• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Body and Human Progress

Magnum Photos
Lake Sevan, Armenia, Soviet Union, 1972; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

According to family lore, my father’s mother, Rebecca Kapalovich, arrived at Ellis Island on the day that President William McKinley was shot, September 6, 1901. Sixteen years old, standing less than five feet tall, slim in build, she had left an impoverished village in Russia to seek a better life. Cousins took her into their tenement flat and she soon began sewing clothes in a dark, airless sweatshop on Rivington Street. She and other immigrants on the Lower East Side were exposed to tuberculosis, diphtheria, and pertussis. Subsistence wages made a healthy diet impossible, and disorders like rickets that stunted growth were not uncommon.

Several years after her arrival, Rebecca Kapalovich married Jacob Groopman, who had also fled the deprivations of tsarist Russia. A compact man, five feet five inches tall, he did heavy work as a manual laborer. Influenced by the socialist ideas of the time, and determined to live a healthier life, my grandparents pooled their small savings with extended family and purchased a communal farm in upstate New York. The environment was more salubrious, with nutritious food available from their crops and cows. My father recalled being given concoctions of fresh milk, whole eggs, and honey (“guggle-muggles”) to fortify his skinny form.

The time on the farm proved short, bankruptcy forcing a return to New York City, where my grandfather, during the Depression, sold apples from a cart in the street. He died in middle age from a heart attack, a typical outcome when there were few treatments for cardiac disorders.

My family’s standard of living rose as economic opportunity began to open to lower classes and ethnic groups once held down by prejudice and limited education. After World War II, federal initiatives like the GI bill allowed veterans to pursue college and graduate study and then get better jobs. Scientific advances such as the development of vaccines against polio reduced the morbidity and mortality of viral epidemics, and the development of numerous antibiotics made the treatment of once harrowing bacterial infections, like the appendicitis that took the life of my aunt when she was a child, a matter of course. In the 1950s, my sister and brother and I had access to modern medicines and plentiful food when we were growing, and grow we did.

In a corner of the bedroom I shared with my brother, my mother made small pencil marks noting our vertical progress. I ultimately reached six foot four and a half, my brother six foot two and a half. (Each of our parents was five foot seven.) Those pencil marks are of interest not only to parents and grandparents focused on the health and well-being of their progeny, but to scholars who seek to assess the state of a society, its productivity, and its distribution of resources.

One of the first academics to seek correlations between measurements of body size, or anthropometry, and social conditions was Adolphe Quetelet.1 A Belgian born at the end of the eighteenth century, he was a prodigy in mathematics, and also studied sculpture and painting, published poetry, and coauthored a libretto. Quetelet founded the first astronomical observatory in Belgium in 1826, but soon turned his attention from the stars to the study of the human form. When he was recruited to design a national census of the Netherlands, Quetelet, influenced by seminal thinkers in probability theory including Joseph Fourier and Siméon Poisson, established the principle that a random sample from a representative diversified group could be used to estimate the characteristics of a total population. Over the ensuing decades, Quetelet contended that “the study of man” could be aided by the study of averages of physical characteristics, as well as rates of birth, marriage, and growth. These data, over time, might provide insights into social differences between regions and countries. Between 1831 and 1832, he conducted what is believed to be the first study of newborns and children based on their heights and weights, and then extended his survey to adults.

Three years later, Quetelet published a seminal work entitled A Treatise on Man and the Development of His Aptitudes. Part of the book identified the growth spurts following birth and puberty. Quetelet’s ultimate aim was to define the characteristics of the “average man,” and he initially looked to the familiar bell-shaped curve that had been used by scientists to describe natural phenomena. But he had problems fitting people’s heights and weights in a population into such a normal distribution. Quetelet ultimately devised novel formulas to link height and weight, and is credited with providing the calculations for what we currently term the body-mass index, or BMI, the ratio of weight in kilograms and height expressed in meters-squared (thus a measure of weight standardized by height), a key measure of growth and development.2

With this metric in hand, Quetelet and other academics of his era gathered in Brussels in 1853 at the first International Statistical Congress. Among the many projects launched by the meeting was one to prepare a “uniform nomenclature of the causes of death applicable to all countries.” These data could then be linked to body size and the risk of various diseases, as well as social variables like geography, migration, war, and famine. While keen to apply statistics to social science, Quetelet, who still performed exacting astronomical measurements, was alert to the dangers of overinterpreting numbers associated with numerous factors that might contribute to phenomena like crime rates, the incidence of suicide, and intellectual aptitude.

Like Adolphe Quetelet, Robert W. Fogel, the University of Chicago economist awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993, first was drawn to study natural sciences largely based in mathematics.3 In the autobiography he wrote on receiving the Nobel Prize, Fogel attributed his shift to economics and history in part to the story of his family. His parents were immigrants from Odessa and arrived “penniless” in the early decades of the last century. Fogel grew up amid the hardships and widespread pessimism that marked the Great Depression, and as a child was fascinated by the family’s “intense discussions” about the nature of society.

