It has recently been rediscovered that stature contains information about the populace’s health, well-being and standard of living. Now that we are all sick of national economic statistics, perhaps it is time to examine the evidence from human biology. It is known that mean national height is a strong correlate of per capita income, life expectancy, infant mortality, disease burdens, latitude and mean temperatures in the cross-section. We shall however concentrate on the dispersion and evolution of Western stature in this dispatch, for as we shall see, this variable contains very interesting information on historical polarization within the Western world.
Figure 1 displays the mean heights in eight rich, Western nations. In the eighteenth century, the Americans towered over the Europeans. In 1710-1790, they were on average around 5cm taller than Britons, Swedes and Dutch, 6cm taller than the Italians, and 7cm taller than the French. In the nineteenth century, we see Americans and Canadians towering over the Europeans. This supremacy was not confined to North America. Figure 2 shows stature in Anglo-Saxon settler colonies and Britain. We see that there existed a significant setter colonial premium in stature that did not vanish until the end of the nineteenth century. Despite the British Industrial Revolution in 1780-1830, Britain did not close the gap with the Americans, Canadians, Australians, and the Kiwis until the turn of the century.
We can calculate the settler colonial premium more broadly as the mean difference with American heights. Figure 3 displays this measure. We see that the premium broadly vanished over the course of the late-19th century. Note that the US-Canadian differential is bounded by (-2cm,+2cm), which we can think of as containing information on the underlying volatility of the error term. With this ballpark in mind, we can be confident that the ~6cm premium during the ancien régime, 1700-1860, is significant. Note that 6cm is the central tendency until the mid-nineteenth century. But the range is wide. Americans were more than 10cm taller than Germans in 1840, but only 4cm taller than Swedes. Britons came within reach of a 2cm premium in 1750 but diverged again, not to close the gap until the turn of the century. And it was really only in 1930 that Britons became taller than Americans for the first time.
More broadly, the settler colonial premium vanished over the course of the late-nineteenth century. But the transition to modern stature does not take place until the mid-20th century. Go back to Figure 1. As late as 1920, we had no observations over 174cm. By 1960, they are all above 174cm. So we have two different transformations. First, the settler colonial premium vanishes in 1860-1890. Then, after 1920 but continuing a movement that started decades earlier in many countries, mean heights increase rapidly until they stabilize by 1960.
In the modern regime, 1960-1980, the Dutch have enjoyed an extraordinary primacy. They are about 2-3cm taller than the Germans and the Swedes, 3-4cm taller than Americans and Canadians, 6cm taller than Britons and the French, and an extraordinary 8cm taller than the Italians. This polarization is suggestive. Might the naive Heliocentric theory explain it? It is indeed known that latitude is priced into the cross-section of stature. Since we don’t have a large enough sample we cannot try to replicate that result. Still, Figure 4 suggests a ballpark estimate of 20mm per degree so that a 20 degree difference in latitude predicts a 4cm difference in stature. That’s a very impressive gradient for what is dismissed as a “Tropical issue.” And the earlier estimates for the gradient are much larger. The truth is likely closer to the latter since even after the vanishing of the settler colonial premium, the United states is an outlier. The problem is of course that the US is so large that even though it has a mean latitude of 37º, much of the country lies in the temperate zone. So the true gradient is probably closer to 30-40mm per degree than 20mm, implying that a 20 degree increase in latitude would predict a 6-8cm gain in stature with all that implies about everyday living standards.
How do we make sense of the panel evidence in Figure 1? We suggest the following periodization: premodern era 1700-1860, transition period 1860-1960, and modern era 1960-1980. A significant setter colonial premium of around 4-8cm was the invariant of the premodern era. European stature was always below 170cm, roughly around 167cm, while the Anglo-Saxon setters were all above 170cm, roughly around 172cm. National stature went up and down in medium-term cycles characteristic of the Malthusian trap. Multiple cycles can be discerned in Figure 2. As late as the mid-19th century Americans were getting shorter by the decade. Things got better for two or three generations, then they got worse for a while. Stature fell together with real wages and life expectancy. Repeat ad infinitum … or more precisely, until the exit from the Malthusian trap. That exit did not obtain until after 1900. See Figure 5.
In the modern era, 1960-1980, Western heights were distributed around 180cm, a full 10cm above the Malthusian boundary between the settler colonies and the continent. They are ordered roughly by latitude with the Dutch leading the way. Dutch primacy is an invariant of the modern regime. But the broader Heliocentric polarization is a much older story. It holds before and after the exit from the Malthusian trap.
During the transition era, we first see the collapse of the settler colonial premium in 1860-1990, and then the beginnings of a major upward movement in 1890-1920. But it is only in the course of the transformative mid-century passage, 1920-1960, that all previous records for mean stature are broken. As late as 1920, the Western average was still 171cm; high for a premodern European country but not for the settler colonies. But by 1960, the Western average jumps to 178cm. Over the whole century of the transition to modernity, 1860-1960, Western stature increased by 10cm; clocking an astonishing rate of increase of 1cm per decade.
The evidence from human stature suggests that the physical environment dictated everyday basic living standards in the ancien régime. This meant that there was a significant settler premium. Anglo-Saxon setters dwarfed Europeans. The vanishing of this setter premium in 1860-1890 suggests an earlier data for transition to modern living standards than the period of major growth in Western stature, 1930-1960. But these suggested dates are in fact consistent. What we have here is this: The Second Industrial Revolution, which unlike the more limited British revolution, 1760-1830, was broad-based enough to repeal the Malthusian Law. The vanishing of the setter colonial premium attests to this fundamental transformation in the nature of the game. It is only then, after the turn of the century, that everyday living standards are revolutionized. We emphasize that the revolution in Western living standards obtained very, very slowly. It is not until the mid-century passage that we hit the hockey stick in earnest.
The revolution in stature was in no way confined to the Western world. Figure 7 shows that the transition to the modern pattern was global in 1860-1960. The global median rose from 165cm in 1860 to 170cm in 1960, exactly where it is now. Although patchy coverage suggests caution, there seems to have been a decline in global stature in the neoliberal era. Median global height fell 2cm in 1980-1990, then recovered half the loss in 1990-2000.
The broad historical pattern of Western and global stature suggests that the transition to modernity took place in 1860-1960. This was accompanied by a Great Divergence in living standards. Western stature rose roughly 10cm from around 170cm to 180cm, while world-wide (Western and non-Western) median stature rose by only 5cm from 165cm to 170cm, implying that the rise in non-Western standards was much more modest.