I am a biological anthropologist and one of my favorite classes to teach is about modern human variation. I ask my undergraduates to line up in front of the class according to their height. They have done this since kindergarten and so it is fairly easy and banal. Then I give them other categories (with the caveat that they are free to opt out at any time), such as: skin color, eye color, hairiness, weight, intelligence, gender, sexuality, and attractiveness. As the categories progress the line-ups get more difficult to make. Students start opting out and becoming very uncomfortable. I have yet to have a class line-up according to attractiveness.
The whole point of this exercise is to make students aware of the interaction between culture and biology. Despite all of those categories being definable as “biological” the social and cultural presumptions about race, body size, gender, sexuality, intelligence and attractiveness lend an emotional weight to these traits that height or eye-color does not have. Afterwards, we always have an enlightening discussion about human variation and culture. Why is it socially inappropriate to line-up by some variables and others not? How much of what we think is biological is really culturally constructed? Why and how do moral notions of good/bad get attached to some traits and not others? I explain that the often illusive concept of culture can be understood as all the extra baggage attached to the latter categories.
I cannot help but wonder if this exercise can be applied in other settings. Join me in a mental experiment to conduct a virtual Mormon women’s line-up.