In 1974, Fogel and his colleague Stanley L. Engerman of the University of Rochester published a book about the economics of African-American slavery, Time on the Cross, which argued that the nineteenth-century slave economy was more efficient than previously believed. It was in the economic interests of plantation owners to treat working slaves relatively well in providing food and shelter so as to maximize their productivity. The database used by Fogel and Engerman to make their case was made up of ship manifests and bills of lading for human cargo that listed slaves by name and physical characteristics, including height, that were stored at the National Archives. The book set off an enormous controversy, since it contradicted the prevailing notion that slaves were treated with unthinking brutality. C. Vann Woodward reviewed Time on the Cross in these pages and noted that it marked “the start of a new period of slavery scholarship and some searching revisions of a national tradition.”4 The current use of anthropometry as a discipline to more accurately assess social and cultural practices, in part, grew out of that scholarship.

Over the past three hundred years, there has been an indisputable decline in morbidity and mortality in Europe, the United States, and more recently parts of Asia. In his Nobel lecture, Fogel highlights how this trend toward increased human growth and longevity sharply challenged two classical views of economic history: the catastrophic scenarios of Malthus and the utopian vision of Marx. According to the Malthusian theory of population, any improvements in mortality were postulated to be short-lived: as the population increased in relation to the food supply, the reduction in death due to one disease would be compensated for by death due to some other malady. Marx envisioned continued oppression of workers, until the unstoppable churnings of history sparked revolution that led to a dictatorship of the proletariat built on the ruins of capitalism.

The Changing Body is a synthesis of some five decades of research in demography, economics, medicine, and sociology, and might be viewed as a culmination of the inquiry begun by Quetelet. Written by Fogel with Roderick Floud, a British economic historian and provost of Gresham College, London, Bernard Harris, professor of the history of social policy at the University of Southampton, and Sok Chul Hong, an assistant professor of economics at Sogang University in South Korea, and presented as a textbook, it poses a “very simple” thesis:

The health and nutrition of one generation contributes, through mothers and through infants and childhood experience, to the strength, health, and longevity of the next generation; at the same time, increased health and longevity enable the members of that next generation to work harder and longer and to create resources which can then, in their turn, be used to assist the next, and succeeding, generations to prosper.

The authors introduce the term “technophysio evolution” to represent the proposition that “changes in the size, shape, and capability of the human body since the beginning of the eighteenth century both reflect and illuminate economic and demographic change over those three centuries.” This synergy between technological and physiological improvements, the authors contend, has yielded a unique form of human evolution. The timeframe of a century since my grandparents’ arrival, or even the three centuries that the authors consider in their analysis, is simply too short for mutation and recombination in the human genome to play out in classical Darwinian evolution to yield taller and more robust men and women.

Rather than principles of Darwinian science, The Changing Body invokes a cardinal law of thermodynamics, the conversion of energy into work, as an underpinning of technophysical evolution:

Human beings, from conception to death, take in energy in the form of food and warmth, and expend it in body maintenance, growth, exercise, and work—both physical and intellectual. Greater inputs of energy allow men and women to work longer but also more intensively. In addition, for much of human history, intellectual work has resulted in the invention and innovation of tools which enable men and women to convert their energy more efficiently into outputs, both physical and intellectual. These tools have enabled men and women to transcend the limitations of their own individual physical capacity for work and thus, over centuries, have expanded their productivity—their lifetime output—to an enormous degree.

But the linkage of food energy to productivity and progress, Fogel and his coauthors believe, goes further. Substantial nutrition is essential for human immune defenses that improve the chance of surviving illness, particularly the infectious diseases that plagued earlier centuries. That malnutrition predisposes a person or a population to death from microbial diseases is well established in medicine. And the conception that better-nourished populations will have the energy not only for manual labor but also for intellectual endeavors, strongly argued by the authors, is also a reasonable, commonsensical idea. If you are starving and desperate for food, there is little motivation or time for education and creative work.5

  1. 1

    See Frank H. Ahnkins, Adolphe Quetelet as Statistician (Columbia University Press, 1908). See also Stephen M. Stigler, The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty Before 1900 (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1990); and Garabed Eknoyan, “Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1874)—The Average Man and Indices of Obesity,” Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation, Vol. 23 (2008). 

  2. 2

    In 1972, Ancel Keys published a comparative study of indices of relative weight and obesity, confirmed the validity of the Quetelet Index, and named it the body mass index. See Ancel Keys et al., “Indices of Relative Weight and Obesity,” Journal of Chronic Diseases, Vol. 25, Nos. 6–7 (July 1972). 

  3. 3

    Fogel was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Douglass C. North, for “having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change.” See his autobiography at nobelprize.org; see also Robert W. Fogel, “Economic Growth: Population Theory, and Physiology: The Bearing of Long-term Processes on the Making of Economic Policy,” Nobel Lecture, December 9, 1993. 

  4. 4

    Stanley L. Engerman and Robert William Fogel, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery (Norton, 1995); see the review by C. Vann Woodward, ” The Jolly Institution,” The New York Review, May 2, 1974. Thomas Haskell of Rice University provided in these pages a summary of the many criticisms by historians and economists of Fogel and Engerman’s work on slavery, particularly their extrapolations about causation and behavior from quantitative data that appear to be “startling flights of conjecture.” See Thomas L. Haskell, ” Were Slaves More Efficient? Some Doubts About ‘Time on the Cross,’The New York Review, September 19, 1974. 

  5. 5

    A famous aphorism from the Talmud, well known to my forebears, captures this observation: Ayn kemach, ayn torah, “without flour, there is no learning.” 

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print