The Short American

original - [http://www.newyorker.com/online/content/articles/040405on_onlineonly01]

Burkhard Bilger talks about America's wealth, and its height.
Posted on 2004-03-29

In "The Height Gap" in this week's issue and here online (see Fact), Burkhard Bilger writes about new questions raised by the study of human height. Here, with The New Yorker's Amy Davidson, Bilger discusses what height says about a society's health and why Americans may be falling behind.

AMY DAVIDSON: Your article is about anthropometric history, the study of human height over the centuries. A lot of us have the idea, from things like looking at suits of armor in museums, that people are growing taller all the time. Is that wrong?

BURKHARD BILGER: It is wrong, and the misconception has been reinforced by the old evolutionary chart, which shows monkeys growing into apes, growing into Neanderthals, growing into humans getting taller and sleeker the whole time. In fact, humans reached an early apex in Northern Europe around 800 A.D., and then they got a lot smaller down to five feet in the seventeenth century. Europe was in the grip of the Little Ice Age then, and cities were becoming very crowded and disease-ridden. After that, people slowly marched their way back up again, until the present day.

Why study height at all? Why does height matter, beyond personal vanity?

It matters because, one, it's a window on the lives of people whom we don't have any records for. Height is a wonderful composite number for a lot of different things going on in the body. It tells you if you had diseases as a child or as an adolescent, because those will stunt your growth. It tells you how good your nutrition was over the course of your first twenty years. It tells you all kinds of things about your general health, and your well-being. By measuring the bones of prehistoric peoples, for instance, you can get a concrete sense of how well they lived. Or you can look at early military records to get a glimpse of peasant populations in seventeenth-century France, which didn't leave that many written records of what people ate. You can get a systematic sense of those people's health as a population.

Does that mean that people in 800 A.D. lived better than people in 1700?

On average, it looks like Northern Europeans did live better in 800 than in 1700. They lived in smaller communities, so they were less prone to disease. They often ate better, because they were growing or hunting their own food. Early cities in the seventeen-hundreds, on the other hand, were crowded, with open sewers, and food often spoiled or was less than fresh.

Do cities make people shorter?

It seems that they did until the end of the nineteenth century.

You write that, while Europeans are getting taller, Americans are not. How did that happen? Why aren't we growing, too?

For two centuries for most of our history Americans were the tallest people in the world, and by a large margin. We were three inches taller than the average European in the eighteenth century, and we kept our advantage up through the Second World War. Then, in the nineteen-fifties, we suddenly levelled off, while other countries shot up. Partly, they were just playing catch-up. The Japanese, in particular, before the war, did not have a diet that was particularly conducive to growth. After the war, the economy improved, they got more milk and other nutritious foods, and now they're almost as tall as we are. But the mystery is that some of those groups, especially Northern Europeans, have kept on growing, while we haven't. And now the Dutch are three inches taller than we are, on average.

Why is that?

Well, there are a lot of different theories. Immigration may seem like the answer, but it's been largely discounted by anthropometric historians. Even after they factor immigrants out of their statistics, they still find that Americans are smaller than Europeans.

Aren't some populations just taller than other populations?

No, not necessarily. We don't really know how height genes vary from population to population, but anthropometric studies suggest that there's nothing about an American that makes him intrinsically taller than a Mexican, or a Swede taller than a Central American. If you look at populations of well-fed kids around the world, they're all within half an inch of one another. And, if you look at third- or fourth-generation Mexican-Americans in this country, they're almost as tall as whites.

Then what does account for the difference?

Diet and health care are the most likely reasons. It appears as though we have a lot of short Americans, in part, because many can't afford to get treated when they're sick, or because they eat too much junk food. Also, some scholars seem to think that the effects of many Americans' poor health and their poor diets might be creeping up the social ladder: we all live together and share the same diseases; rich kids go out and eat the same fast food that poor kids seem to be eating, and so they have the same obesity problems and the same lack of height. That may explain why even rich Americans aren't getting any taller; unequal social situations may bring the entire society down.

Doesn't America have the best health-care system in the world?

