Is natural selection making the Dutch taller?

A piece by Carl Zimmer in Thursday’s New York Times called my attention to a new paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B (reference and link to download below) by Gert Stulp et al. on the remarkable height of Dutch people and some evidence that natural selection (probably via sexual selection) is acting to promote their vertical ascent. (Stulp himself is 6′ 7″.)

When I visited Amsterdam and Groningen a few years ago, I was immediately struck at how tall the Dutch were; I was altitudinally challenged when talking to them. The new paper by Stulp et al. not only shows that they’re the tallest people in the world, but that they’re getting taller. And some of that increase may be due to genetic evolution. For a multi-generation study shows that, at least among men, the tallest Dutch people have the most children.

Here’s the present situation as described the paper (I’ve translated the cm into inches):

When it comes to height, the Dutch have a remarkable history. In the mid- eighteenth century, the average height of Dutch (military) men was approximately 165 cm [5 feet 5 inches]. This was well below the average for other European populations, and very much shorter than the average height of men in the United States, who towered over the Dutch by 5–8 cm [2-3 inches]. Dutch men are now the tallest in the world, having grown by approximately 20 cm [8 inches!] over the last 150 years. By contrast, male height in the United States has increased by only 6cm [2.3 inches] across the same time span. Equivalent differences in height are also observed between The Netherlands and other European countries. Indeed, it is notable that, while the secular trend in height has slowed or stopped in most North-European countries, it has continued for much longer among the Dutch, with the available evidence suggesting it has begun to slow only very recently.

Or, as Carl Zimmer notes:

Since 1860, average heights have increased in many parts of the world, but no people have shot up like the Dutch. The average Dutchman now stands over six feet tall. And while the growth spurt in the United States has stopped in recent years, the Dutch continue to get taller.

That increase of 8 inches in only three or four generations is remarkable, and is simply too rapid to be explained by natural selection alone. As the authors note, it’s plausible that most of this increase in height is due to improvements in health and diet, including the advent of universal healthcare and a greater equality of income than seen in most other countries, including the height-challenged U.S. The authors mention consumption of dairy products; I’d add to that herring and french fries with mayonnaise! Of course, one could in principle test how much of that height increase was due to genes by simply rearing Dutch people in a controlled, equalized environment along with people of other nations over the past 150 years, but of course that’s not practical. But one could at least compare the present height of Dutch reared at home versus those brought up in other cultures where they don’t have the supposed height-increasing factors of healthcare and cheese.  We have no data on that, either.

The authors, though, tried to parse out the action of genetic evolution by looking at the offspring of Dutch people of different heights in a three-generation health study lasting from 1935 to 1967, and involving over 90,000 subjects.  Lots of demographic data were collected, including fertility, age of puberty and menopause, whether or not individuals were in a long-term relationship, health, education, and income.

It’s a complicated study, so I’ll just give the most notable result: the corrected correlation between male and female height (expressed as standard deviations above and below the mean height) and number of children, a good measure of evolutionary fitness.  Here are the graphs from Figure 1.  I had to cut and paste in the scale for the X axis, and can’t line therm up well, but the five ticks on the X-axis (not including the origin) go from -2 to 2 standard deviations (0 is the average, and is the middle tick on the scale). About 16% of Dutch people exceed one standard deviation above the mean; about 2.5% exceed two standard deviations.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 7.25.02 AM Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 7.25.16 AM

As you see, for males, on the left graph, the number of children produced is generally higher for males above the mean ( mean  = 0, middle tick); males about 1 standard deviation above the average have the most children, and the number falls off beyond that. That implies that there is natural selection for taller males: the population should, if there is genetic variation for height, be increasing in height. (Ignore the “no. of children with current partner” line for the time being; you can see a discussion of that in the paper.)

Now the authors claim that they can’t say this is natural selection, for their definition of “natural selection” is “”differential reproduction of individuals with different genetic constitutions“, and we don’t know if those taller males who leave more kids have at least part of their height advantage based on genes. (It’s likely to be true, though, for there is substantial genetically based variation in height among other populations that have been examined). But if you construe natural selection, as some do, as “differential reproduction of individuals with different traits,” then this is indeed natural selection for taller males. But whether that selection causes evolution depends on the genetic basis of height variation. In either case we lack the genetic evidence to say that the Dutch male population is evolving to be taller. But if the data are suggestive.

For females, however, women of average height have the most children, and so there would be no direct selection on women to be taller. The graph on the right, which shows “fitness” related to deviation from the mean, is a classic example of stabilizing selection, in which individuals with the average trait value have the most offspring, and those on either extreme have fewer. That is a form of “pruning-away” selection that keeps the trait at a constant value.

I suspect, and this is suggested by the authors, that if there is selection, it’s sexual selection: taller males are more attractive as mates. That would  itself lead women to become taller over time as well, for the genes that make males tall would also tend to make female offspring taller as a byproduct. (The authors give no data on whether female height has also increased in recent years.)

There is much more in the paper, but I’ll just add two points. First, this relationship is independent of other variables like education and income, so the correlation is unlikely to be spurious, say if taller males had more kids simply because they were better nourished, or provided more resources for their kids.

Second, why is this happening in the Dutch but not in other populations? (Well, it could, since there aren’t many similar studies, but work in the U.S. shows that men of average height and women of below-average height have more children.) The authors speculate on the reasons for the difference between the Netherlands and U.S., but it’s still not clear.

What is clear is that there is phenotypic selection for bigger males in the Dutch population, and that may well be responsible for part of the the striking change in height of Dutch males over the past 150 years. But surely most of that increase is due to cultural rather than genetic evolution: something in the Dutch culture that makes people taller. My theory: raw herring!

6a00d83452663c69e200e54f5aea848833-800wi

________

Stulp, G., L. Barrett, F. C. Tropf, and M. Mills. 2015. Does natural selection favour taller stature among the tallest people on earth? Proc Roy Soc B. 282, http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2015.0211

121 Comments

  1. Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    🐡

    • Maarten van Dam
      Posted April 14, 2015 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      What everybody seems to miss or ignore is the possible influence of WW1 on this. The countries bordering the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, the UK, all sent an entire generation of young men to the trenches. Trench warfare does not favour the tall. All these countries must have lost a substantial amount of tall, young men from their gene pool. Millions of them. The Dutch remained neutral and didn´t lose anybody. in 1865 we were the shortest, now we are the tallest. Everybody´s diet has improved, but the Dutch got to keep their tall men, whereas other countries must have lost many. Has anybody ever investigated this angle?

  2. jstackpo
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    You’ve got it all wrong… Clearly the Dutch are getting taller as evolution anticipates (of course) the time (soon!) that rising sea levels finally destroy the dike system. Only the Dutch will be able, then, to keep their heads above water.

    • David W.
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Call it a “pre-adaptation” then… ;^)

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      That hypothesis occurred to me as well.

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      There’s the Dutch for you: they always plan a head.

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      Dutch women are clearly more savvy about the perils of climate change and choose a partner appropriately.

  3. NewEnglandBob
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    I understand the science being presented here but I can’t wait to consume herring and french fries with mayonnaise to make me taller.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      I would rather be short than eat raw herring.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        The mayonnaise makes it go down easier. 😊

        • Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:35 am | Permalink

          Dutch mayo – fritessaus!

          /@

          PS. ¼ Dutch; 5′ 10″

          • Mark R.
            Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:57 am | Permalink

            Vincent: You know what they put on French fries in Holland instead of ketchup?
            Jules: What?
            Vincent: Mayonnaise.
            Jules: Goddamn.
            Vincent: I’ve seen ’em do it, man. They fuckin’ drown ’em in that shit.

            • Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

              And very good it is too! It’s a different flavour from regular mayo. This should make it clear: http://ow.ly/Ly3dg [PDF]

              /@

              • Mark R.
                Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

                Yes, Dutch (European in general) mayo is a lot better than our “Best Food’s” or whatever. It looks like they flavor it with lemon…like lemon aioli. I like fries in mayo…I ate it in Germany whenever I got the chance. I also like Japanese mayo…esp. the brand Kewpie. Though I must say the best mayonnaise is homemade…I only wish it wasn’t so perishable.

            • Posted April 13, 2015 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

              In the community I grew up (Seattle – Ballard) tartar sauce, which is mayo based, was de rigueur with french fries. I would still prefer to eat fries plain rather than with ketchup if a good quality tartar sauce is not at hand.

              • Chris
                Posted April 15, 2015 at 5:56 am | Permalink

                Tartar sauce with fries is a very Eastern European thing, plus Scandinavian IIRC but I haven’t visited there to find out for sure!

