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The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspective

Author(s):Komlos, John
Baten, Joerg
Reviewer(s):Murray, John E.

Published by EH.NET (February 2000)

John Komlos and Jvrg Baten, editors, The Biological Standard of Living in

Comparative Perspective. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998. 528 pp.,

ISBN 3-515-07220-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John E. Murray, Department of Economics, University of

Toledo.

This book is a collection of conference proceedings, or rather pre-conference

proceedings, since it gathers together papers that would have been presented at

an A session of the ill-fated Seville/Madrid IEHA meetings in 1998. The

session (which was organized by John Komlos and Sebastian Coll) and book are

devoted to reporting a variety of studies in anthropometric history, that is,

the analysis primarily of human height as measured in large samples, but also

weight in those rare cases when it is available. The essays number twenty-eight

in total, followed by a brief summary by the editors who were also the session

organizers.

Geographical coverage is positively sprawling, with notable papers on

heights in China (by Stephen Morgan), Argentina (by Ricardo Salvatore and Jvrg

Baten) and Korea (by Insong Gill). Individual studies appear on nearly every

European country. Height and body mass index (weight adjusted for height) in

Australia are examined by Stephen Nicholas, Robert Gregory, and Sue Kimberley;

and there are no fewer than five essays on heights of Federal soldiers in the

American Civil War. Two papers combine height data from several different

countries to synthesize a broader yet coherent story, Henk-Jan Brinkman and

J.W. Drukker on developing countries today and Sebastian Coll on four European

nations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Modes of analysis are catholic. Most papers are by economic historians who

generally employ tried and true techniques of statistical regression analysis

on data recovered from written manuscripts. They dutifully report the results

of regressions with those tiny R-squareds that vex the non-cognoscenti. But not

only that: nearly every paper in this

style presents data in pictorial format, for example, distribution frequencies

of heights, growth by age curves, and time trends in final adult height. One

need not be able to read a table of regression results to learn plenty about

the state of the anthropometric art from this volume. In addition,

two essays present findings of physical anthropologists. Jesper Boldsen and Jes

Sxgaard estimate Danish heights from bones that date from as far back as 1100

A.D. Barry Bogin and Ryan Keep consider bones that

are some eight millennia old in Mesoamerica. In short, the range of

contributions reflects how international and interdisciplinary the

anthropometric history research project has become.

In general, as might be expected, the authors are optimistic that the study of

height and other anthropometric data can illuminate issues of human welfare in

the past. To the editors’ credit, they include two papers that might be

described as anthropo-skeptical. One, by Robert McGuire and Philip Coelho,

urges the disease

factor in the height = gross nutrition – disease

- workload equation be given more emphasis. The other by Sally Horrocks and

David Smith is a postmodern take on the “social processes of science” which

despite the now-standard use of “privilege” as a verb

offers constructive suggestions for linking more data-driven anthropometric

history with the institutional histories of the data generating sources.

As is common among volumes of conference proceedings, the virtues of the genre

are its vices. The organizers have edited the volume lightly, leading to an

odd combination of intense concentration on a few issues and a collection of

other papers that almost seem to have walked in from a different conference.

For example, in two separate and most intriguing papers Michael Haines (in

one) and Lee Craig and Thomas Weiss (in the other) examine the relationship

between local agricultural output and stature among American Civil War

soldiers. The results do not exactly coincide as Craig and Weiss find a much

stronger relationship than does Haines. The interested reader would like to

see these papers in dialog. At the same time, the geographic and chronological

coverage is mind-boggling.

It is hard to imagine many other concepts that can be fruitfully applied to

humans from so many different times and places.

The book may not be easy to find; for example, I could not locate it on

Amazon.com’s website. You may need to order it directly from the publisher.

(Their email address is service@steiner-verlag.de. Their URL

is www.steiner-verlag.de.) This volume would make a very good addition to

academic libraries, where students and scholars of economic history, world

history, physical anthropology, and economic development can see where this

particular research strategy stands at present. The freshness of this volume

embodies the current state of the anthropometric research project,

which might make it an optimal venue to inform the scholarly reading public of

its findings. Scholars of many periods, regions, and disciplines are analyzing

and reporting anthropometrica. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

John E. Murray’s articles on anthopometric history have appeared in

Journal of Economic History, Journal of Interdisciplinary

History, and

Annals of Human Biology.

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative