Why northern Europeans are taller than southern Europeans?

By Razib Khan | August 19, 2012 11:24 pm

In part, genes. Luke Jostins reported this from a conference last year, so not too surprising. Evidence of widespread selection on standing variation in Europe at height-associated SNPs. Let me jump to the summary:

In summary, we have provided an empirical example of widespread weak selection on standing variation. We observed genetic differences using multiple populations from across Europe, thereby showing that the adult height differences across populations of European descent are not due entirely to environmental differences but rather are, at least partly, genetic differences arising from selection. Height differences across populations of non-European ancestries may also be genetic in origin, but potential nongenetic factors, such as differences in timing of secular trends, mean that this inference would need to be directly tested with genetic data in additional populations. By aggregating evidence of directionally consistent intra-European frequency differences over many individual height-increasing alleles, none of which has a clear signal of selection on its own, we observed a combined signature of widespread weak selection. However, we were not able to determine whether this differential weak selection (either positive or negative) favored increased height in Northern Europe, decreased height in Southern Europe or both. One possibility is that sexual selection or assortative mating (sexual selection for partners in similar height percentiles) fueled the selective process. It is also possible that selection is not acting on height per se but on a phenotype closely correlated with height or a combination of phenotypes that includes height.

Two points of note. First, simulations suggested that the genetic architecture is unlikely to be due to drift alone. In other words, natural selection. Selection on quantitative traits isn’t magic, there’s a whole agricultural industry based around this phenomenon. For the purposes of understanding human evolution the key is that we are now moving beyond looking for traits which emerged due to novel mutations (e.g., lactase persistence), and now trying to understand how selection and drift may work on standing variation. For example, humans have become smaller in overall size, and also in cranial capacity, over the past 10,000 years. Second, they validated their findings using a sibling cohort. This is something I always look for when people make inter-population inferences. A number of population wide correlations don’t pan out when you are looking within families. This matters in trying to understand causation.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Quantitative Genetics
  • Cascara


    It would be more accurate to say that North-West Europeans are taller. North-Easterners, including Baltics, Finns and Russians, are about the same height as Mediterranians. Eastern Finns and Karelians tend to be shorties. The most northern people of Europe, the Saami, are tiny in stature. They tend to have longer torsos and shorter legs, like Asians, and their hands and feet are very small – some Saami women I know wear (EU) shoe size 33-34 :D . Is it an adaptation for cold, to preserve body-heat? Anyway, they are incredibly cute people.

  • blindboy

    Razib I missed the chance on your open thread so please don’t take offense for throwing in what is probably a dumb and unrelated question.

    If humans and chimpanzees share 97% of their DNA and non-Africans share 5% of their DNA with Neanderthals how does that work? I mean we can’t have 97% plus 5% but if there was a Neanderthal/chimp overlap why wouldn’t it simply count as chimp DNA. I know I am probably missing something very simple here….help me out my High School science class has got me on toast until I come up with a better answer than mumble, mumble mumble!

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    Are Northern Europeans actually taller or does it go through a more subtle pattern. AFAIK Basques are taller than English on average for example.

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    I had to check and the tendency (for men) is less straightforward: (1) Central Europe and Baltic (>1.79m avg.), (2) Atlantic Is., Spain, Greece and Finland (1.77-1.78m), (3) Near-Alpine Europe, Black Sea and Malta (1.75-1.76m), (4) Portugal (1.74m)

    The list for men is:
    1. Netherlands, Sweden
    3. Germany, Norway, Lithuania, Croatia
    7. Slovenia
    8. Austria, Belgium, Slovakia, Poland
    12. Greece, Spain, Ireland
    15. Finland, England, Scotland, Wales
    21. France, Italy, Hungary
    24. Malta, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Turkey
    28. Portugal

    The tendency is even blurrier for women:

    1. Netherlands
    2. Germany, Norway, Austria, Belgium
    6. Sweden, Lithuania, Slovenia, Greece
    12. Croatia, Slovakia, Spain
    15. Poland, France, Italy
    18. Ireland, Hungary, Malta, Switzerland, Portugal
    23. Finland, England, Bulgaria
    26. Scotland, Wales
    28. Turkey

    I don’t dare to make a regionalized listing for women’s heights but it’s clear that many clearly Northern countries are at the bottom of the list.