                Do you know what roots immigrants in that community had?

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      My hypothesis is that it’s not the herring — it’s the smoked eel, with the fries and mayo simply a confounding factor. Eels are long and lean, right?

    • kevin7alexander
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      I’ve been eating pickled herring since my Dutch friend introduced me to rollmops thirty years ago and I’m still the same height. I will keep the experiment going though, in the interest of science and sour cream.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Perhaps Americans have stalled because of the garbage we feed our children…. High in calories, low in nutrients. (I have no evidence of this except all of the fast food laces springing up in my neighborhood)

    • EvolvedDutchie
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      When I visited the USA, I noticed how sweet everything was. Even the bread was very sweet.

      • Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        The industrial bread companies do, I agree, tend to have a sweetness to them. And then there is Hawaiian sweet bread which is scrumptious if one is seeking out sweet bread.

        One of the best sweetened breads I’ve ever had was in the Solomon Islands. There was a coconut component to the otherwise fluffy bread and at only about .25 for a loaf, I ate enough to last a year. 🙂

        Sourdough is the preferred flavor, I would say, locally.

        Mike, Juneau, Alaska

        • Mark R.
          Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

          Alaskan sour dough…the best!

          • merilee
            Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

            Portuguese corn bread! – tastes more like sourdough than American corn bread.

  5. Sastra
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Interesting. Is there also some reason the Dutch keep to themselves (or neighboring countries do)? The Dutch standing out as they do seems to suggest a certain amount of isolation.

    If the Dutch used to be known for being short (for whatever reason) I can envision a sudden cultural preoccupation with height as a sign of status. Maybe they got tired of being laughed at in the Victorian satirical magazines and plays. Or perhaps there were some tall aristocrats or celebrities which jump started a race among women for finding husbands who towered over them. A more modern equivalent to the 17th century tulip mania.

    Just throwing out guesses. I’ve no idea.

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Two possibilities,
      1) Nobody else can understand them so it’s a language-based isolation (the written language makes some sense, but I can never get from there to the spoken version)
      2) Nobody else is prepared to breed with people who eat raw herrings (again, cultural isolation).

      🙂

      • Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        😁

      • Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        My German teacher in high school was Dutch. Every once in a while he would put up a few Dutch words on the Blackboard and pronounce them.

        The class was always silent. We had no idea how he was making those sounds. 🙂

        Mike

    • Rory
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      Is there any evidence that the Dutch keep to themselves any more than other nationalities?
      As it happens I have a few Dutch friends who are in relationships with non-Dutch people, and they happen to have young children. Now I’m curious to see how tall the kids grow.

      I’m also curious as to how they classify “Dutch” in this study. About 20% of the people who live in the Netherlands are not ethnically Dutch. Were they excluded?

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 13, 2015 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

        I’m more interested in how they allowed for all the ethnic diversity in the US! I’d wonder, for instance, if the latest wave of Latin American immigrants might tend to shift the average to the short side, at least for a few generations…

        Plus, does height correlate more strongly with fecundity than, say, Catholicism or Mormonism does?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted April 13, 2015 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

          I wondered that about Canada as well, advocating for all the countries that typically have short people in their populations so that I look good.

          • Posted April 13, 2015 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

            We know that the best things come in small packages…

          • Diane G.
            Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

            😀

  6. Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Note to self: Move to Rotterdam and become a basketball coach . . . and find a steady supply of raw herring.
    I suspect the thing in Dutch culture that is making people taller might be the clogs.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      I was thinking: ‘french fries with mayonnaise’? Actually, I really like that!

    • David W.
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      White guys in clogs can’t jump.

      • Posted April 13, 2015 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        Rik Smits (the only Dutch NBA’er I can recall) was 7’4″ tall he didn’t have to jump. He just had to be 7’4″ tall and make free-throws.

      • Posted April 13, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

        I’d take on a Dutch squad if they were all in clogs; wooden shoe?

        • Posted April 13, 2015 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          Wooden shoe…grooooaaaaaaan🐸

          • Posted April 13, 2015 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

            You’re welcome!

            • Posted April 13, 2015 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

              Heehee

            • Posted April 13, 2015 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

              Thanks for sabotaging the thread.

