Many traditions suppose that bodies can be read for signs of underlying character, intelligence or rank.
In Europe, medical astrology and anthropometry, physiognomy and phrenology, all depended on the notion that bodies are assemblages of outward and visible signs of people’s inner nature. Fundamental ways of ordering people – into races, sexes and classes – were used to make sense of variations in body types and physical capacities.
Varieties of evolutionism, including those drawn from the work of Charles Darwin, suggested that bodies should be subjected to very precise measurements, such as the dimensions of the skull, the colour of the eyes, the shape of the nose, and the strength of the limbs. These measures were used to arrange bodies into types and order them into a series.
The notion that the process of evolution drove progress from lower bodily forms to superior types has been used to underwrite scientific racism and identify what were judged to be specifically criminal body types. But measurements have also been used to challenge the idea of racial and social hierarchies, for example, by demonstrating that the variation between individuals within a test group is often greater than that between groups.