Women's height, reproductive success and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in modern humans

Daniel Nettle


Recent studies have shown that, in contemporary populations, tall men have greater reproductive success than shorter men. This appears to be due to their greater ability to attract mates. To our knowledge, no comparable results have yet been reported for women. This study used data from Britain's National Child Development Study to examine the life histories of a nationally representative group of women. Height was weakly but significantly related to reproductive success. The relationship was U–shaped, with deficits at the extremes of height. This pattern was largely due to poor health among extremely tall and extremely short women. However, the maximum reproductive success was found below the mean height for women. Thus, selection appears to be sexually disruptive in this population, favouring tall men and short women. Over evolutionary time, such a situation tends to maintain sexual dimorphism. Men do not use stature as a positive mate–choice criterion as women do. It is argued that there is good evolutionary reason for this, because men are orientated towards cues of fertility, and female height, being positively related to age of sexual maturity, is not such a cue.