Archive for September, 2006

Energonomics in the Bone

Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee tells of paleopathologists who can determine the relative health of ancient people by studying skeletal remains.  In one example of what they learn from skeletons, he tells of historical changes in height:  “Many modern cases illustrate how improved childhood nutrition leads to taller adults:  for instance, we stoop to pass through doorways of medieval castles built for a shorter, malnourished population” (186).  He makes this point in the context of telling about the relative gains of “agriculture’s mixed blessing,” comparing the relative height of hunter-gatherers vs. farmers at the end of the Ice Age.  “With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, reaching by 4000 B.C. a low value of only five feet three for men, five feet one for women” (186).

This led me to assume that, given the commanding share of world resources that the United States marshals (1/4 of the world’s energy and meat, for example), our citizens would be the tallest in the world.  But when searching for support for this assumption, I found out that Europeans (the Dutch, the Scandinavians) are the tallest in the world.  One news article published in the Guardian concludes that this is the result of redistributed wealth (read “energy”) we find in some of the more socialist European nations:

This surprising reappraisal of American and European physiques is the work of researcher John Komlos of Munich University. ‘Much of the difference is due to the great social inequality that now exists in the United States,’ Komlos told The Observer last week. ‘In Europe, there is – in most countries – good health service provision for most members of society and plenty of protein in most people’s diets. As a result, children do not suffer illnesses that would blight their growth or suffer problems of malnutrition. For that reason, we have continued to grow and grow.’

On the other hand, America has eight million people with no job, 40 million individuals with no health insurance, 35 million living below the poverty line, and a population that exists mainly on junk food. There, the rise in average height that marked its progress as a nation through the 19th and 20th centuries has stopped and has actually reversed – albeit very slightly – in recent years. Many Americans are rich and do well anatomically as a result, but there is a large underclass that is starting to drag the country down the stature charts.

This discovery, which has been revealed through research that Komlos has assembled over decades, amounts to an assault on the values of the free market economy espoused by Americans and provides powerful support for those who back European ideas about universal healthcare.

If we conceive of public policy as a kind of energy management–the redistribution of a country’s surplus energy/wealth–then it would appear that our policies are failing the majority of our citizenry.

26 September 2006 at 8:31 pm Leave a comment

The Energonomics of Evolution

Reading Jared Diamond’s first book The Third Chimpanzee:  The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (because his other two books, Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed are two of the most important books on the planet).  Like these two later books, his purpose is “to help us avoid repeating our mistakes–to use knowledge of our past and our propensities in order to change our behaviour” (4).  His goal is to help us understand the historical/evolutionary roots of our current problems (like genocide, environmental destruction, and apparently suicidal tendencies like drug use) in order to bring about the necessary political will to make the changes we need to make to save our species from destroying itself in one of the variety of ways we are on the brink of doing so.  You can see the seeds of his other books here:  when he writes, “While courses in the history of civilization often dwell on kings and barbarian invasions, deforestation and erosion may in the long run have been more important shapers of human history” (335), I am reminded of Collapse, and the chapter on “Accidental Conquerors” is like a 14-page summary of Guns, Germs and Steel which tells us “where we live has contributed heavily to making us who we are” (248). While not ostensibly about “energonomics” (or “the management of energy”), there are a couple of moments in the book when I connected what he was saying to the concept of management energy at the level of evolutionary selection.  In the chapter answering the question, “Why do we grow old and die?” he tells of the limitations of the body:  “Even people doing hard exercise and eating rich food–lumberjacks or marathon runners in training–can’t metabolize much more than about six thousand calories per day.  How should we allocate those calories between repairing ourselves and rearing babies, if our goal is to raise as many babies as possible?” (130).  He continues:

At the one extreme, if we put all our energy into babies and devoted no energy to biological repair, our bodies would age and disintegrate before we could rear our first baby.  At the other extreme, if we lavished all our available energy on keeping our bodies in shape, we might live a long time but would have no energy left for the exhausting process of making and rearing babies.  What natural selection must do is to adjust an animal’s relative expenditures of energy on repair and on reproduction, so as to maximize its reproductive output, averaged over its lifetime. (130)

Diamond’s work demonstrates how energonomics has implications for biological systems and can help to understand fundamental questions about natural selection.

22 September 2006 at 7:38 pm 1 comment


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