Human growth, height, size: Reasons to be small
Almost everybody these days thinks that it is best to be tall, meaning much taller than the average traditional height of Asian populations, and even taller than the current average height of populations in high-income countries. It is also often believed – though people might be shy to admit this – that tall people are intrinsically superior to short people. The expressions ‘look up to’ and ‘look down on’ are significant.
I take a different view. All relevant things considered, I am sure that it would be better if the human species was shorter and smaller than is now the case in most countries. Over 35 years of study and thought have confirmed me in this judgement. Indeed, I will go further and say that given dwindling non-renewable resources, yet a rapidly increasing global population, a smaller human race is essential for the welfare and perhaps even the continued survival of our species.
In this commentary I will sometimes refer to specific people. No general theory can be upheld on the basis of individual evidence – this should go without saying. I do this partly because of the obnoxious prejudice against small people, a phenomenon mostly of the last half-century or so, reinforced by what I see as short-sighted views of nutrition scientists. The result has been to overlook and even degrade the eminence and achievements of people who happen to be relatively short.
Thus to introduce and illustrate my thesis, here above is a picture of a meeting hosted by Margaret Chan, the current Director-General of the World Health Organization. The man next but one to Dr Chan to the left is Kul Gautam, recently retired as deputy executive director of UNICEF, and a leading contender to chair the UN Summit on non-communicable diseases to be held in New York this September. As can be seen by comparison with former UK prime minister Gordon Brown, whose height is 1.80 metres (5 foot 11), standing next to Dr Chan to the right, her height is about 1.54 metres (5 foot 0.5) and Kul Gautam’s height is about 1.50 metres (4 foot 11). Margaret Chan is taller than was the British Queen-Emperor Victoria, and is perhaps about the same height as the current Queen Elizabeth now is. Kul Gautam is a bit shorter than the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and a lot taller than the Mexican statesman Benito Juarez.
There is a special reason to note that Margaret Chan and Kul Gautam are decidedly short, measured against the average heights of people native to high-income countries, and even of people from their own countries. They hold, or have held, very high office in the two UN agencies that are specially dedicated to ensuring that children ‘fulfil their genetic potential’ for height. This dogma is commonly interpreted to mean that short small young children, including those showing no sign of illness, should be fed special energy-dense diets that will accelerate their growth, so that their weight and height ‘catches up’ to ranges that are deemed in childhood and then as adults, to give them the best chance in life.
But would Margaret Chan and Kul Gaetam have done better, if their ‘genetic potential’ had been successfully ‘fulfilled’ so that that they were now taller? Or are they simply very unusual cases of individuals genetically programmed to be short? Or what? Two people prove nothing. But in rural areas of their native Asian countries of China and Nepal, they would not be very unusual – they would not be conspicuously short, as they seem to be in the photograph.
So I start this commentary with questions addressed to public health and nutrition professionals, and also to all of us who are concerned with human welfare. Why do practically all of us believe that it is better that individuals, and populations, are comparatively tall, and very tall relative to the traditional heights of many Asian populations? What is the basis of this view? Why do we seem to be so sure of it? Isn’t it possible that traditional Asian heights represent a better adaptation? Isn’t this obviously so, if we take economic and environmental as well as biological factors into account, in a world increasingly short of fuel and food? Isn’t it possible that higher-income and urban populations throughout the world are too tall, and that almost all readers of this commentary are unnecessarily tall, and not a model for future generations? These are challenging questions, which I believe that the public health and the nutrition professions, and all other relevant policy-makers, need to face, now.