I'm taking the Introduction to Genetics And Evolution course and in the first lecture it was said that:

Evolution in a biological sense is simply a change through time. And very importantly, that is change through time over generations. So for example, the human species, hundreds or thousands of years ago was much shorter than it is today. Over the course of those generations, the human species has grown taller. That change is an evolutionary change.

I'm wondering why we become taller than our ancestors? Now we almost don't fight with other species and can live doing something that doesn't require physical strength. It's more logical to me if we would become shorter.

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    $\begingroup$ Humans compete with each other. The competitor doesn't need to be a different species - it can be a different population, different individuals in the same population, or even just environmental conditions (e.g. moving to colder or warmer climate). Indeed, competition within the species has a huge benefit - it can cause runaway improvement since you're always competing with the best of the given generation. This is one of the explanations for why human intelligence seems to be so far ahead of anything our "species-relatives" have, by the way. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Luaan conspecific competition can have the effect of reducing competitive abilities with other species. Also, technically, there is no need for competition for selection to happen (even if completely isolated, some genotypes may still be associated to higher fitness than others). $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ The human species has grown taller since the last 150 years, especially after 1950. During the world wars the humans (at least in Europe) declined in height. In some poor African countries the people are now shorter than they were 40 years ago. It is a lot about nature and nurture. $\endgroup$
    – cezar
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 7:45
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, worth noting that some of the increase in height (especially recently) is phenotypic (environment) rather than genotypic (evolutionary) (I would hope the course material points this out!) $\endgroup$
    – Ben Bolker
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ Related: biology.stackexchange.com/questions/457/… and biology.stackexchange.com/questions/19101/… $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 6, 2019 at 13:41

2 Answers 2


A likely misunderstanding of yours

Now we almost don't fight with other species

Misunderstanding about selection

As you will go through this course, you will understand why this sentence makes little sense. A change in allele frequency via natural selection is caused by a fitness differential among genotypes within a population. The existence of a competitor species would eventually affect this fitness differential but there is no need for a competitor for having a selection pressure.

I think you are having the view that selection is a process that allows a species to be better at coping with a competitor but this is wrong. Selection will increase the frequency of individuals having high fitness in the population. The resulting population may well not be a better competitor.

False opinion that we are not competing with other species

Also, about nearly 50,000 people are dying every day from infectious disease (UN press release). So, we are definitely still "fighting" with other species. Adaptation to malaria in humans is a famous case study (see this answer and its links).

Also, according to reuters (who fail to link to their source), the worldwide cost of pests in agriculture is estimated to about 540 billions USD per year! So yep... competition there is.

What selection pressures are there on human height?

Review paper recommendation

Stulp and Barrett 2016 is a review paper on the evolution of height in humans that you might want to have a look to have a clearer picture than what I will give here. It is easy to read. I highly recommend having a look at it.

They cite a lot of papers. I won't cite them again below but I will just attempt to make a vague summary of the parts which I think will interest you the most.

What selection pressures are there on human height?

The question appears to not be that easy to answer. In humans, height is highly heritable and there is a lot of variance in height among populations. It is likely that different selection pressures may have acted on different populations.

There are a diversity of selection patterns

In short, selection pressures on height include intra and intersexual selection. Taller adults seem to have a reduced mortality rate. Taller women have a lower risk of complications when giving birth. However, in both men and women, the correlation between height and number of offspring varies a lot from study to study (and likely from population to population). In the USA for example, men having the highest number of offspring are of intermediate height (balancing selection).

It appears that epigenetic variation also have an important impact on height Simeone and Alberti 2014 and there might have a sex-driven intra-locus conflict on height (Gilks et al. 2014; Stulp and Barrett 2016)

There is evidence of current selection on height

We have a fair number of evidence that height was and is still under selection in humans but we think that the exact pattern of selection pressures acting on it is quite complex. Note that there is evidence that height is still under selection today.

