« IDE or buggy Office package? | Gene Expression Front Page | Welfare reform is working »
March 30, 2004

Tall Tale

This New Yorker article {Via Diana} about the study of past and present national height differences is an enjoyable read, and has a lot of great little factoids. Among them:

  • ". . . in Northern Europe over the past twelve hundred years human stature has followed a U-shaped curve: from a high around 800 A.D., to a low sometime in the seventeenth century, and back up again. Charlemagne was well over six feet; the soldiers who stormed the Bastille a millennium later averaged five feet and weighed a hundred pounds. “They didn’t look like Errol Flynn and Alan Hale,” the economist Robert Fogel told me. “They looked like thirteen-year-old girls.”"

  • "The men of the northern Cheyenne, he found, were the tallest people in the world in the late nineteenth century . . . they averaged nearly five feet ten."

  • "In both Europe and the Americas, he discovered, humans grew shorter as their cities grew larger . . . Heights also fell in synch with global temperatures, which reached a nadir during the Little Ice Age of the seventeenth century"

    Ok, but the article's main issue is this: The Dutch are the tallest people in the world {average 6 foot 1}, while Americans are mysteriously short {average 5 foot 9.5; white Americans apparently being among the shortest European peoples in the world}. This was not always the case, in fact it seems to have gone 180 degrees in about a century: Americans were about the tallest in the world for two centuries while the Dutch were the shortest people in Europe. American colonists at 5 foot 9 were basically the same height as modern Americans, and three inches taller than Europeans at the time, and four inches taller than the Dutch through most of the nineteenth century. Somewhere around the mid 1950s though, Europe started rapidly growing and America stopped. Now Americans are the ones who are about three inches shorter than the {Northern} European average . . . almost the same as Japan even {5 foot 8 1/4}, which has had some rapid growth spurts of its own.

    Four inches taller to four inches smaller in about a century. Why is this? Well the article describes a couple of theories which don't appear to be right, such as racial admixture and a host of demographic/economic variables and yet:

    "[the height historian] has subdivided the country’s heights by race, sex, income, and education. He has looked at whites alone, at blacks alone, at people with advanced degrees and those in the highest income bracket. Somewhere in the United States, he thinks, there must be a group that’s both so privileged and so socially insulated that it’s growing taller. He has yet to find one."

    So a cultural nutrition pattern is considered as a provisional explanation, though it doesn't go too deeply into how much empirical support there is for the Fast Food Hypothesis {FFH}. I would think this would be a fairly easy thing to investigate; it seems strange to me that nothing was said about 'subdividing the country' by diet. Are the Burger King kids in the 'burbs really three inches shorter than the farm kids in the stix that get the hearty country breakfast and garden-grown veggies at dinner? Do urban Brits, with all the same working moms and cheap n' easy hamburger chains, really eat that much healthier than urban Americans?

  • Posted by Jason Malloy at 10:05 PM