Why brown people are midgets

By Razib Khan | February 24, 2008 2:59 am

midgetbrown.jpgI’m 5 feet 8 inches tall. 1.73 meters. In the United States that’s somewhat on the short side, most of the charts suggest I’m around the 30th percentile for white men. Of course, I’m not white. In any case, though I’m on the short side for the typical American male, I’m a giant in my family. My father is 5 feet 4 inches. My mother is around 5 feet now. They’re possibly shorter than they were due to age, but they would have been short in the United States no matter what. As I was growing up, and surpassed my parents in my mid-teens, I assumed that their relative lack of height was a function of childhood nutritional deprivation. After all, they were born in Bangladesh!
If I had thought it through that was probably a pretty stupid reason for assuming they were short; my parents were from affluent families. Affluent enough that older family members were comfortably plump. Additionally, as Muslims they had no food taboos aside from pork, and milk and meat were widely consumed (though fish was of course a primary protein source). Though a significant proportion of the population in Bangladesh, what was East Bengal, is malnourished, no one in my family fell into that category. But this is all post facto, there’s a very specific reason I rejected my prior assumptions. I have three siblings and their heights are basically in the range of my parents (correct for sex, etc.). I’m the odd one out, not my parents. I have some “tall” uncles on both sides of my family, which in Bangladesh means around my height. My paternal grandfather was also relatively tall, reputedly above 5 feet 10 inches, while my maternal grandmother was tall for a woman in her youth. When I visited my family in 2004 one of my cousins was taller than me, around 5 feet 10 inches or so. He was the only one, there were a few who were around my height, but most were shorter. No one in my family is on the edge in terms of nutrition, though not approaching American obesity levels plumpness is not unknown even among young adults. Though we’re not plutocrats on the whole, many of my cousins have professional jobs, accountants at NGOs or systems administrators at universities and what not. Nevertheless, among them I am a giant, and my brother at 5 feet 4 inches is typical.


In the United States I’ve met two bloggers of my own Bengali ethnicity who were born and raised in American middle class comfort. Both were male and were shorter than me, one by a few inches, and the other by at least 6 inches! The N is small and probably not representative, but these meetings reinforced my new conviction that my family’s small size is not due to their diet or some random fluke of nature.
Here is something from the Wikipedia entry on Bangladesh:

With a land area of 144,000 square kilometers, ranked 94th), the population density is remarkable. A striking comparison is offered by the fact that Russia’s population is slightly smaller. Indeed Bangladesh has the highest population density in the world, excluding a handful of city-states.

In all fairness, this is somewhat deceptive. Most of Bangladesh is arable land, so one can grow crops on it. In contrast, most of Japan is not. Dividing the number of people by arable land results in Japan being denser than Bangladesh! It still remains though that Bengal has long been reputed to be a populous region of South Asia. Here’s a density map for Asia:
asiapop.jpg
We know that more than half the variation in height is due to variation of genes in environments where nutrition is not a major issue. So it seems likely that height variation has a genetic component. It is a classic quantitative trait, it is in fact the classic quantitative trait in most textbooks. The variation is likely to be generated by many genes of small effect. If a trait is heritable that means it is possible for evolution to act upon a population so that the mean trait value changes due to differential fitness correlated with genotype. We know of one locus of relatively large effect in the context of height, and the height reducing allele is more frequent in East Asians. Therefore it is plausible that the between population differences in height are in part due to genetic differences (an admixture study would be good!). We also know among mammals that there is a pretty universal trend toward changes in size and proportion as one moves away from the tropics (stockier, somewhat larger). Finally, in human history our species has been shrinking since the last Ice Age, bouncing back only within the last century. It seems likely that this bounce back is in large part a function of superior nutrition. But even today our species is smaller than it was 10,000 years ago. There is a concomitant trend among agricultural peoples of greater gracility over time; dentition and bone morphology become less robust.
You don’t need to guess what my general guess is in terms of the cause behind of these trends: agriculture changed the parameters so that smaller individuals were at an advantage vis-a-vis larger ones. I believe agricultural peoples were usually at the Malthusian limit, and large individuals would be at disadvantage during marginal years. Of course hunter-gatherers were also at the Malthusian limit quite often, but it seems that there is a non-trivial body of work which leans toward the proposition that their diversified diet and lower population densities (because of lower carrying capacity conditional upon their lifestyle) resulted in greater mean physiological fitness. This might entail more slack during lean years for larger individuals, who otherwise might be advantaged in the reproductive race. Which brings me to a new paper, Life-History Consequences of Density Dependence and the Evolution of Human Body Size:

Previous attempts to explain variation in human growth and development emphasize the energetic constraints imposed by malnutrition and disease. However, this approach does not address the evolutionary effects of mortality risk on ontogenetic variation, a common theme in life-history studies. The conventional approach can be reconciled with life-history theory by considering the effect of mortality on the rates and timing of maturity in subsistence-based human populations. Humans slow down growth and development and demonstrate smaller adult body sizes in high-population-density contexts, presumably because of increased nutritional constraints and disease loads. In addition, there is evidence of mortality-based selection for relatively faster/earlier ontogeny in small-bodied hunter-gatherers living at high densities. This finding may be interpreted as an evolved reaction norm for earlier reproductive maturity and consequent smaller adult body size in high-mortality regimes. In sum, comparative results support density-dependent effects on body size that act through two pathways–nutritional constraints and juvenile mortality–at varying intensities, contributing to a nearly twofold range in body size across human societies.

residual.jpgThis chart illustrates the correlation. Of course, this only applies to hunter-gatherers, but I suspect the insight is generalizable. In Farewell to Alms Greg Clark observes that Asian societies (India and China) were notoriously lacking in nutritional variety and heft when it came to the typical peasant; meat was a rare luxury. Combine this constant stress with the incredible densities and I think between group differences are somewhat more explicable.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics
  • Psilon

    hmm, I’m sri lankan tamil and I’m somewhere in between 5’8″ and 5’9″ as is my brother. My parents are about the same height as yours (5’5″ amd 5″). What I noticed is that among my relatives, family friends or other sri lankan tamils i’ve met (university, high school etc) is that i tend to be shorter (not by much) than them if they were raised in canada as i was. Recently arrived immigrants tend to be shorter. Within my family I’m average/slightly below average (maternal cousins are the same height, paternal cousin is taller than 6ft – maternal and paternal cousins were raised in australia and canada respectively).
    I know six Bengali guys – two of which I would consider short

  • http://www.tkkenyon.com TK Kenyon

    I commiserate with your vertically challenged status, Razib. I’m female, Caucasian and mixed, but I’m five-feet-nothing.
    We sub-compact models of humanity do have one comforting factor, however: longevity. Size is inversely correlated with longevity, but my grandparents, both over 90, are puttering along at under 5’4. In humans, you don’t see many old basketball players. In dogs, small, yappy dogs can live to be 15 years or older, while Labs are old at 10, and Great Danes rarely make it to 8.
    You may be in the 30th %ile in height for whites, but you may live longer than all those pale giants around you, assuming you wear your seat belt.
    TK Kenyon

  • Troy

    I’m 6’4″, Californian, and predominantly white, I grew up on the same fast food and tex-mex as all the mexicans in my neighborhood, and yet few of them were more than 5’7″ if they were extremely lucky.

  • John Emerson

    I can trump Razib in the shortness competition, since I’m an inch or two shorter and come from normal or tall stock (English, German, and Dutch, with the Dutch being the tallest people in Europe). And I’m the giant in my family too: my mother and two sisters are 5′-minus, and an aunt is about 4’10″.
    Just yesterday I had a couple beers with a huge Dutch-American farmer. Mark Olberding, a Dutch guy from down the road (Melrose HS, “The Dutchmen) played 12 years in the pros at 6’8″.
    Once when I was walking down the road with my four brothers at a family reunion, I realized that we were statistically normal as Mexicans, but one in a hundred thousand as Americans. In fact, we had another short friend with us, making us one in a million.
    Without exception out kids have followed our spouses in height. One brother married an equally-short women, and their daughters are tiny. (My 90-lb. niece also can drink a six-pack of beer with showing any effects except for becoming slightly more talkative. Breeding tells.)