              /@

              • Posted April 13, 2015 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

                Sabot-aging…took me a sec:-)

              • Posted April 13, 2015 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

                Oh. My. Gaaaah. That has to be the most erudite pun response I have ever seen.

                http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2010/09/sabotage.html

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 13, 2015 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

                Ant is the master punster. He doesn’t think he is, but he is.

              • merilee
                Posted April 13, 2015 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

                Ant da Man;-)

              • Posted April 13, 2015 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

                I always thought erudite was a kind of epoxy adhesive…

                /@

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 13, 2015 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

                Sounds more like a type of flint rock.

              • Posted April 13, 2015 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

                Or Aphrodite’s younger brother?

              • Posted April 14, 2015 at 12:25 am | Permalink

                The god of learning?

                /@

              • Posted April 14, 2015 at 8:28 am | Permalink

                Or erring

              • Posted April 14, 2015 at 8:52 am | Permalink

                Wouldn’t that be Poseidon? (Other fishes. too, of course… ’ake, ’alibut, and so on.)

                /@

              • Posted April 14, 2015 at 9:54 am | Permalink

                Eric was an halibut.

              • Posted April 13, 2015 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

                Funny. I think it sounds like something an Englishman or Aussie would put on his toast. But then so does “epoxy.”

              • Posted April 14, 2015 at 12:26 am | Permalink

                That’s from Shakespeare: “Epoxy on all your houses.”

                /@

              • Posted April 14, 2015 at 1:14 am | Permalink

                Prolly what Lady Macbeth had in mind when she told her hubby “Glue thy courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail.”

                Always with the honey-do’s, these spouses.

              • Posted April 14, 2015 at 8:23 am | Permalink

                LOLs to the “both a youse”

              • Posted April 14, 2015 at 8:24 am | Permalink

                Maybe honey-glues?

              • Posted April 14, 2015 at 8:53 am | Permalink

                What’s that word? Oh, yeah: groooooooooooaan!

              • Posted April 14, 2015 at 9:56 am | Permalink

                De nada🐸

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 14, 2015 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

                Ha ha – a guy who is Aphrodite’s brother but just wanders around looking at stuff. That’s his job – wandering.

  7. marksolock
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  8. Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I know a very nice Dutch family, and three brothers within that family are among the few people I know that I look up to (I’m 6’2″). I didn’t realize it was a common Dutch trait.

  9. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    If tall people have children with tall people, then their children will likely be tall. It could be that the founding Dutch had different ‘tallness’ alleles that creates a synergistic effect. An analogy is when lions and tigers are mated the hybrids are extra big, possibly b/c they have separate but synergistic genes for bigness.

    Could a possible control be to look at the Caucasian South Africans? I thought that many of them were Dutch by ancestry.

    • Fré Hoogendoorn
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      The Afrikaners in South Africa are not taller than average, in my experience. I’m Dutch (6’4″ – my father was 6’8″), and grew up in South Africa and am now married to someone from South Africa. My money is on the environment being most important here.

  10. J Cook
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    What about Nilotic peoples?

  11. George
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    To me the big question is how does diet affect body size – both height and weight. And does early diet have a larger effect. Japanese have gotten significantly taller since WWII. According to this NY Times story in 2001,
    “In 50 years, according to statistics kept by the Ministry of Education, the average height of Japanese 11-year-olds has increased by more than 5 1/2 inches.”

    And there is a very unfortunate, brutal natural experiment going on right now in Korea. The size of South Koreans has increased dramatically since 1960 while North Koreans have gotten smaller.

  12. Hempenstein
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Haven’t noticed the Dutch in that regard, but seems like every Lithuanian I encounter, male or female, is exceptionally tall.

    • Chris
      Posted April 15, 2015 at 6:02 am | Permalink

      Many years ago I had a Lithuanian girlfriend, who was of above average height but nothing extraordinary.

      She did mention, however, that one of their major national sports was basketball, and all of the Lithuanian men that I’ve met have been huge (and I’m 6ft 1)!

  13. Fred M
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    So is eating herring supposed to make men taller or is it causing women to dig tall men?

  14. George
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    On a different but related topic. I note that the dandelions in my yard are now mostly too short to be mowed – my mower goes mostly harmlessly over the top. Some just have very short flower stems and some just lie close to the ground with longer stems.

    Now I must go around with my small shovel and chop the pesky things. I am pretty sure that there is not anything in the dandelion genetic diversity that can defeat my shovel method…

    oh wait, I only get around to this every week at best – so the ones that can pop up and go to seed quickly have a fighting chance to survive…

    • Hempenstein
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Wage war on garlic mustard, not dandelions.

