Here’s Why the Dutch Are So Tall

A new study shows natural selection is alive and well in the Netherlands

Tall Dutch People
Image Source/Corbis

If you associate canals, tulips and tall people with the Netherlands, you’re not alone. Now, scientists have figured out a new reason for the height of the Dutch—and it has to do with natural selection.

Scientists have long been fascinated by the sheer tallness of the Dutch, who gained over eight inches in height over the past century and a half. In their search for the secret of that impressive stature, they’ve floated many theories: environmental causes, perhaps, or economics. But a new study suggests that evolution made the Dutch taller than the rest of us.

When a group of behavioral biologists looked at a database of nearly 100,000 Dutch people, they decided to focus on people over the age of 45 who were born (or grown) in the Netherlands to Dutch parents. The sample that remained (about 42,000 people) shared a surprising characteristic: more children per taller man. And taller men were less likely to be childless or single.

This could be evolution in action, the study’s authors suggest. Martin Enserink explains for Science: combined with evidence that taller men tend to have higher incomes, better health and higher ratings from potential sex partners, the new study seems to confirm that sexual selection is alive and well within the Dutch population.

But why? “It will be a difficult question to answer,” Stephen Stearns, an evolutionary biologist at Yale who wasn’t involved in the study, told Enserink. Perhaps tall men are more likely to divorce and start a second family, says Stearns, or maybe they’re better at resisting disease.

And it turns out that tall women in the Netherlands might not be at the same advantage of their male counterparts. Average-height women seemed to be favored when it came to having kids, even though taller women had kids who were more likely to survive. That, in turn, contributed to the reproductive success of tall men.

Now that scientists have linked height to sexual selection in Dutch men, they have one tall problem to contend with—it’s not clear why tall men in Holland have such a sexual advantage when tall men in countries like the United States, which has been trending toward shorter heights, don’t. Sorry, tall Americans: scientists are still searching for answers. But while you wait, here’s something to gloat about: being tall could make you more likely to be elected President.

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