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December 31, 2002

On height

The standard reasons for why the people of southern Sudan or northern Europe are tall is that their height is climatically adaptive (greater surface area: volume for the slim Dinka, while the Swedes tend to be more robust and so reduce their ratio). I wonder, has anyone done work that indicates that populations that have practiced cereal agriculture longer might be on average smaller (Syrians and Swedes for instance have thousands of years between them, and the type of agriculture practiced differs)?

My reasoning (which might be fallacious, I would like to know from someone more in the know than I): Taller men tend to be preferred by women the world over, so why are some groups taller than others? There must be something that favors short men. Perhaps with the onset of cereal agriculture and the drop in protein intake and the periodic reality of famine, larger men were more likely to die of malnutrition than shorter men who could make it through lean times because of their lower caloric needs. Anyone done work on this area?

(note-I don't discount the climatic explainations, I just wonder if this might be another factor. Also, please realize that I am not a "heightist" who believes in the inferiority of short men! It is just a fact that women prefer taller ones)

Posted by razib at 09:09 PM

I once watched a program on the Out of Africa theory that stated the reason foe shorter men in Europe (as opposed to Africa) was largely climactic. But African pygmies are MUCH shorter, due I think to the low hollows and thickets they scamper through. Also, Swedes are taller than Spaniards, even though Sweden is colder. By the above theory, Spanish men should be taller.

Some populations might have suffered a bottleneck effect, especially if certain short men carried a resistance to certain plagues. Perhaps in wars the bigger men were killed while the ones deemed too small or sickly to fight survived. In America, black men are on average tallest and on average have the lowest IQs. Oriental men are on average shortest and have the highest IQs. Do you know of any data that correlates high IQ with short stature? They'd have to look at IQ differences within races for an accurate measurement, but it could be done. For example, the smartest black man I know, a research psychologist at Howard, is 5'4. And yes, his wife is white. Granted, he's lighter skinned than some Cantonese, but I still wonder if devoting so little energy to growing tall might channel into a developing brain. For the record, I'm 5'1 ;)

Posted by: duende at December 31, 2002 10:52 PM

Duende - I was under the impression that most, if not all of the studies looking into the matter indicate that IQ is positively correlated with taller people. A study came out last year that found that CEO's and corporate presidents were taller than the average white european male.

There was a study within the past year or two( someone on this blog may know who it was done by), that indicated that northern europeans, particularly Swedes(if I can remember correctly), were decreasing in height for the past 10 000 years until very recently when they started to have an increase in height from better nutrition.

Posted by: the_alpha_male28 at January 1, 2003 03:52 AM

While average height decreased with the advent of agriculture, there are plenty of non-agricultural societies with shorter statures--Eskimos, Lapps, Pygmies etc.

How about correlation between dairy consumption and height--Masai and Swedes both are consumers of dairy through adulthood.

Posted by: David at January 1, 2003 11:28 AM

The brain demands a lot of energy - about 25% of the calories you eat goes to feed a few pounds of nerve cells. It wouldn't be surprising to see correlations between IQ and height or other growth indicators, but the correlation could go either way depending on the circumstances. On the one hand, Masai genes might truly favor allocating nutrition to increased height (for better cooling), strength, and quick reflexes (for going after lions with spears), while Chinese genes may restrict bodily development to feed the brain sufficiently for the abstract thinking that is needed by merchants and mandarins. On the other hand, in most of Europe up to the early 1900's, the height of much of the population was limited by chronic childhood nutritional deficiencies, not by genetics - so it's quite likely that the brain was often somewhat stunted too. (If you want to research this further, look up studies in the Netherlands where WWII led to a few years of famine in a normally well-fed population; I don't recall all the details, but there are clearly early childhood windows where adequate nutrition is needed to properly develop certain organs. However, it's not clear how extreme cases such as this apply to the effects of lesser degrees of malnutrition, if at all.)

