The American Political Science Association’s 2015 Heinz Eulau Award was given to Carles Boix (Princeton) and Frances Rosenbluth (Yale) for their piece “Bones of Contention: The Political Economy of Height Inequality” in February’s edition of the American Political Science Review.
Wealth inequality has been a major preoccupation since at least Aristotle who documented its deleterious effects on the politics of Athens. It is hard to think of questions more foundational to the study of politics than the causes and consequences of inequality, since wealth and power have reinforced each other for as long as humans have been writing about their lives. Unfortunately, almost all systematic data about wealth is from the past few decades, and mostly from developed countries. Wouldn’t it be nice to find troves of hidden records from centuries past with which to test our theories about the conditions under which political and economic equality were more or less stable?
In a sense, we have! Biologists and biological anthropologists have learned that human osteological data provide valuable information about the nutrition of our ancestors. Because humans have two periods when nutrition is crucial to reach genetically-possible height—one in early childhood and one in adolescence—human heights as estimated from skeletal remains provide remarkably good clues about how nutrition was rationed. By extension, the distribution of bone size across adults can tell us quite a lot about the distribution of political power and economic wealth in societies of long ago.
In this paper we use skeletal measurements and other height data to analyze inequality in societies ranging from foraging communities to ancient Egyptian and modern European monarchies. We also explore the evolution of within-group height variance in contemporary societies from 1800, drawing on more than 1,000 data points for male populations and close to 350 for female populations.
Some of our results: the shift from hunting and gathering to complex fishing techniques and to labor-intensive agriculture seem to have opened up inequalities that had discernible effects on human health and stature. We also find evidence for the power of political institutions independent of the underlying economic factors of production. Political institutions appear to be shaped not only by existing owners of wealth but also by military technology and vulnerability to invasion. In modern times, there is intriguing variation: societies with more short people range from very unequal to relatively equal height distributions whereas taller societies are more homogeneously tall. These results are consistent with the equalizing effects of economic development and modernization at least to a point. Curious? Click URL here to read the full paper.