  • $\begingroup$ Stulp and Barrett 2016 link has limited access. $\endgroup$
    – Artmal
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ It's a pleasure to read your answer. I tried to give an answer, but as a non-native English speaker couldn't summarise it so nice. Especially I like the terms you use, lke selection pressure. $\endgroup$
    – cezar
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ @cezar Thank you. Selection pressure is a very standard term in evolutionary biology. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Artmal My link was broken. Sorry about that. Can you try again? There might have pay wall though. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Remi.b I don't doubt that. I, as non-native English speaker, couldn't translate back to it. It's hard to discuss using technical terms you have learned in another language. $\endgroup$
    – cezar
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:28

In my opinion there is a fallacy in your understanding of evolution. First of all evolution is blind to the future. Also living organisms don't undergo evolutionary changes toward something that might appear more logical.

Imagine there were only few tousands exemplars of Homo species left and the planet Earth would change so much that 90% of its surface is under water. It would be practical to have webbed hands. An exemplar with webbed hands could swimm better, and consequently be better equipped to provide food. So what's going to happen. Are the humans going to develop webbed hands? Certainly not. It's not how evolution works. Just because something appears to be logical or of use, it's not going to come overnight. But now imagine because of a certain mutation some exemplars have webbed hands. They are more likely to survive in an environment with large water surfaces. Therefore they are more likely to leave offspring. Exemplars without this mutation wouldn't be able to gather so much food, to escape from predators, etc. Eventually after millions of years they might all die out and only exemplars with webbed hands are existent. Then all humans would have webbed hands. The genes responsible for normal hands as we have, are almost not existent in the population.

After further millions years the water masses have retreated and there is much more land surface. The evolution was blind for this. The humans continue to have webbed hands, although they aren't so practical anymore. Eventually a mutation occurs again, or some exemplars with recessive genes for normal hands have offspring. This offspring now has better chances to survive and in the course of many generations there is a substantial part of the population with normal hands.

The humans are today much taller than earlier, because it must have been of evolutionary advantage for very long time. In order to get shorter as a species, the environment (and also other factors) should favour this.

We have food in abundance, good medical care, and most of the offspring can survive to adult age. This enables most of the people can unfold their full genetic potential and grow taller. The humans (at least in the western world) consume milk after the weaning. It contains growth hormons and stimulates the growth.

In order to get shorter in average as species, the shorter exemplars should be able to live longer and leave considerably more offspring, and there should be evolutionary drawbacks for taller exemplars to leave enough offspring.

Do we have those conditions? No. That is why we don't get shorter.

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    $\begingroup$ We have food in abundance, good medical care is this also an opinion of yours? Half of world wide infant death is caused by malnutrition (Walker 2008) $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:12
  • $\begingroup$ No, it's a fact. In the western world (Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand) there is food in abundance and good medical care. The tallest people live also in these regions, the Dutchmen leading the ranking. The shortest people live in poor countries. There are certainly some outliers, like the Maasai in Tansania. Food isn't only factor favouring the growth, but it is an important one. There are differences in the height within same populations like rural vs. urban India, North Korea vs. South Korea. I'd say they are result of better living conditions. $\endgroup$
    – cezar
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ I did not notice (at least in the western world) at the end of your sentence, sorry. You can't draw a general conclusion based on a cherry picked population though. The review I link clearly indicate that there is selection favouring small people in some populations. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ I have yet to read the links you provided, but I don't doubt that there are circumstances that would favour smaller exemplars in certain populations. My point was that availaibility of food during the childhood and the adolescence stimulates the growth. Why should people become smaller when they have the possibilities to unfold their genetic potential. The people in the western world became significantly taller only after the II World War. Until the 18th century the people weren't (much) taller than our ancestors in the stone age. $\endgroup$
    – cezar
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ I'd also like to add that there is a ceiling and once the genetic potential has been fullfiled, the average size isn't going to increase indefinitely. It's very unlikely that further improvement of the living conditions can lead to humans with height of 2.5 meters (it might be however rather 250 kg). $\endgroup$
    – cezar
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:58

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