  • John J Emerson
  • colin

    25 years ago I met the Bengali filmmaker who made the famous Apu Trilogy and remember thinking that he was the tallest old person I had ever met.(probably around 6’6″).
    Based on what you are saying the man must have been a real outlier, it is something reflected in his films.

  • pconroy

    Well my parents (both Irish) are 5′ 3″ and 5′ 8″ and I’m 6″ 1″, while my ex was 5′ 6″ (French/Italian) and her parents are 5′ 2″ and 5′ 6″, so both of us are considerably taller than our parents.
    My daughter is 4.5 years old and 3′ 9″, or about as tall as an American 6 to 7 yo – an online height predictor here http://www.webmd.com/content/tools/1/calc_kid_height.htm – estimates her final height will be 5′ 10″.
    So somehow in two generation height keeps increasing substantially – how is that explained?!

  • Longman

    Nothing special here.
    I’m 6’2.5″
    My father was 6 foot, my mother 5’7″. My mother’s parents were about 5’11 (father) and 5’4″ (mother) but grew up during the Great Depression in the rural South and were quite poor. I don’t know about my father’s parents, died before I was born.
    We are basic African Americans. My father’s side looks almost pure African, not sure if they have any admixture…my mother’s side looks “mulatto”. I’m the 3rd tallest of my immediate family. My maternal uncle is 6’4″ and I have a cousin (maternal 1st cousin) is 6’4″ or so.
    Most of the women in my family are about 5’4″-5’6″, men are all around 6 foot. I’m assuming my grandparents would have been taller if they did not grow up in the rural South during the Great Depression and Jim Crow, still they were considered quite tall at the time. I believe in WWI, the average American male height (based on WWI soldiers) was only 5’7″.

  • natural cynic

    Emerson:
    Suleymanoglu is certainly not gracile. He used the biomechanical advantage of short limb lengths [short lever arms] as part of the package that made him a champion.

  • Longma

    I should also add that disease might be something people should think about when looking at their grandparents height. My grandfather had Tuberculosis pretty bad as a child and he was weak as a result for most of his childhood.
    This on top of a poor diet in early childhood (having to hunt for and eat squirrels and raccoons for meat).

  • John J Emerson

    I don’t follow weightlifing but from what people say, and from his record, Suleymanoglu seems superhuman. He could have had five Olympic championships except for a boycott and one time when he tried to break his own record on his last turn. (Presumably he wanted the record for than the gold and didn’t think that he had two more tries in him.)
    I’ve always wondered how weightlifters add strength without adding weight. I think that physiologists and geneticists should look at some of the chanpions, starting with Suleymanoglu. They must have lots of design quirks.

  • Colin

    “I’ve always wondered how weightlifters add strength without adding weight. I think that physiologists and geneticists should look at some of the chanpions, starting with Suleymanoglu. They must have lots of design quirks.”
    Predominance of Myofibrillar hypertrophy over Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

  • diana

    I am 5’6″. For a Jewess, that means I am 5’10″. :)
    Fun fact: Michelle Obama is 5’11″. If she becomes 1st Lady, she will be the tallest since Eleanor Roosevelt: 6’0″. (Dutch English heritage.)

  • diana

    Aren’t Punjabis tall? Or is that a myth?

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Aren’t Punjabis tall? Or is that a myth?
    no, it’s true. i think they’re around the northern european (though not dutch or scandinavian), norm.

