February 25, 2024

Economix: When Bigger Bodies Mean Progress

The recent supersizing of the human body has been cause for alarm — a sign of the obesity epidemic and a potential health crisis. But as I point out in an article on Wednesday, for most of human history, increases in height and weight meant progress — in food production and disease control.

Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has spent the last 25 years or so directing a monumental collaboration investigating the links between the size and shape of the human body and economic and social change. The project’s focus on what seems to be superficial physical characteristics like weight and height makes some people uncomfortable.

Mr. Fogel points out that taller people tend to live longer, earn more money and have higher I.Q. scores. What people forget, he says, is that he is talking about a theory of averages, not individuals.

“Milton Friedman was the most brilliant economist of the 20th century and he was short,” (about 5 foot 4 inches), he noted. And Mr. Friedman lived to 94.

Only in about the last century has technology enabled people to escape from a desperate cycle of malnutrition and disease. In 1850, the average American man was about 5 foot 7 inches tall and 146 pounds; in the 1980s, the typical adult male was about 5 foot 10 inches and 174 pounds.

A chart in a recent paper by Mr. Fogel and Nathaniel Grotte, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, cited the progression in men’s heights over time in several European countries:

The change is so rapid that Mr. Fogel says it constitutes a superfast variation of Darwinian evolution that has been given the awkward name of “technophysio evolution.”

David Cutler, a health economist at Harvard, called Mr. Fogel’s work one of the most important quantitative studies of human health ever done.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=aec5908c8fb8f9501278cfa8423a72ec

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