Energonomics in the Bone

26 September 2006 at 8:31 pm Leave a comment

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.

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Entry filed under: energonomics.

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