SCIENCE TRIES TO FIND DEVIANCY IN OUR FACES, EARS AND GENES
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Scientists have made a lot of news recently with their efforts to identify genes that influence behavior ranging from violence to homosexuality.
But the search for physical or biological clues to behavior is nothing new, according to Jennifer Terry, co-editor of the new book Deviant Bodies (Indiana University Press, 1996).
In the past, researchers have, for example, measured the ears of criminals and the facial contours of so-called "perverts" to see if they could find physical differences that would set them apart from others.
"There's been a persistent belief in Western scientific thought that people identified as socially different may also be biologically different than others," said Terry, an assistant professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University.
"The search for genes that correlate to behavior, like alcoholism, jealousy and shyness, is a modern manifestation of that belief."
Terry co-edited Deviant Bodies with Jacqueline Urla, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts. The book is a collection of 14 essays examining various ways that science has attempted to distinguish between "normal" and "deviant" bodies.
One of the book's messages is that the public should carefully consider how science is used to classify people, Terry said. In some circumstances, science has been used to identify and punish people thought to be deviants. For example, one chapter in the book examines how scientists in Nazi Germany traced the supposed inferiority of Jews to deficiencies in their physical bodies.
But Terry said the book's message is not an attack on scientists. In fact, she notes that science has often helped refute baseless fears about so-called deviants. "Scientific methods can be used to refute ignorance," she said. "But we need to consider the social agendas that shape scientific research, as well as how the results of research are applied in society."
In one chapter, Terry examines the history of how science has searched for physical signs of homosexuality.
In the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century, many scientists viewed homosexuals as "suffering from an innate pathological condition of the body linked to disorders of the brain and nervous system," Terry said. Another popular view of the time was that homosexuals belonged to a third sex, situated between male and female.
Terry examines in detail an ambitious study conducted from 1935 to 1941 in New York City by the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants. Among other things, the study aimed to devise a checklist of visible characteristics that could assist physicians in identifying homosexuals. The researchers believed that physicians would then be able to dissuade potential homosexuals from getting into marriages they would later regret, and from having children.
The study, which included 40 men and 40 women who admitted to homosexual relations, involved examinations of hair texture, skin complexion, the structure of the pelvis, and even the size and shape of genitals. But by the end of the study, the doctors who led the project were forced to conclude that there was no way of identifying homosexuals simply by observing their bodies.
The search for physical signs of homosexuality was dealt another severe blow by the research of Alfred Kinsey, which also began in the mid-1930s, according to Terry. As a result of his research, Kinsey concluded there was no such thing as a "homosexual body." His work gave rise to the view that homosexuality is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon that can't be reduced to just physical or biological features.
However, there has been new interest recently in identifying physical causes to homosexuality, Terry notes. Scientists are now trying to find differences in the brains, genes or hormones of homosexuals. But modern scientists are careful to say that, rather than being a form of pathology, homosexuality is merely a matter of benign difference, like left-handedness.
"Scientists and many lay people are once again trying to find a clear dividing line between homosexuality and heterosexuality," Terry said. "But one of the contributions Kinsey made was to show that the dividing line, especially when it comes to biological or physical features, is seldom if ever clear cut."
Terry said society needs to take a closer look at the role of science in studying people.
"Scientists and the public have a great desire to classify and categorize people," she said. "We're often looking for an easy way to distinguish 'normal' people from 'deviants.' But people don't fit into such neat, binary categories. And the effort to put them into these categories has had some devastating consequences historically."
Contact: Jennifer Terry, (614) 292-1384
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457
Jeff Grabmeier, Managing Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Earle Holland, Director, Science Communications (email@example.com)