Without the past century’s improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and medicine, only half of us Americans would be alive today.
So says Samuel H. Preston, one of the world’s leading demographers and a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania in discussing a soon-to-be-published book by Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert W. Fogel and colleages, The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700. The New York Times describes the book as “one of the most ambitious projects undertaken in economic history” and “sure to renew debates over Mr. Fogel’s groundbreaking theories about what some regard as the most significant development in humanity’s long history.”
According to Fogel’s new book, “the size, shape and longevity of the human body have changed more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia.” He and his colleagues argue that food production and public health are the key reasons for the amazing “technophysio evolution” of humans as we are in the 21st century. Indeed, they argue that “people today stand apart not just from every other species, but from all previous generations of Homo sapiens as well.”
To take just a few examples, the average adult man in 1850 in America stood about 5 feet 7 inches and weighed about 146 pounds; someone born then was expected to live until about 45. In the 1980s the typical man in his early 30s was about 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighed about 174 pounds and was likely to pass his 75th birthday.
Across the Atlantic, at the time of the French Revolution, a 30-something Frenchman weighed about 110 pounds, compared with 170 pounds now. And in Norway an average 22-year-old man was about 5 ½ inches taller at the end of the 20th century (5 feet 10.7 inches) than in the middle of the 18th century (5 feet 5.2 inches).
Fogel and his colleagues emphasize that it is the health and nutrition of pregnant mothers and their children which “contribute to the strength and longevity of the next generation.” Without sufficient nutrition in the womb and early life, babies are deprived of vital nutrition and are more vulnerable to diseases. Technology has played a huge role in providing humans with better health than ever in their existence:
Before the 19th century, most people were caught in an endless cycle of subsistence farming. A colonial-era farmer, for example, worked about 78 hours during a five-and-a-half-day week. People needed more food to grow and gain strength, but they were unable to produce more food without being stronger.
Fogel’s research has and will have a huge effect on developing policy about public health in poorer nations. Other scholars argue that, beyond the focus on nutrition, a greater role should be allotted to public health practices including sewage systems, hand washing and quarantining in hospitals (after all, what good is plenty of food if you have chronic diarrhea?). Fogel and his colleagues make correlations between height, nutrition and economic wealth, yet, as Princeton economist Angus Deaton notes, “‘African adults and children are so much taller than Indian adults and children, but it can’t be their income, because Indians are much richer.’” Innovations like vaccines and antibiotics and other medicines have also played a huge role in making humans healthier.
These discussions aside, the data that Fogel and his colleagues have gathered is fascinating to contemplate. I’m five feet tall and, two weeks shy of his fourteenth birthday, my son is 5 feet, 9 inches. He’s always been carefully followed by doctors (Charlie is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum) and certainly has a far healthier diet than his great-grandfathers (who were born in rural southern China) did. Due to his disability, Charlie’s chances for a good life and even for survival would have been very different had he lived in a different century or geographic location.
On the other hand, I always surprise my students when I tell them that Philip of Macedon II, the father of Alexander the Great and the powerful King of Macedon in northern Greece, was—based on archaeological evidence (armor)—not very tall (more my height than my son’s). Height is great, but it’s not everything.
Graphic by firstname.lastname@example.org