  • John J Emerson

    Colin: Thanks. That led me to this Wiki, which is pretty good (by my standards): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle_hypertrophy. It really mostly covers choice of training methods, though. It doesn’t say why one individual will be more successful than anohther individual training about the same way.
    It still seems that there’s a lot to learn. Sports genetics strikes me as an actually scientifically important field, especially in very specialized sports like powerlifting, sprinting, and long distance running, since these sports select outliers in very specific respects, whereas in multi-competence sports like basketball there are many different factors that can lead to success in various combinations.
    Presumably it’s multiple factors even in weightlifting, since any single factor just divides the talent pool into two graded groups. The coaching cliche tends to be that desire and effort are the main deciders, but coaches only start talking that way after they’ve found physical specimens.
    Conceivably by this method it might even be possible to find a single mutant gene sometime. The odds are against that, of course, but combing the global talent pool for physiological outliers would be a darn good way to look, and that’s what the Olympics does. At the top level of competition you seem to have long tails in most sports, so that every once in awhile there’s a super-great athlete who outclasses all of the merely-great athletes.
    I imagine that the files of the East German Olympic committee are one place to start looking. Have they been released, or are they being secretly held now by the United Germany Olympic Committee? They were breeding high jumpers to high jumpers and shot putters to shot putters, as I remember.
    Of course, other aspects of their sports medicine tended to debilitate athletes in the long run, possibly making conception and childbearing problematic. What they could have done is freeze the semen of promising athletes before the steroid regime began, and then inseminating with the successful guys’ semen.

  • Sandgroper

    Sikhs that I know and see are mostly big guys, but I didn’t know if that was from a population selected on height, which seemed possible.
    Nepalese are the classic short-arses, but no one in his right mind would off-side a bunch of Ghurkas.

  • diana

    I wonder if there have been studies of the heights of racially mixed African pop’ns in the different parts of the Americas. In N. America, they mixed w/N. Europeans (tending towards tall.) In S. America, they mixed with short-arses. In Brazil, middling.
    Same basic W. African stock mixing w/different white/Amerindian ethnicities. Any height differences?
    Of course, the diet is different.

  • http://facelessbureaucrat.blogspot.com Bill Harshaw

    Robert William Fogel’s, The escape from hunger and premature death, 1700-2100 : Europe, America, and the Third World, gives an interesting analysis of the relationship among height, body mass, health/life expectancy, nutrition and economics. A bit heavy on the math for me, but worth the read.

  • Salamander

    I’m Hungarian-Scottish-Irish-German-English-French-Cherokee, and am 5’2″ (female.) I’m the Amazon in the family; my mother is 4’11″ and my aunt was 4’10″. I think my Hungarian grandma was about that height as well. My husband is Italian-Chilean-English-French-Scottish-German and is 5’5″, and our daughters have their own little growth curve right below the 5th percentile. My 7.5 year old is the size of a smallish kindergartener, and I’ve met a lot of one-year-olds who could probably bench-press my preschooler.
    We all grew up amid American plenty; God only knows how tiny we would have been if we had been born in the Third World somewhere!
    When we lived in Boston and had a lot of Asian friends, we felt like we were of normal height…but now we live in an area with a lot of Scandinavian ancestry and everyone is so tall it’s ridiculous.

  • John Emerson

    When I was in Taiwan in 1983 I was the same height (and huskier) as Chinese born before about 1960, but younger Chinese were very often taller than me. Including HS girls.
    Old Japan really was short of food (not much cropland), and I read awhile back that the typical Japanese was a foot taller than his grandfather.

  • Ikram

    I think you mean Bengalis. Aryavartans (?) get shorter as you move NW to SE. Pre-1971, one big Bengali beef was the minimum height requirement to join the military (167 cm) which kept out more E.Pakistanis then W.Pakistanis. Yahya Khan lowered it in 1969, but it was too late.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    I think you mean Bengalis. Aryavartans (?) get shorter as you move NW to SE. Pre-1971, one big Bengali beef was the minimum height requirement to join the military (167 cm) which kept out more E.Pakistanis then W.Pakistanis. Yahya Khan lowered it in 1969, but it was too late.
    i think punjabis are the atypical ones, not bengalis, when it comes to south asians. so i think the generalization holds because only a minority of south asians are from the northwest. in any case, many punjabis always try to claim they are closer to the peoples of west and central asia (e.g., “our ancestors were persians,” “our ancestors were scythians”), so i’m not inclined to cut slack to punjabis are the central tendency among brownz in any case.

  • srik

    “in any case, many punjabis always try to claim they are closer to the peoples of west and central asia (e.g., “our ancestors were persians,” “our ancestors were scythians”),”
    Persians tend to be quite short though. Pashtuns from eastern Afghanistan / NW Pakistan are probably the tallest people in S. Asia (they tend to get shorter as you move west towards Iran).

  • Ikram

    Re: central tendency — this isn’t hard to find. Here’s an older paper on Indian heights, based on the 1969-71 all-india anthropometric survey. Here’s another (but it’s predicted, not real, data)paper — see table 1.

  • pconroy

    My experience in New York tells me that Iranians tend to be heavyset, but are a few inches shorter than the US mean in height, whereas Punjabis tend to be moderately heavyset and average around the US mean in height.

  • talljewishgirl

    I’m a 5’8″ supposedly 100% ashkenazi female, my sister is 5’10″, my mom 5’7″, my dad 6′. My mom always said “thank God those Cossacks raped your great-great grandmothers, or we’d be short and dumpy!”

  • PhillyGuy

    Here’s a paper on heights of Indian 20 year olds by region: http://www.princeton.edu/~rpds/downloads/deaton_height_health_inequality_revised_ack_jan08.pdf
    The data were collected in 2005-6. Heights for men and women are given in table 1 on page 10. The tallest regions appear to be in the NW and top out at about 168 cm.
    I tend to notice height and physique because I’ve always been interested in sports science and, at 5’8.5″ (174 cm) (all British Isles ancestry, except for 1/8 Italian and 1/16 German), being a bit below the US average (where I grew up and currently reside), when traveling I tend to notice when a significantly larger or smaller proportion of young men are taller or shorter than me compared to when I’m in the US.
    I went to University in the UK and then studied and worked in Germany for several years, and in both countries I had contact with large numbers of S. Asians. Most of the S. Asians I knew or met were either of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or N. Indian descent and were from ethnic groups that spoke Indo-European languages. My impression is that the ones born in the UK and Germany did not strike me as short compared to S. and W. Europeans (like Brits, French, Spaniards, N. Italians (never been to the S. Italy), etc. they seem to average around 5’9″-5’10″). This survey of health for England from 1999 seems to indicate that they are actually shorter, but it doesn’t give data on place of birth so I can’t tell what proportion had the benefits of European nutrition and medical care as children:
    http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/doh/survey99/hse99-t6-3.htm
    However, S. Asians born in Europe did seem to me to be generally shorter on average than Germans, Scandinavians, Balts and Slavs. As for physique and body proportions, I did not notice much of a difference from Europeans, except that they have perhaps a little less muscle tone and are a little flabbier around the middle on average and that they seem to have long, narrow hands and feet (my girlfriend remarked once that a group of S. Asian students looked like they were wearing clown shoes). The Sikhs appeared to be an exception to my general observations. While I have seen no studies, they seem to me to be roughly on par with Germans/Dutch (i.e., 5’11″-6′/180-182cm) on average. They also seem to have a similar physique to N. Europeans: what I would describe as “small-bodied” with long, gangly limbs, though they also seem, like other S. Asians I have known, to have a little less muscle tone and to be a little flabbier around the middle than N. Europeans (who by no means have an impressive physique on average themselves). The Dravidian descended S. Asians I have known that grew up in Western countries, by contrast, seem to be short (about 5’6″ on average) and are shaped quite differently than whites (relatively short bodies with long limbs and very long hands and feet, broad shoulders with small, shallow chests and narrow hips, often chubby in the middle – in fact, their physiques remind me a lot of picture I have seen of Australian Aboriginals).

  • http://www.complexinterplay.blogspot.com Rafe Kelley

    In response to John Emerson question. Strength is not primarily a product of muscle size but of neuromuscular efficiency, which is to say you become stronger primarily not by adding muscle but by utilizing more of your muscles in a more precisely coordinated way for the specific activity your doing. An average person can only voluntarily fire about 30-40 percent of a given muscle fiber someone like Naim might have been approaching 80. I have read that a muscle fired at 100 percent capacity can break the bone it is attached to.
    BTW I am 6^2 195 of mixed british, polish and portuguese heritage, my father is 5^9 my mother 5^5 my paternal grandfather(irish british) was 5^6 his father was 5^4.

  • http://hubpages.com/hub/Muscle-Growth Michael

    I do agree with Rafe. Like he said, the muscle could break the bone. But ontopic. I am 5^6, mixed German, Polish, my mother is 5^9, my father 5^6 as well.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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