Socrates from a racial point of view. I am not actually sure we know what Socrates looked like, physically. The longest treatment of his appearance is by Alcibiades in the Symposium; this is where the well-known comparison between Socrates and Silenus comes from. But Alcibiades is roasting Socrates as part of a drinking game and the entire charm of this section comes from Alcibiades gift for finding analogies which insinuate that Socrates is quite ugly, before specifying the specific sense in which the analogy was intended. The result is enlightening both with respect to Socrates’ philosophical virtues, and with respect to the power and limitations of analogy. Anyway: we can be relatively certain that Socrates, like mathematician Theaetetus, had a snub nose and protruding eyes. He may have resembled Silenus in other respects as well, but the comparison to Silenus may have been a satirical in-joke that got out of hand.
Was Socrates characteristic of the pre-Greek racial stratum? No, absolutely not. The genetics of the “Early Farmers” who proceeded the Indo-Europeans are everywhere associated with distinctive beaked noses. Smaller noses were introduced when Indo-European populations replaced Early Farmer populations, and if I’m not mistaken the ancient Greeks themselves considered a snub nose one of the three key traits (along with red hair and blue eyes) of the stereotypical Thracian, a people closer to the demographic core of the Indo-European peoples. As for Socrates’ protruding eyes – while there is less of a clear distinction here, sunken or recessed eyes are certainly common enough among the Early Farmers-linked populations to be a stereotype; and while this is not a common trait among Indo-Europeans, it at least appears to some degree among the Alpinids and the Slavs, leading into Central Asian populations where protruding eyes are more common. None of this is proof that Socrates was of pure Indo-European descent, of course; but the idea that Socrates is characteristic of a pre-Greek physical type is wrong.
Now, if Socrates has no characteristics of the pre-IE Europeans, could he have the traits of some non-European group of humans? No, not really. While the two characteristic traits we are focusing on (the snub nose and the protruding eyes) can be found together in some populations outside of Europe, they cannot be found together in any populations neighboring Europe. In other words, while we might be able to find Sub-Saharan populations with snub noses and protruding eyes, the Sub-Saharan population that would have been in a position to contribute genes to Socrates is the Nilotic, and the Nilotic people have none of these traits. The only exception is Central Asians – but because of the continual gene flow between prehistorical Central Asians and proto-Indo-Europeans, this is no more than to say what we have already said, that these traits were apparently more prominent among the Indo-Europeans than among any of the subject peoples they replaced.
There is one further question we should ask, though: Was Socrates characteristic of a pre-H. sapiens racial strata? Here I would be more cautious. Nearly as soon as there were craniometric data available from Neanderthal specimens, Madison Grant observed in The Passing of the Great Race that the tradition concerning Socrates/Silenus was a good match for the facial traits of Paleolithic Neanderthals. I do not know whether a modern physical anthropologist would agree with this assessment, but it certainly would explain a number of things. (1) Before the traits reached fixation (i.e., independent assortment), European sub-populations enriched for Neanderthal genes must have exhibited both physical and behavioral traits that were unusual for H. sapiens. (2) One of the most notable differences between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon bands, during the period these coexisted in Europe, was the larger size of the latter groups. If this was because Neanderthals were fractious, undomesticated, perhaps even what we would call “autistic”, then H. sapiens clans with concentrated H. neanderthalensis genes would be small, reclusive, and unfriendly to outsiders. (3) This is a possible (but extraordinarily speculative!) origin of the traditions concerning the manners and appearance of satyrs.
The Birth of Spergery. The apparent inability to “go with the flow”, to buy into the wisdom and madness of crowds, to embrace convention… are these hypothetical Neanderthaloid traits not at the essence of the Socratic moment in the life of the West? Well, yes and no. First, get clear on this; in a population that has reached fixation with respect to some suite of traits from an ancestral population, there is almost no correlation between being an outlier on one of the traits in that suite, and being an outlier on a second trait. So whether Socrates had one, or two, or twelve unusually Neanderthaloid physical traits, that would give us no information about his having inherited Neanderthaloid psychological traits… assuming the population of Classical Athens had reached fixation. (These models never hold perfectly.) Second, descriptions of Socrates as in some sense anti-social or antinomian give Socrates himself too little credit. The power of his irony was such that it extended even to his irony. Socrates talks like a sperg sometimes, but always in a way that seems to elicit as though by magic a deeper understanding, not just of the topic of the conversation, but of the conventional Attic conception of the topic that he has just finished telling us he cannot understand. Socrates was not alienated, although he may have sown alienation. Socrates was not anti-social, although he may serve as a beacon to those who defy the world. (We can compare him to Goethe, who convinced so many of his readers of the importance of suffering for beauty, although he himself lived a charmed and happy life.)
Let me reiterate my point. I think we can definitely say Socrates is not linked to the physical anthropology of any non-Greek human group. We cannot quite say the same thing about all hominid groups; but it is not especially likely that Socrates’ genes for a few Neanderthal physical traits (if indeed he had them) would be linked to genes for psychological traits. Indeed, if anything the direction of causation is likely to be the reverse; because Socrates affected to be anti-social and unconventional, he was linked to a tradition about surly satyrs, and the physiognomic traits that amplified the satyr-analogy became most important to the Socratic legend.
Having laid out the evidence, my own best guess about what, if anything, the Socratic physiognomy means: his snub nose would have been utterly typical, while Socrates’ eyes may have been the result of one of the many peculiarities in the growth of the optic nerve that appears to be linked to the ability to do fine-work, and to mental ability in general.
Next time: The Re-trial of Socrates.