      • George
        Posted April 13, 2015 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

        Sure, but I have a long learned hatred for dandelions – taught for many years. I do not go after all the weeds and I do not use any herbicides – just cut ’em down – only it used to be easy now its hard…

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      Yes, I’ve notice more lying-flat ones.

      Some sen to seed exceptionally quickly – we see the white heads before we’ve even noticed the yellow flowers.

      /@

    • Randy Schenck
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      unless you have a strong aversion to it, 2-4D will take care of that problem.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      I deeply admire dandelions. I had noticed, anecdotally, that some flowers stay close to the ground and these generally bolt upright quickly when they are committing to open up & disperse their fluffy seeds.
      I have an idea that this is an adaptation to ensure that some flowers are missed by grazing herbivores. It so happens to also be very useful for avoiding lawnmowers.

      • Randy Schenck
        Posted April 13, 2015 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        Yes, well the dandelions, like many other weeds are pretty much adapted to the lawnmower anyway. They will pop back up in a day or two after being cut off. However, if you like them, that’s fine too.

    • Alex J.
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      Not much chance for genetic mutation and selection in dandelions, the species in the USA reproduces by parthenogenesis. They are effectively clones.

      • George
        Posted April 13, 2015 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

        I guess I do not necessarily need the mutations as long as there is existing diversity, I can select for that. Wait, I don’t want to select for short stems or lie flat dandelions…

  15. Steven Obrebski
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I always liked raw herring. I should have eaten more of it when I was a teenager.

  16. Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I haven’t had time to read the original study, but I have to wonder: only three generations studied and at least one directly affected by WWII – could that skew the results/interpretation? Maybe during and immediately after WWII taller people had more kids, but not before or after that period of time?

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      Yes, but you have to explain why, in a given cohort, it’s the tallest males that have the most kids.

  17. EvolvedDutchie
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I was born to comment on this topic. 😛

    Don’t all women like tall men? I doubt that’s exclusively dutch. I’m 186 centimeter. That’s about 6 feet and 1 inch. Sad to read I’m just an average dutchie.

    I think it’s the combination of cheese and milk (to provide calcium) and fish (to provide protein). And I’m not talking about fried cheese.

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      I have definitely noticed the generally very tall stature of Dutchmen.

      I think a general statement would be: “Almost all women prefer a man who is at least their own height” (A woman wants to be with a man who is her height or taller.)

      Which isn’t quite the same thing as women always prefer tall men.

      Since many women would not be described as “tall”, that leaves plenty of scope for men who are also “not tall”.

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 13, 2015 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

        That sounds reasonable.

        I’d also like to add that in many cases it’s not so much the height of the man a woman is after as it is not wanting to feel like “the big one.” Some women are brought up to be very size-conscious.

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      So, there is some benefit from being a /kaaskop/! 😁

      /@

      • Mark R.
        Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        When I first met my wife, she said she preferred short men (she’s 5’7). I was happy when she said she’d make an exception for me…I’m 6’3″. 🙂

        There are a lot of tall men in my family, so I’ve always thought of “tallness” as mainly genetic. A healthy diet with lots of protein and calcium promotes height as well. Sounds like the Dutch are eating and breeding for height.

        • darrelle
          Posted April 13, 2015 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

          They haven’t been breeding for height, they’ve been breeding for speed skating. The increase in height is like a spandrel.

          (That is an attempt at humor, by the way, not a serious hypothesis.)

  18. dvandivere
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    What’s really messed up is that I’ve grown at least half an inch since moving to Amsterdam 21 years ago at 23! Probably just better posture trying to be as tall as the Dutch men.

    My theory is that we’re a lot further north than the States, the Earth is an oblate spheroid, we’re closer to the center of the Earth, and gravity is therefore a tiny bit weaker.

    I don’t know how the data look, but I know that people who were kids during the Hunger Winter (1945, when the Germans basically starved a lot of the country) are all a lot shorter than the average. The recovery from that might be affecting the stats.

  19. Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Cool stuff, and amazingly this very question came up at my house yesterday.

    I call the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, where I live, The Land of the Giants, because I see more tall people here than anywhere else I’ve been, including The Netherlands, Germany, East Africa, Scandinavia, etc.