    The center of greatest height in Europe seems to be towards the NW (Netherlands, Scandinavia, Germany) and the center of lowest height seems to be towards Istanbul… but it’s not any simple North-South cline at all.

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju
  • TonyGrimes

    The North-South cline is not too clear. I expect height in Europe is a complex thing, with lactase persistence being one of the factors.

  • pconroy

    Another factor is that greater height in men seems to correlate with greater Y-DNA I frequency – so maybe a legacy of Mesolithic admixture??

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    the critique that it isn’t north-south is a good one. but as i note in the post: these SNPs are predictive within families. please keep that in mind when assuming environmental variates.

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    #8: Fair enough, Razib. That the N-S height stereotype is not correct is not important for the facts apparently discovered. I was rather bugged by the title and exposition but the genetic findings are probably valid.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #9, i will have a follow up post clarifying the confusion for google. i was not aware how constrained the populations sampled were until i looked in the supplements.

  • Grey

    @5 It looks like a north-south cline to me if you divide the maps into 2-3 horizonatal layers and average the layers however doing so would seem to disguise more than it reveals as the biggest element of the height distribution (just going by those maps) looks more like a triangular wedge (very roughly) with the base of the wedge around Scandinavia / North Germany coming down to a point somewhere in the vicinity of Northern Italy / Croatia. The greater size of the wedge in the north than the south distorting the horizontal average and maybe also (?) the popular perception of a straightforward north-south cline

  • DK

    widespread weak selection

    For a weak, I imagine that something as simple as surface to volume ratio would be a sufficient driver. Bigger body = warmer body.

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    #11: It’s clearly not any cline in Western Europe, Grey. If you compare Britain, France and Spain (three major countries which add up to about 1/3 of all non-Russian Europeans) you have a south to north cline if anything – i.e. Spaniards are taller than their northern neighbors. It wasn’t probably that way some decades ago but nutrition improved a lot in the last half century and that is also a factor. If we’d have generationally split measures we would probably find a reversing trend in Atlantic Europe (i.e. the Brits and French were probably taller in the 1960s but not anymore).

    Only towards the East (Central parts of Europe) has the cline some reality. But still needs qualifying and has major irregularities. For example Greek women are clearly tall for European levels and Greek men not short at all either.

    Considering only the seven larger states (Ger., UK, Fr., It., Spa., Pol., Tur. – let’s not forget that the weight of Norwegians or Slovenes, or even Greeks or Swedes, is rather anecdotal in terms of numbers), there’s no obvious cline anywhere, although Germans are generally taller than everyone else and Turks shorter. If you want to describe a “cline” with just two points by means of negating the other four… up to you.

    I agree however that it’s like an irregular “wedge” or “ring” in Central Europe but even that is not too clear for women, because the “wedge” would have to go down south to Greece and would have blurry edges in general to the south but the sharp ones towards the NW and NE instead. It needs a lot of qualification indeed.

  • pconroy

    @13, Maju,

    The Dinaric Alps (Montegnegro and parts of Croatia, Bosnia, Albania and Serbia), Scandinavia, Holland, Northern Germany and Central Spain all have high levels of Y-DNA I – that’s the most parsimonious explanation for the phenomenon.

    Finland and Britain exhibit more sexual dimorphism – maybe due to higher levels of testosterone in men from these regions as compared to other Europeans?? I know both Finland and Scotland have some of the highest interpersonal violence levels in Europe, which may be evidence for this.

    I expect the greater height of Greeks is derived from their Dinaric Alps connection in the form of Albanians.

  • Grey

    @13 “It’s clearly not any cline in Western Europe, Grey…Only towards the East (Central parts of Europe) has the cline some reality…It needs a lot of qualification indeed.”

    Yes, i wasn’t clear in what i was getting at which is the difference between pure myth and misperception myth. It looks to me like if you divided the maps into 2-3 strips and *averaged* all the results you’d see a simple cline but that wouldn’t make it true, as you say. It would mask more variation than it would reveal. However if a very simple averaging did result in a cline then on average well-travelled individuals would experience that same average cline in terms of the relative number of northern and southern euros who were shorter or taller than them – especially if you add some time-depth into the perception – so you could see how such a perception could arise with a large enough sample of travellers.

    I thought your post made a good example of how myth can have a kernel of truth in it (the central wedge part) and the kernel (and the anomalies) are the interesting bits.

  • Grey

    distribution of haplotype I to compare with Maju’s maps



    addendum to previous post, google gives


    “The mean height of UK citizens is 1,755.1mm (5ft 9in). Among European men only the Dutch are taller, averaging 1,795mm and with a clear height advantage over the US men’s average of 1,760.4.

    The average British woman is 1,620mm tall (just under 5ft 4in), compared with 1,604mm for her French counterpart, 1,610mm for the Italians and 1,619mm for the Germans. Swedish women average 1,640mm, Dutch 1,650mm and Americans 1,626.7mm”

    I won’t argue the data though as i wouldn’t know where to find a definitive source and more importantly i think the regional differences (SE to NW cline?) bundled into a UK average would hide more than it reveals as well.

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    I understand your hunch at haplogroup I but there is no straightforward systematicity in it. For example the largest concentration of I in Europe is in Sardinia and Sardinians are actually short for European standards (in fact they have helped with their shortness to research into the genetic basis of height and longevity).

    There are other inconsistences: Lithuanians and French, or Austrians and Swiss, have similar apportions of the lineage, ones being tall and the others rather short.

    Also, re.#16, with a 176 cm height, the British men would be short, not tall. The data used by that journalist is probably not representative or correct. I’m using a consistent sample from a neutral mass-collated source and sufficiently representative populations and it actually places British men slightly higher than The Guardian, in the middle segment.

    At 162 cm, per Wikipedia, British women are among the shortest of all Europe. I feel that the The Guardian journalist is not using proper references for non-Brits.

  • Jason


    Where are you getting your data from? In one of your posts, you mention Wikipedia, but, from what I can see, Wikipedia doesn’t have a list of average heights using the same methodology. (same age for measuring height; measured, not self-reported; measurements taken the same year in different countries etc)

  • Grey

    @17 “I understand your hunch at haplogroup I but there is no straightforward systematicity in it.”

    Yes, unless it (or one clade of it) was associated with a cultural adaptation which for some reason effected height and the spread of that clade of I also spread the cultural adaptation. (Just a guess.)

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    #18, Jason: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_height

    As I just said to a commenter in my blog:

    “If you provide an email, I can send you the spreadsheet I used but it’s all from the Wikipedia link in text (I favored “measured” over “reported” when there were two or more sets; if all similar, I averaged them; I excluded states for which only one gender set was available)”.

    Also I worked all the time with centimeters instead of milimeters (slight loss in precission but easier to manage – measures rounded to nearest cm).

  • Derp

    pconroy:”I expect the greater height of Greeks is derived from their Dinaric Alps connection in the form of Albanians.”

    That’s a pretty stupid inference since the Albanian connection in Greece is Tosk, not Gheg (especially not Gheg from the extreme north i.e. Montenegro) and Tosks (in their ‘pure’ form in Albania) were found by Coon to be the shortest population element in the Balkans, not to mention that they have nothing to do with the Dinaric Alps in the first place.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #21, more ignorant than stupid :-) the logic made sense. the axiom was just false/misguided.


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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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