Most of us attribute our height to genetics. I fault my dad for my short stature, who swears he’s 5' 10" (subtract an inch or so). My brothers hit the genetic jackpot and are tall like my mom, who claims to be 5' 11" (and is actually closer to 6 feet). But while my parents’ genes and random chance explain my height compared to my siblings, it doesn’t account for height variations between whole populations, like why American women are on average nearly two inches shorter than Dutch women are. Heredity may even play less of a role in the dramatic differences we see between say, the long, lanky Kenyan Masai and petite Filipinos.
The Climate Effect
Two basic rules have dominated science’s understanding of height since the 19th century. They simply documented what the eye could see. Taken together, Allen and Bergmann’s rules tell us that warm-blooded animals in very cold climates tend to be more compact, with short appendages. Their bodies have a comparatively small surface area, helping them retain warmth—think polar bears. Closer to the equator, animals tend to be lean and tall with long limbs, encouraging heat to escape and cool their bodies—think giraffes. In human terms, the classic illustration of these principals is the oft-cited comparison of the short, stocky Inuits living in subarctic temperatures and the long-limbed Masai and Dinka tribes near the equator.
Recent research has provided some fodder for these rules, not as proof of natural selection, but of proof that climate can influence physiological development. At the University of Pennsylvania, researchers separated mice into warm and cold environments. The mice in warm temperatures grew longer ears, tails, and limbs than the cold-reared mice did. Researchers suggested that the cold restricts blood flow, stemming cartilage growth.
Even so, the University of Pennsylvania study fails to explain a lot about human height in the past and present. Why, for instance, were the Cheyenne, who inhabited the Great Plains, the tallest people in the world in the late 19th century? The Midwest gets muggy in the summer, but also has harsh winters. Or why do Guatemalan women living in hot, humid climates rarely reach five feet? And perhaps the biggest question is for the United States. Why, if cold inhibits growth, are the Dutch, who a century ago ranked among the shortest people in the world, are now the tallest—a good two to three inches above Americans?
The Health Factor
The answer lies in factors less tangible than climate. While temperature may still shape the ears and tails of hares and the bulk of oxen, it holds little sway in the industrialized world where people can control their body temperatures with insulated jackets and heated homes. So the Dutch are largely impervious to the effects of their chilly winters. Many scientists believe that the Dutch and their western European neighbors are outgrowing us because of their strong social welfare programs, which gives them equitable access to good food and health care.
A study of Mayans in Guatemala and Mayan refugees in the United States lends credence to the health and height correlation. When American anthropologist Barry Bogin visited Guatemala in the 1970s, the Mayan Indians were so short, they were called the pygmies of Central America. The Guatemalans of primarily Spanish decent were average height. Since they shared the same country, it was assumed that difference was genetic. Yet, in 2000, after civil war spurred a million Mayans to resettle in the United States, Bogin found that refugees between six and twelve years old were four inches taller than Guatemalan Mayans of the same age. The Mayans in Guatemala, Bogin concluded, were “suffering.” They had less food and access to healthcare and more disease. The same holds true for Mexican-American teenagers, who have nearly met the height norm here.
Food intake minus the toll of diseases that deplete nutrients is known as net nutrition, and it may explain the stature of the 19th century Cheyenne, who lived well on a plentiful diet of bison and berries, and roamed in the open plains free of the scourges ravaging cities.
Defining Good Health
Height-inducing health, however, is more complicated than a full belly and vaccinations. If it were, Americans, once the tallest in the world, would not be looking up to western Europeans. Despite advances in technology and health care, the average American man—5 foot 9.5 inches—is just an inch taller than the average soldier was during the Revolutionary War. Americans have not inched up since 1955. Meanwhile, stature in Western Europe has climbed by two centimeters a decade. American women, particularly black women, may have even shrunk over the last few generations. It would be tempting to point the finger at immigrants from short countries, but studies that exclude people of Asian and Hispanic descent don’t alter the data. Beginning in infancy and through adolescence, Americans grow less than their western European peers, implying that better health care and a more even distribution of wealth in social welfare states is part of the answer. (The Dutch offer top-notch prenatal and postpartum care at free clinics.) Some scientists also lay blame on the fast-food American diet. If hamburgers, fries, and soda take the place of fruits, vegetables, and milk, kids may not be getting the nutrients they need. So instead of growing up, Americans are growing out. While Americans are no longer the tallest, they are among the widest.
Height alone is not all that important to well-being, especially when the differences are a matter of a few inches. After all, it’s not exactly a competition. Being short has not affected my life in any significant way and is sometimes an advantage. (Although studies do show taller people earn more money.) The case can even be made that smaller people consume less and are better for the environment. But as a bellwether for the well-being of society, collective height should be taken seriously, as should America’s relatively high rates of infant mortality among industrialized countries. Despite our wealth, Americans are coming up short in more ways than one.
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