    I attribute it to the preponderance of German and Scandinavian ethnic backgrounds of the population (now add Somalis to that list of tall-trending people). But that doesn’t really answer the question: How did the Germans and Scandinavians (and Dutch) become tall?

    My wife asked me about this. I could only suggest sexual selection. I threw out the possibility of large stature helping in a cold northern climate and she pointed out that the Inuit are not tall people (well said!).

    It came up because my wife (of average US height for her generation — about 5′-3″) was much taller than a host at a local restaurant who happened to be of Mexican heritage. I told her — that’s what men’s height is like in SE Asia: “You will tower over them when we go there.”

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      And good nutrition and general health, of course (in addition to the genetic background of the people).

      • Mark R.
        Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        I’m 6’3 and when I visited China my height became immediately conspicuous. I stuck out like a sore thumb and everyone stared and pointed, but it was friendly. I just smiled back. I later learned that staring/pointing in Chinese culture isn’t perceived as rude as in the West. When in large open areas with masses of people (like the Forbidden Palace and Tiananmen Square) it was surreal…all I could see was an ocean of black-haired heads. If I was short, I’d probably get claustrophobic.

  20. Fred M
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I’m Canadian born, but the descendent of 3 Dutch immigrant grandparents with the forth the son of Dutch immigrants. My one grandfather was 5’11” and the other was 5’9″. Their male children were not much taller, but their grandkids were. I’m one of the short ones at 6’2″. Looking at my extended family and the many other Dutch descended Canadians I know, the trend of tall Dutchmen is independent of the living conditions in the Netherlands, although living conditions in Canada are nothing to slouch at. That being said, pickled herring, Gouda cheese and other Dutch food staples were/are a big part of my diet.

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      I concur on all points (including being short for a descendant of Dutch immigrants, at six feet, and being Canadian). When I saw that the author’s suggested environment could be a factor I was surprised that they never looked at (and therefore probably never met) Dutch immigrants, especially considering how many immigrated to Canada during the 1950’s.

      Always thought it was small population size leading to more drift, but I’m almost certain it’s not environmental.

      • Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        By the way, for some idea of what I’m talking about I have two cousins and two friends (all ethnically Dutch and born and raised in Canada) who are a head taller than me.

        I also just had a thought, maybe the change is environmental but it’s acting on a genotype that many Dutchmen (and women) have but wasn’t expressed before improvements in living in Canada and the Netherlands.

      • Marika Salomons
        Posted April 15, 2015 at 7:58 am | Permalink

        Interesting thought to have a look at dutch emigrants.
        Here in Brazil where I live in and near 3 dutch colonies with mainly descendents from te northern part of the Netherlands, we all tower over the smaller Brazilians. I guess the difference in Brazilis even bigger than in the US/Canada or Australia.

  21. Mudskipper
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    When it comes to longevity, this is not necessarily in the Dutch’s favor. All things being equal, short people tend to live longer than tall people.

  22. Mark Reaume
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps a good control group to study would be the vast Dutch diaspora which is actually a larger population than the mother country.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_diaspora

  23. Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m up for a good piece of fish sashimi, but I’m not sure I’m up for those fins and scales …

  24. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    My theory is dubble zout.

  25. h2ocean
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Does the fact that they are a relatively small population (and relatively homogeneous?) come into play? Selection effects might be a bit tighter/less noisy among a relatively small and homogeneous group?

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      In genetic terms, the population is still massive. Also, interesting fact: selection is actually *weaker* in small populations. Random events become much more important when the numbers are small.

  26. kazoonga
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    My immigrant Italian friends have lived in Holland for the last 20 years. They are both of average height but their teenage kids are unusually tall for their age, are destined to be far taller than their parents and are a foot taller than close Italian relatives of the same age back in Italy.

    I think there’s something in the water.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      I tells ya, it’s the dubble zout!

  27. Posted April 13, 2015 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Two anecdotes which prove nothing of course except that anecdotes stick with you when they support confirmation bias:

    1) I took some business classes over the summer in grad school 20 years ago. I am 6’3″ tall and I notice tall people immediately because i don’t have to incline my head to talk to them. There was a group of Dutch students in one of my classes and they were all gorgeous and very tall: the shortest was a girl who was at least 5’10” and maybe taller than that. Also they did wear a lot of orange and when Richard Krycek (sp?) played in the Nissan Open the Dutch contingent was numerous, big and loud.