For those who can afford it, maybe, but not for a good chunk of the population that doesn't have health insurance. One scholar's studies imply that America doesn't have the best health-care system, in terms of prenatal care and postnatal care. That might be better in Northern Europe than it is in the United States, and it's hugely important for height.

Do Americans, as a society, have a height gap?

We do, and it's really worth looking at. In recent years, we've had a tendency to suggest, as a society, that the growing income gap between the rich and the poor doesn't really affect everyone that it's a necessary evil, an outgrowth of our over-all prosperity. What height tells us is that maybe it's not as easy as that, that inequality of income may be pulling us all down.

Literally pulling us down.

Right, I think so.

Let's go back to immigration. You write that that's not the answer, that this is a phenomenon that's independent of the national background of people who come to America. And yet there's always been a nativist strain in American politics, whose proponents, especially in the early twentieth century, argued that somehow the gene pool was diminished by immigration, and used all sorts of spurious human-measurement studies to back up their case. Now we're talking again about the "Americanˇ¨ physical type changing. Does the height field suffer from association with those earlier studies?

A little. People who don't know anything about the field tend to dismiss it "Height studies? Isn't that like phrenology?ˇ¨ But, among academics, anthropometric history is very well accepted now. In any case, this kind of research does the opposite of phrenology: it shows that all peoples have a similar potential for height, and it uses height to show who isn't getting a fair share in this country or in the world. Public-health workers often use height in developing countries now to monitor how well children are being fed. It's just a very quick, clean way of determining what's going on nutritionally in a country.

Should we see shortness as a public-health problem?

It's important to make a distinction between individuals and populations. Individually, shortness isn't necessarily a health problem. There are people who are simply built to be short, genetically. But, if you average all the heights in a population and you find that, on average, that population is significantly shorter than another, then anthropometric history suggests that, yes, it probably has a public-health problem.

You spent some time with John Komlos, whom you describe as "the popeˇ¨ of this field. How did he get involved in height?

He got two Ph.D.s at the University of Chicago; one in history and one in economics. He got the second Ph.D. while studying under Robert Fogel, a Nobel Prize-winning economist. Fogel had written a book claiming that slaves, despite what they suffered psychologically and in other ways, ate better than had been thought, because their owners had an economic interest in keeping them healthy. One of his graduate students did a study of slaves' heights to see if Fogel's claim could be backed up, and he found that, in fact, they were significantly taller than African blacks of the time, and almost as tall as their white owners. He also found, by the way, that child slaves were malnourished; apparently, they weren't fed well until they were old enough to do some work. So it cut both ways. But it got Fogel excited about anthropometric history. Komlos heard Fogel speak at a lecture, where he told students to go out there and collect some heights.

Where did he get his material? How do we know how tall people were in other centuries?

The best sources are records of military conscripts, which many different countries have kept. Komlos went all over the place. He went to Vienna and got them for Austrian soldiers. He got the heights of West Point graduates from the National Archives, in Washington. He collected the heights of Colonial runaways from newspapers of the era.

And there are more direct records as well. Richard Steckel, who is another leader in this field, has looked at the bones of Native Americans and other early people around the world. He used that information to help determine that the heights of Northern Europeans followed a U-shaped curve, beginning in 800.

Komlos, you write, feels that his own height was affected by outside events.

He was born in Budapest during the war. He almost wasn't born; his family was Jewish, and his mother and father had to sneak into a hospital. He was malnourished for years after that. His father was in a forced-labor battalion for a while, and even when they came to the United States, when he was a boy, his father didn't earn a good income for years. So he attributes his height he's five feet five to his poor nutrition as a child.

You're five feet ten and a half. You write that Komlos told you that if your parents had stayed in Europe you'd be about an inch and a half taller. Do you feel cheated?

No, I don't, really. I mean, I'd love to be six feet tall. I won't lie to you. But I'm not absolutely sure that, in my case, a European diet would have done it. It may be that I've reached my genetic potential that I'm five feet ten and a half by nature. And, all things considered, I'm happy to have been born in the United States.