Little Big Man


Getting over our obsession with height.

By David Wallace-Wells

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In 1712, a first child was born to the militarist prince Frederick William of Prussia. A year shy of the throne himself, Frederick had high hopes for his son, the future Frederick II. But the child was “small, sickly ... delicate, backward, and puny,” writes the journalist Stephen S. Hall in Size Matters, his engaging new nonfiction picaresque. The pitiful size of the crown prince was an embarrassment to the new king, but it was also, Hall suggests, a private incitement.

Size Matters - Stephen Hall; Houghton Mifflin - $26Between his ascension in 1713 and his death in 1740, Frederick more than doubled the ranks of the Prussian army—from a considerable 38,000 men  to an intimidating 83,000—but the figure that concerned him most was not the size of his army but the height of his soldiers. Modestly built himself, Frederick had fallen in love with tall men. “He collected them like stamps,” writes Hall, establishing an elite regiment of outsized grenadiers that became known as the Potsdam Giants. No member of the unit stood less than six feet tall, and many were closer to seven; the drill leader is said to have topped seven feet. “The tallest men ever assembled until the birth of professional basketball,” noted one medical historian. During royal parades, the Giants would escort the king by holding hands above his carriage.

Frederick’s obsession was more than mere schoolyard eugenics. He dispatched representatives to find the tallest men in Europe and bring them home, at any cost. Sometimes, the giants were willing conscripts or persuadable mercenaries. (One such Swedish legionnaire, eight and a half feet tall, was an early coup.) Other warriors were bought as military chattel from their own rulers, “with transfer fees that modern football clubs could scarcely rival.” Still others were simply kidnapped in foreign lands and forced into service like slaves. Though the practice exasperated monarchs and diplomats across Europe, many of Frederick’s rivals played along, even farming their own ranks for impressive soldiers to offer to the Prussian court as gifts. To ensure the Potsdam Giants were not merely a brief sideshow in Prussian history but a kind of vanguard unit of military history, the king insisted his giant grenadiers marry only equally giant women. More than a century later, Charles Darwin wrote that, unlike livestock, humans had never been forcibly bred for select characteristics, “except in the well-known case of the Prussian grenadiers.”

Subscribe Online & Save 33%As for the diminutive prince, he succeeded his father after a tempestuous adolescence that included at least one conspiracy to treason. Now Frederick II, he modernized the royal bureaucracy, cultivated a storied friendship with Voltaire, and led personally a series of military campaigns so successful he was considered by Napoleon to be the greatest battlefield tactician of all time. When he grew up, he became Frederick the Great. One of his first acts as king was disbanding the Potsdam Giants.

Now an accomplished science writer, Stephen Hall was also once a small boy, and he, too, would like to disassemble the myth that says taller is better. For Hall, the story of the Potsdam Giants is not a historical curiosity, but a neat allegory of our modern wrong-headedness about size. We defer to the tall. We attribute “leadership qualities” to them. Short children are bullied more and experience more stress, anxiety, and depression than their classmates. We behave as though height were a representation of male virtue. In so doing, we enact the dictates of biological determinism without ever considering their merit. We are living in an “altocracy,” Hall writes, ruled by “heightism,” and he wields an impressive portfolio of data to bolster his claim.

In the last century, all but three U.S. presidential contests were won by the taller candidate. A survey of Fortune 500 CEOs shows that the average corporate titan is much taller than the national mean, roughly six feet to roughly five feet nine (nearly 60 percent of the executives top six feet, compared to 14.5 percent of the country at large). The median wage of the tallest quarter of the male population is 13 percent higher than that of the shortest 25 percent in Britain and the United States.Tall workers are not only paid better than short workers; the disparity is comparable to the wage inequalities associated with race and gender in America.     

Our height bias is no historical accident, Hall writes, but a once-valuable evolutionary adaptation. Size has always been a dependable proxy for health and well-being, he points out, particularly in children and particularly across populations. An academic discipline, sometimes called “the new anthropometry,” has been built on the principle that body mass is a reliable measure of the general welfare of any society. “You tell me the average mid-arm circumference of children growing up in a developing country, and I’ll tell you the gross national product of the country they live in,” boasts one growth specialist. 

Today, Hall believes, a focus on height obscures the underlying issues, rather than clarifying them. We don’t judge the wealth of a potential mate by his height, for instance, and we don’t assume that disparities in the height of countries reflect the workings of an invisible hand driving the wealth of nations—they reflect constituent disparities in social equality, health care, and diet. We know enough about ourselves to know that height should not matter.

Not satisfied demonstrating, convincingly, how much we overvalue size, Hall takes the unfortunate step of trying to prove how much our culture undervalues shortness. Late into Size Matters, he commits himself to squaring what he acknowledges as the biological bias for growth with what he has come to see as the social and psychological benefits of growing up small—namely, a greater incentive to network socially, instruction in perseverance and guile, and a marginally lesser impact on the environment. Though these advantages are a tad  contrived, coming from a committed advocate for the undersized, Hall’s message is more than simple small-fry boosterism. Evolution leaves behind a long paper trail, and it probably has something nasty to say about all human aspirations—those nourished by the tall as well as the short, the outgoing as well as the introverted, the strong as well as the meek. Our evolutionary prejudices are vestigial, and should be discarded by our better nature, he suggests, because we’ve long outrun natural selection. His central gripe is that not enough of us have realized it.

The biggest sinners here, for Hall, are the parents of short boys. He reserves special contempt for those who perpetuate height bias through the cosmetic use of human growth hormone (hGH) on their children despite uncertain health risks. No studies have yet shown that hGH, which promotes only marginal improvement in growth, has any measurable psychological effect on child patients, more often boys than girls by a factor of three. Some observers suggest the most noticeable outcome is unmet expectation, and there is growing evidence that boosting growth hormone above normal levels can contribute to the appearance of cancer.

In the decades before the hormone could be engineered, hGH was harvested from the pituitary glands of human cadavers. One cadaver yielded only enough hormone for a single daily dose, so the treatment was exceedingly rare and extremely expensive. Committees were established to determine which patients were most deserving of the treatment, and competition was fierce. In 1985, a handful of children in the United States and Britain died after becoming infected with Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, the degenerative neurological disorder, from a contaminated batch of hGH. The doctors supervising hormone treatment immediately suspended the program, but many parents protested. “We’ll take the risk,” they told one growth expert. He responded, “‘Yeah? For an inch, two inches?’ And the parents said, ‘Yeah.’”

   

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David Wallace-Wells, who stands five foot eleven in his bare feet, is a writer in New York.  
 
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