.” While also writing that mesomorphy could be used to predict sporting ability.

Finally, for endomorphs, they too would excel in weightlifting, powerlifting, and strongman, but do on average better since they have different levers (i.e., shorter appendages so they can more weight and a shorter amount of time in comparison to those with longer limbs like ectos).

Thus, different somatotypes excel in different sports. Different races and ethnies have differing somatotypes (Dutton and Lynn, 2015), so these different bodies that the races have, on average, is part of the cause for differences in sporting ability. That somatotyping began as a pseudoscientific endeavor 70 years ago does not mean that it does not have a use in today’s world—because it clearly does due to the sheer amount of papers on the usefulness of somatotyping and relating differences in sporting performance due to somatotyping. For example, blacks have thinner skin folds (Vickery, Cureton, and Collins, 1988Wagner and Heyward, 2000) which is due to their somatotype, which is then due to the climate their ancestors evolved in.

Somatotyping can show us the anthropometric reasons for how and why certain individuals, ethnies, and races far-and-away dominate certain sporting events. It is completely irrelevant that somatotyping began as a psychological pseudoscience (what isn’t in psychology, am I right?). Understanding anthropometric differences between individuals and groups will help us better understand the evolution of these somas along with how and why these somas lead to increased sporting performance in certain domains. Somatotyping has absolutely nothing to do with “intelligence” nor how morally upstanding one is. I would claim that somatotyping does have an effect on one’s perception of masculinity, and thus more masculine people/races would tend to be more mesomorphic, which would explain what Hilliard (2012) discussed when talking about somatotyping and the attempts to correlate differing psychological tendencies to each type.

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