    2) Californians are clearly growing taller. All the high school kids I know are taller than Mom is and many are taller than Dad. I’m not surprised that my generation, the children of people who grew up in the Great Depression, are taller than their parents because I assumed my parents’ growth was stunted by diet, early smoking, bad shoes, air pollution, whatever. I look forward to hearing the explanation for the continuing trend – maybe it’s the combination of healthier trends and genetics. The fact that local moms are the regular average 5’4″ to 5’5″ makes it very puzzling.

  28. Gordon
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Whatever the reason my tall wife loved shopping for clothes in the Netherlands where the choice was massive-like the resulting credit card bill.

  29. Michael Hart
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I like the sexual selection explanation for the difference between the fitness-height relationship for males and for females. But why would that sexual selection be stronger (or easier to detect) among the Dutch?

  30. Posted April 13, 2015 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Statistics are always selective, since there is no way to correlate them all, considering all the possible factors involved.
    Well, alright, maybe we could correlate them all, if we had them all, but the fact is, we don’t.
    That is why I cast a very sceptive eye on such studies. There is no way we could consider all the possible factors involved, unless we were living in a completely observed society. I am very thankful that we aren’t.
    Statistics are intersting, and fun, but in the end they don’t mean much, considering the limits imposed on ascertainment. And besides, as I once read on a little slip of paper you get in fortune cookies: 67% of all statistics are made up. Now consider the statistical chance of me getting that particular fortune cookie, and draw your own conclusions.
    Not to say that the statistics in question are made up. I just want to make clear how limited they, and all statistics, are. Extremely limited, and therefore quite likely misleading.
    In the end, as the Germans say: nachher so schlau wie vorher (as wise as before).

  31. Keith Cook or more
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    My first thoughts, they (females) have been primed by tall windmills and they’re desire (males) to see over dykes (invaders, check out their cows or tulips in the next field)
    There could be some traits with extreme tallness that could keep it in check, the medical problems associated with being tall and there are a few, susceptibility to back complaints, weight, circulation, bone density problems. And on the mundane, seating in restaurants, planes, always being asked to retrieve things of the top shelf, being used as a sign post.
    But, it’s not all bad, tall men on average have a higher fitness, get the good jobs, enjoy higher status, although keeping your nose clear of boogies is probably standard practice to maintain the above. Just shooting from the hip..

  32. Robert MacDonald
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    The anecdote I heard was that the Dutch were growing tall on extra calcium from their cows grazing on the chalk rich reclaimed ocean floor. I’m sorry that that theory didn’t make it past the bar…

  33. ladyatheist
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s subconscious sex selection for mates who won’t drown when the dike gives out.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      Good one!

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 14, 2015 at 1:38 am | Permalink

      Beat me to it! 🙂

  34. lkr
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    All too familiar. I grew up in a Frisian Dutch dairying town in the Northwest US. At 5’8″I felt like an absolute midget– half my HS class males were 6’2″ or more.

    I assume the authors of this study have checked hight distribution among subpopulations of the Dutch.. My bet is that the tallest [all along] are farmfolk like the Frisians, much more religious than the urban types, and I’d bet much more fecund.

  35. Posted April 14, 2015 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    Why evolution could act on making Dutch being taller within relatively short time and that’s interesting, even if unproven hypothesis, while evolution couldn’t make Dutch, for example, less aggressive within comparable period of time?

  36. Marika Salomons
    Posted April 14, 2015 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Funny thing is that you`ll find taller people in the northern part of the Netherlands than in the south. The difference is about an inch and that over a distance of about 200 miles.

    The `secret` apart from genetics lies in(dairy) proteins I guess.
    We`re dutch, live on a dairyfarm in Brazil and my 15 year old son already measures 6ft 6.

  37. Posted April 15, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I first heard of this some years ago when someone said that they had to change the building codes because the standard 80 inch doors (or whatever is the height in the Netherlands) wasn’t providing the proper clearance. They moved it upward to accommodate the tall population.

  38. Posted April 19, 2015 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Did they check the sperm count (taller vs smaller men) or the length/strength of condoms (maybe less efficient for tall men)?

    or
    Is eating herring making men taller or is it causing men to be more fertile?


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  1. […] The blog.post that led me to these thoughts: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/is-natural-selection-making-the-dutch-taller/ […]

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