Bigger and Better?

The Escape from Hunger is an important book by the Nobel economist Robert Fogel. The first three chapters offer a novel, tightly constructed, and convincing argument for a distinctively human form of what Fogel calls “technophysio evolution,” described as “biological but not genetic, rapid, culturally transmitted, and not necessarily stable.” At first blush, biological evolution that is not genetic may sound surprising, but it rests on firm and quantitative evidence, as he explains:

The theory of technophysio evolution rests on the proposition that during the past 300 years, particularly during the past century, human beings have gained an unprecedented degree of control over their environment…. This new degree of control has enabled Homo sapiens to increase its average body size by over 50 percent and its average longevity by more than 100 percent since 1800, and to greatly improve the robustness and capacity of vital organ systems.

The two concluding chapters of the book are also surprising and boldly speculative since Fogel devotes them to an assessment of prospects for further technophysio evolution across the next hundred years, and explores the economic and social implications of making health care “the growth industry of the twenty-first century.”

No one can deny that the human record in the twentieth century was indeed extraordinary. For in spite of all the wars, massacres, and famines that figure in the conventional history of that century, human numbers quadrupled, and most people consumed more and suffered less deprivation than before. This is what Fogel undertakes to demonstrate statistically by applying an economist’s habits of mind to recent biological, physiological, and thermodynamic transformations of the human work engine, our bodies. This ambitious enterprise deserves both admiration and careful scrutiny.

As he tells us in the preface, the first part of this book is “based on the McArthur lectures that I delivered at Cambridge University in November 1996,” adjusted to a more popular audience by omitting some “highly technical” discussion. Behind those lectures stand more than forty years of investigation of changes in patterns of births, marriages, and deaths, drawn largely from English parish records of past centuries, undertaken by Sir Tony Wrigley and his colleagues at Cambridge University, and Fogel’s own thirty years of work, together with a team of assistants, studying changes in adult heights and weights derived mainly from European and American army records dating back to the eighteenth century. Wrigley died before Fogel could deliver the McArthur Lectures at Cambridge, but his junior colleague, Roderick Floud, carries on his work, and the full fruit of these efforts, supplemented by those of various French, Swedish, and Norwegian demographers, is announced in this short book’s bibliography as “Fogel, R.W., Floud, R., and Harris, B. (n.d.), A treatise on technophysio evolution and consumption. In progress.” As his footnotes attest, much crucial data for Fogel’s argument here is borrowed from that prospective work, so that what we have is a condensed, simplified, and preliminary version of the full argument.

Nonetheless, some aspects of the work…

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