Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Friday, June 18, 2010

A new take on an old topic

Part of my current reading list is Nayan Chanda's Bound Together. This is an examination of how old globalisation really is; how it's inseparable from being human. Chanda explored the following topic, and I'll get to his comments directly.

Some while back these pages pursued a little kerfluffle caused by a combination of self-interested anthropologists and simple-minded American reporters, discussing the story that the Netherlands had surpassed the US as home to the world's tallest people. This had been an academic topic of mine some years ago and I felt qualified to take exception.

When we left this story, we were closing in on the observation that "tallest in the world" was somewhat racist hyperbole, since that distinction has swapped back and forth amongst several pastoral tribes in East Africa, not between the US and various European contenders.

The story had us believe that the Dutch had gone from being the shortest people in Europe to the tallest in less than two generations. This too was entirely false, and the author of the monograph that served as the main source of the story made no such claim. One did not have to dig far to discover that the people native to what we now call the Netherlands had been considered unusually tall since the days of classical Rome. The academic question—still in play—is why they lost much of this distinction for 200-250 years, between about 1600 and 1850. Why, in fact, did the men more than the women appear to lose the distinction? Since about 1850, the mean height of the native Netherlands population has rebounded and (possibly) exceeded its historical precedents.

There is much simple-mindedness in journalism, especially in American journalism, and especially on this subject. The topic is bound up with the American mythology of growth and success, and has been so since Benjamin Franklin first asserted, in the 18th century, that the average American was taller than the average European. Data I examined 35 years ago suggested a difference more metaphorical than real, with a point spread of well under an inch.

Both the American public and the post WWII generation of physical anthropologists saw in greater stature a visible sign of superior diet and nutrition. During the time I was studying this, this doctrine was coming under attack, from geneticists and epidemiologists among others. One of the seeds planted in those years was the understanding that growing tall is not always a good thing, nor was it an absolute consequence of a good diet.

For example, Southeast Asians live in a traditional food surplus region, with rice as a staple starch and a good selection of fruits, vegetables and proteins readily to hand. The nutritional determinists argued that it showed that wheat was more nutritious than rice, because people from wheat-eating regions tended to be taller than people from rice-eating regions. In recent times, it was noticed that if you put a rice-eating child on a wheat diet, and a wheat-eating child on a rice diet, on average the former still ended up shorter than the latter. Something else was at work here, surely.

Another study examined the diet of Philadelphia's 18th century charitable institutions. The study disclosed that these poorest of white Colonial Americans ate a more nutritionally balanced diet than most Americans of the late 20th century.

Here is some of Nayan Chandra's elegant synopsis of the other factors at work:

"Body shapes also adjusted to the environment. Keeping the body cool through sweating in a hot climate and preserving heat in a cold climate became two key functions that determined body shape. In hot and humid climates like tropical forests, shorter people fared better because their bodies had a greater surface area for the evaporation of sweat compared to their bodies' volume and because they carried less body weight and produced less heat while hunting....The tall and slender shape of the East African...served the same purpose, since their maximum surface-area-to-volume ratio better enabled them to cool off....Their relatively small head and and slim shoulders also caught less of the sun's noon--the best time to hunt for animals that were resting in the shade....Of course...other factors, such as particular tastes of individuals in 'sex selection' could have been at play."

There it is. To be tall does not indicate that one is nobler or better fed, merely adapted in some way to one's environment. Well then, what about those Dutch? Without getting a grant and going for a PhD, I can only pose some hypotheses. They include:

1) Beginning about 1600, the Netherlands' status as a haven of religious liberty made it a more heterogeneous place than it had been before (or has been since 1850). It became home to large numbers of Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazim, French Huguenots, dissenting Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, and Britons. All these groups historically were shorter than the native population. Even without mixed marriages, data that drew no distinction based on national origins would throw these other groups into the database. It was precisely such data that formed the historical record.

2) During the last half of the 16th century, malaria made its first appearance in the northern latitudes of Europe. From that time until the mid-19th century, it became endemic in the marshy districts that made up much of the coastal Netherlands. The increasing drainage of the marshlands in the mid-19th century, followed soon after by the isolation of quinine as a treatment, made steady inroads into Dutch malaria. Why is this important? Because while many diseases, and short-term malnutrition, can temporarily prevent a child from attaining its height potential, or delay the achievement of height potential, childhood malaria characteristically permanently prevents the child from attaining its genetically predicted height.

3) Today's data are almost certainly biased in favour of the ethnic Dutch population. Although the Dutch national health system is excellent, their own data show that today's (shorter) ethnic minorities are severely underrepresented in the programme. As the Dutch work to resolve this problem, it will be interesting to see whether those spectacular numbers level off as shorter minority populations become more represented in the data stream.

4) If, today, we are chiefly measuring ethnic Dutch in the Netherlands, we can't overlook sex selection. Whilst tall men may at times choose short women as partners, there is a strong social bias (in the Euro-American world) against the opposite. A few generations of tall people marrying each other in an homogeneous population is very likely to produce successively taller offspring.

5) Finally, stature distribution is subject to completely random swings, a caution against over-relying on a single demographic parameter. If one approaches "average height" with preconceived notions, one is likely to load the measurement with a burden of proof it cannot sustain.

Chanda also includes a critical observation from his sources, that all of this is simply a set of external responses to environment and cultural preferences. On the inside, the Southeast Asian five foot tall is the same as a Dutchman of six foot six. (We might exempt the possibility that the Southeast Asian's heart doesn't need to work as hard.) I can't wait to see what other cords Chanda pulls.

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Blogger Aaron D. Ball said...

Is Chandra really telling us that (1) short people do better in tropical forests because they have more surface area and (2) tall people do better in East Africa because they have more surface area?

Sounds like a bit of an igon value problem if you ask me.

12:58 am  
Blogger Uncle said...

That may be a problem of verbal contraction on my part and his. I'll retrieve the source for you and Chanda's full iteration. There is much more to the argument so it's my bad that I left that out. Good point and I'll correct it.

4:40 pm  
Blogger Uncle said...

Now I see your point more clearly, Aaron.I'll have to get back to his sources to clarify completely...and withdraw my praise for Chandra, other than his starting this hare again.

Meanwhile, a better contrast might be an East African with an Inuit. The former is configured to cool off rapidly, while the latter is configured to retain as much heat as possible.

It would be an easier world if the physical anthropologists were entirely right on this one.

5:17 pm  
Blogger crispix67 said...

"In hot and humid climates like tropical forests, shorter people fared better because their bodies had a greater surface area for the evaporation of sweat compared to their bodies' volume"

then why is this short person so darn HOT??Oh yeah, cuz she lives in HOTlanta. lol

4:46 pm  
Blogger Uncle said...

You either need to grow a foot or get the Hotlanta authorities to grow a rain forest ;)

I'm unraveling where Chanda was going with this. There will be more soon, which may be even more confusing.

11:38 pm  

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