Height: The Most Important Change in Human History?

We've grown taller over the centuries—and a Nobel Prize-winning economist says technology, not evolution, explains why

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Robert Fogel, winner of a Nobel Prize in economics, has a new book coming out arguing, according to an account in The New York Times, that gains in human height constitute "the most significant development in humanity's long history."

Fogel and his co-authors attribute the gain in height to gains in technology:

This "technophysio evolution," powered by advances in food production and public health, has so outpaced traditional evolution, the authors argue, that people today stand apart not just from every other species, but from all previous generations of  Homo sapiens as well.

Here's the evidence:

But I'm confused by this. I thought people were taller before the agricultural revolution of 12,000 years ago or so, and that the recent gains were due to better nutrition and sanitation measures--not to gains in technology.

I'm particularly confused because of the recent study demonstrating reductions in height among women in 54 low-income countries. This study concludes:

Socioeconomic inequalities in height remain persistent. Height has stagnated or declined over the last decades in low- to middle-income countries, particularly in Africa, suggesting worsening nutritional and environmental circumstances during childhood.

In other words, if you want to do something about height disparities, you have to fix income disparities and provide adequate food and clean drinking water.



This post also appears on Food Politics.
Image: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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