New York Times: Technology Advances; Humans Supersize
For nearly three decades, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert W. Fogel and a small clutch of colleagues have assiduously researched what the size and shape of the human body say about economic and social changes throughout history, and vice versa. Their research has spawned not only a new branch of historical study but also a provocative theory that technology has sped human evolution in an unprecedented way during the past century.
Next month Cambridge University Press will publish the capstone of this inquiry, “The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700,” just a few weeks shy of Mr. Fogel’s 85th birthday. The book, which sums up the work of dozens of researchers on one of the most ambitious projects undertaken in economic history, is sure to renew debates over Mr. Fogel’s groundbreaking theories about what some regard as the most significant development in humanity’s long history.
Mr. Fogel and his co-authors, Roderick Floud, Bernard Harris and Sok Chul Hong, maintain that “in most if not quite all parts of the world, the size, shape and longevity of the human body have changed more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia.” What’s more, they write, this alteration has come about within a time frame that is “minutely short by the standards of Darwinian evolution.”
“The rate of technological and human physiological change in the 20th century has been remarkable,” Mr. Fogel said in an telephone interview from Chicago, where he is the director of the Center for Population Economics at the University of Chicago’s business school. “Beyond that, a synergy between the improved technology and physiology is more than the simple addition of the two.”
This “technophysio evolution,” powered by advances in food production and public health, has so outpaced traditional evolution, the authors argue, that people today stand apart not just from every other species, but from all previous generations of Homo sapiens as well.
“I don’t know that there is a bigger story in human history than the improvements in health, which include height, weight, disability and longevity,” said Samuel H. Preston, one of the world’s leading demographers and a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Without the 20th century’s improvements in nutrition, sanitation and medicine, only half of the current American population would be alive today, he said. ...
On a side note, there is an interesting aspect to this evolution. Ask yourself "What height do you have to be to be tall?" For an American male living today, I'm just about average at 5'11." But 150 years I would be tall. Though being taller than than my great-great-grandfathers, do I experience myself as tall? No. Because while I'm taller than my ancestors, so is everyone else taller than their ancestors. I experience myself as average just as most of my ancestors did but my objective quality of tallness most certainly has improved (assuming taller is better, as implicated here.)
The same problem applies to poverty. The poor in America are substantially better off in absolute terms than even many of the well-to-do of three generations ago but they see no improvement in comparison to their contemporaries. And this is one of the oddities about economic development. Observers correctly note the economic growth does not increase the overall happiness of society (once a certain minimal threshold is passed). That is because people do not experience a change in their realtive positions. But these observers incorrectly conclude that economic development is not making life better for members of society. Witness the findings of Fogel, et al, about techno-physio evolution. Despite not making people happier, economic growth does considerably improve people's lives over time.