In the last two centuries, every 1st world country saw a steady increase in height following on nutritional improvements from increased wealth, better ways of preserving food for the winter, and the agricultural revolution. (It wasn't just peasants that suffered malnutrition, either. Henry VIII was over six-foot and would have been welcome on any college football team, but his lesser nobles were often stunted, judging by the armor suits they left behind. Getting your pick of the harvest isn't that much help when most everything but dried grains has spoiled by March.) So clearly the common human geneotype includes the capability of restricting height in response to a restricted diet. Probably there is also a maximum height and a target body form set by genetics, and this can vary to adapt populations to extreme conditions. Tall skinny Masai and short round Inuit are adaptations to weather extremes. Pigmys adapted to chronic food shortages plus energy draining tropical diseases. Polynesians grow extra subcutaneous fat as insulation against cold sea water. Other cases are less clear - the Germans far overmatched the Romans in both height and girth, but this may have simply meant that their heavy use of dairy cattle kept their children better fed.

As for women preferring taller men - until quite recently, height was an indicator of good childhood nutrition and the socio-economic status that goes with it, plus freedom from disease. Taller men were better providers. To some extent, they still are - they get noticed more and promoted faster than short men with the same skills.

Posted by: markm at January 1, 2003 05:09 PM

Northern Chinese are often tall and slim too.
Genetics freak though I am, I don't think nutrition has yet been eliminated as the cause of national height differences. There are some hulking (South) Koreans these days.

Posted by: John Ray at January 3, 2003 06:49 PM

Another thing to examine would be the degree of control women were able to exert in choosing a mate in these different societies. It would seem that in a very male-dominated society, women's preference for tall men would have less effect, while in a society where women had a lot of choice, men would face more evolutionary pressure to become taller. I am thinking specifically here of Japan and the Celtic and Nordic peoples, and their societies over the past thousand years or so...

Posted by: bbartlog at January 5, 2003 01:09 PM

I am getting tired of the stereotypes. I am 6' 1/2" and Taiwanese. That outta prove that not all Asians are shorter than their white or black counterparts, so there!!!

Posted by: Footballed28 at April 16, 2003 12:56 AM

It's very important to understand all the evidence about the social, economic and consequently sexual dominance of taller men within the context of widespread height discrimination.

Nobody seems to have made a sincere effort at expounding, let alone challenging height discrimination. The issue of height needs to be tagged not to genetics but human/civil rights and equal opportunities.

It's also pertinent to note that height discrimination does apply to women as much as to men - however, because of the inferior social status generally conferred on women (even today) it has less of an impact on their lives - i.e. it is co-incident with their femininity.

Posted by: Michael Calwell at May 2, 2003 09:25 AM

what is the name of gene regulate the human height

Posted by: karishmadi at August 13, 2003 07:31 PM

I believe nutrition is the primary factor in determining height. Look at the Europeans, for generations their growth were stunted by poor diet. In fact, the average height of an Englishmen at around 1000 A.D. was 5' 4" ! And it was not until the 19th century when diet did improve that the European men became progressively taller, overcoming the 6-foot mark.
So here's my take on other races' height, such as Asians. They have been known to be shorter, and often people associate that immediately with genes. But really, where is the direct proof that genes determine height? In fact, we have never been able to eliminate nutrition as a factor in height determination.
The Asian diet tends to be more vegetarian, actually a whole lot vegetarian than the average Caucasian diet (just compare rice, noodles, dumplings with steak, hamburger, pizza, milk)
And so, it makes sense that Asians are shorter, not really because of some genetic inheritance, but because of diet.
In fact, Asians are becoming progressively taller from one generation to the next. Again, it makes sense, because diet today in Asia have become progressively protein-dominant. Still, however, rice still makes up a significant portion of intake in the life of an Asian, as opposed to cheese and milk. So on average, Asians are still shorter.


Posted by: heightman at October 2, 2003 02:09 PM