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Sunday, May 15, 2011


Book Review
The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World since 1700
by Roderick Floud, Robert W. Fogel, Bernard Harris, and Sok Chul Hong
New Approaches to Economic and Social History/
National Bureau of Economic Research Series on Long-Term Economic Development
p. 2011

    I suspect that this book will be considered notable for a number reasons. Perhaps the best shot Changing Body has for immortal glory is the coinage of the term "technophysio evolution" as a short-hand for the tremendous changes in human body dimensions in the last 12-15 generations (the "since 1700" of the sub-title.)  The POINT of Changing Body is to PROVE that human beings have gotten bigger and healthier over the last 400 years as a result of better nutrition and public health improvements (i.e. sanitation.)  It will perhaps disappoint many "obesity epidemic" obsessives that Changing Body does not focus more on the problem of 'over-nutrition' that has risen to prominence in public health debates in the United States over the last few years, but this book is more about showing the long trend, a trend which is overwhelmingly positive as measured by any possible metric.

   Changing Body does not lack for statistics or metrics.  In fact, the main reason that you can read this 350 page book in a couple of hours is that HUNDREDS of pages are occupied by the kind of statistics that you need an undergraduate degree in statistics or a professional degree in statistics based social sciences to fully comprehend.  That ain't me, though, so without the statistics you are left with the discussion of statistics and the summary.

  So, without further ado, here are the money observations:

1.   The most effective way to improve the health of the population as a whole is making sure pregnant women get fed properly, that they give birth properly and that the resulting children get fed until they are about five years old.  After that: pffft.  Fuck em.

2.  Governments are useful in solving large scale public health problems like 'lack of sanitation' and "chronic diseases caused by swamps."  On the other hand, "private enterprise" is mentioned prominently in regards to public health challenges like "smoking."

3.  Human height and weight is determined by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but the experience of the UK, Europe and United States all point to the fact that positive environment can overwhelm any genetic input within two to three generations.  This is most specifically illustrated by the weight and height gains by immigrant populations in the United States within the past fifty years.  In contemporary debate this fact often is taken from a negative perspective (i.e. in the childhood obesity dialogue.) but the tenor of the discussion in Changing Bodies is that this has been a hugely positive event, with "over nutrition" being a problem of very recent vintage.

4.  TECHNOPHYSIO EVOLUTION is an alternative way to describe the recent changes to the human body being more attributable to environment instead of genetics.  Based on current genetic theory, 400 years is too short a period for genetics to be altered significantly by Darwinian concepts like "natural selection."  Indeed, one of the main aspects of technophysio evolution is that it takes effect WITHIN a specific age group or "cohort."  One of the outstanding aspects of the statistics in Changing Bodies is the way they show that a single age group will improve on different measurements as they grow older, like they are larger at birth, they are taller at adult hood, they are healthier as seniors and they stay healthier for a longer period.

5.  Changing Bodies does not wholeheartedly subscribe to a "Whiggish" (progressive) historical viewpoint, even though the long time horizon biases the authors towards positive observations.  The authors seem to point to an "optimal" average height as about 6'1" for men an 5'9" for women: After that point health statistics do not demonstrate further improvement.  The maximum "average" human life time is stated as 130.  Obviously there are a lot of issues with establishing an upper limit to human life time since we haven't reached it.

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