The Incredible Growing Human Being

Napoleon Bonaparte conquered modern day Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, Netherlands, and, let’s just say, the majority of remaining Europe. This was a man so persistent, he had to be exiled twice. At various times before his final defeat, he had basically turned every neighboring country into his personal backyard (and Egypt into his summer beach house).

But none of that matters! Because he was short! He must have waged war against the bulk of the Western hemisphere because he was compensating for his height, ha ha! Yes, at just 5’ 7”, Napoleon was about two inches shorter than the average man today, and those two inches matter. I should know, because at 5’ 7” myself, I have conducted years of field research, and results routinely come back positive in the time-honored “Am I looking at some guy’s back, and not the band I’m trying to see?” test. The worst part is I seem to have misplaced my French infantry.

Here’s the thing, though: at the time, the average Frenchman was no taller. And that’s no slight against the French (as much as my American ego wishes it were); we all were shorter back then. So it may be that we can’t reduce Napoleon’s motivations to those of a poorly-conceived Batman villain—the guy had nothing to make up for.


It was even worse in the 17th century, when the average man might have been as short as 5’ 4”. So what gives? When did we grow up from a bunch of stunted hobbits to the glorious, 5’ 9” giant-race of today? Did we all suddenly start listening to our parents and finishing our vegetables?

Well, yeah, we kind of did. Our intake of nutrients has improved a lot since then, thanks to food becoming more widely available and accessible for a number of reasons (warmer weather, industrialization, two for one deals at Arby’s). Add to that the strides we’ve made in modern medicine and public health, meaning once we get those nutrients, our bodies can actually use them for growing instead of just not dying.


The strangest part of all this is that humans were taller before the 1600s, too, and it’s not like we were medicinal geniuses in the Middle Ages (I’m looking at you, every doctor who lived during the Black Plague). But Europe was warmer then, too, and as for disease, it didn’t spread so much—most people lived “what we would consider very stationary lives,” according to the writer on who probably underestimates how much TV I watch. The point is, at least until recently, human height was in flux, shifting at the reins of things we couldn’t possibly predict, such as the climate, or Chevy Chase’s temperament.

Of course, with a time scale this small, we’re not talking about evolution evolution; I haven’t mentioned a change in “height genes,” or what have you. But in a way, that makes these tiny species-refinements all the more interesting to consider. In the last 400 years, we’ve upped our statures by almost half a foot, and that’s due in a large part to our own ingenuity and scientific breakthroughs. Just imagine what we may be capable of in the future!

That’s right. A time travel-basketball-grudge match against the artists of the Renaissance. We’re going to own those Ninja Turtle knock-offs.


One thought on “The Incredible Growing Human Being

  1. Great research! So the Napolean height motivation is out the door. It is interesting that one of the factors that enables/accelerates innovation (global trade) also accelerated mass plagues.

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