The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 14, 2008


In the five years that I lived in London up to January 2008, I don't think I saw more than four or five women taller than me. In the last four months, I've encountered more than a dozen. What's going on? Where are they all coming from? Why are they all in the City? And why do they all have heavy bags that they use mercilessly to knock lesser mortals out of the way as they bestride the pavements like colossi?

Personally, I blame the Dutch. Ever since their king conquered England 320 years ago, they have been growing ever more prosperous and taller. Now it appears that their women are the tallest in Western Europe. Sure, there are some communities in the Dinaric Alps who can look down upon the Dutch, but face it: how many Dinarians are there in the City? And anyway, these Amazons who power their way down Bishopsgate are all blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked and smiling, and everybody knows that that's what the Dutch are: a happy and well-fed people.

The link between quality of diet and height has been known for quite a while. The remarkable growth of the Japanese post-WW II has been documented here and there. Sure, there are supposedly tall tribes in Africa (e.g. the Dinka) who are probably malnourished, but very well adapted to the hot clime. But, in general, the average height of a population is a good proxy for the quality of their lives.

As usual with such sweeping study, there's always an interpretational ruckus. The average height of Indian men has increased much more than that of Indian women in the past sixty years. Clearly, this would lead one to conclude that women in India have had a much worse time of it - foodwise, especially - than their menfolk. But no. The cry goes around town that the correlation between height and nutrition applies only to foreigners. We Indians are different.

But I'd like to claim that so are the Africans. And mid-nineteenth century British. In fact, everybody is different.

This paper suggests that the reason why South Asians are shorter than would be implied by their relative wealth is that historically, their population could only be supported by adopting a vegetarian cereal-based diet that did not permit people to be so tall as a more balanced diet with a higher percentage of fats and animal-basd foods...the preferences that evolved to support the diet, most notably vegetarianism, may take many generations to change.

The paper also points out that while there is a directional relation between quality of food and height, the reverse is not necessarily valid. Also, inferences on quality of life from records of average height are dangerous. For instance, the Irish in the 19th century were poorer yet taller than their British counterparts. The Irish had a nutritionally better-balanced diet (of dairy and potatoes) than their cousins across the Irish Sea.

Likewise, attempts to infer African income levels or African disease burdens from African heights would fail spectacularly, much more spectacularly even than the well-known but relatively minor failures in the height to income relationship in mid-nineteenth century Europe and America, particularly because at least some of the latter can be accounted for by an increased burden of disease.

The Economist recently had an interesting discussion of the relation between income levels and height. Stature, it announces, is a measure of deprivation, not necessarily prosperity. As the quality of life improves for a population, its average height rises dramatically. But once essential nutrition is widely available, even if the population continues to grow richer, its height does not grow as much.

Consider this, though. Two societies with equal average wealth can have different average heights. In general, the society with the taller average is more equitable. Why is that? Because in a more equitable society, the good quality of life is better distributed among its people.

Yet another piece of evidence (if one weren't already convinced) that "equitable" and "India" are, still, sadly far apart.

Despite globalisation and the general (average) rise in wealth around the world, the state of childhood nutrition remains dire, especially in South Asia (where it is worse than even sub-Saharan Africa). Meera Shekar of the World Bank has written this study (PDF alert!) of the problem. Check it out - it makes some seriously disturbing points about the state of health of the world.

Also, take a look here (PDF alert!) at Angus Deaton's Health, Height and Inequality: the Distribution of Adult Heights in India.

On a lighter note: Greg Mankiw suggests that taller people be taxed more than shorter folks because the giants tend to out-earn and out-perform the midgets over their lifetimes. I think the point he is making is that taxing entrepreneurs for the fruits of their given-by-nature genius is no different from taxing taller people for their naturally-obtained economic benefits. Of course, there are any number of refutations and counter-arguments, and were I more interested in arcane economics, I might follow them all.

Of course, the reason why - as models go - Elle Macpherson was more successful than, say, Kate Moss (I'm not saying she was, but what if?) - may not be entirely because the former is better eye-candy than the latter. There's a paper (yet another PDF alert!) reported at the Freakonomics blog that links height with intelligence, and documents that, as early as age three, taller children perform significantly outperform on cognitive tests; these scores persist throughout childhood. Hot damn, and we just found out that our boy is in the 25th percentile of height for his age group. I'm now getting worried again.


Veena said...

No need to worry.

Specimen 1: Bill. I have yet to meet an Indian male above the age of 15 who is shorter than him but man's always within the well, top whatever you pick percentile in any test he has taken. Needless to say, problem is I am still to meet anyone more useless in real life than Bill. As long as you aren't worried about real life, you shouldn't worry about such silly stuff moi thinks.

Fëanor said...

Thanks for that. You're probably right. I'm very likely paranoid.

Szerelem said...

Is it wrong if I just prefer tall men??

Shefaly said...

Hmm. Perhaps take heart in the fact that like the marginal utility curve inflecting downwards inevitably, the meat-based diet cultures advance to the tune of 'I'm lovin' it' to the Kingdom of Obesity (not that Indians aren't - may be it is to a different tune!). It will be interesting to see where this settles.

That said, I would not worry about Angad. I always stood at the front of the class - and indeed always sat at the front of the class - being a petite person. I have never suffered from lack of anything including self-confidence, Lakshmi or Saraswati. In fact, I routinely piss off those who think their height or race give them an advantage over me in the brain stakes but my consulting clients do not seem to notice my height overly when it comes to work or the money they are willing to pay. I also emphasise my petiteness by pointedly not wearing heels - comfort ueber alles for me. In short, if you will pardon the pun, your son appears to have very interesting genes as far as grey matter goes. :-) So do chill!

Fëanor said...

Szerelem: no, no. Tall men are indeed preferable, heheh.

Shefaly: thanks! I would like to think that Angad, like Bill and you, is indeed exceptional - too early to tell. But deriving statistics from short (that pun again!) samples is notoriously fraught: who is to say that you are not an outlier in the distribution? :-)

What's going on? You've been quiet lately. Hope all's well.

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