KancerCel: Dialogues on Malignant Growth

Tall people live shorter lives. One of the reasons is the higher risk of getting cancer. Tall people have more cells that divide more often making them more susceptible for genetic mistakes. Also the higher concentration of growth hormone in taller people encourages abnormal cells to grow quicker making it more difficult to control the cancer. If we look at the scale of the body, cancer is a warning that we should stop growing so tall.

If we look at our planet perhaps there are similar warning signs. The Incredible Shrinking Man has become increasingly interested in the relationship between cancer and our and societies’ obsession with growth. Not only is there a direct physical link. We may also learn something from a closer investigation of how malignant growth of cancer relates to economic growth. Shrink researcher Arne Hendriks is participating in a project initiated by the Department of Search that aims to create a zero footprint campus at the Utrecht Science Park, home among many other research institutes to the renowned Hubrecht Institute for stem cell research. To connect the desire for less with the necessity to overcome our desire for more Hendriks is developing KankerCel (CancerCell). Cancer is not only a disease, but a symbol for an even bigger challenge mankind is facing, namely finding a balance between our craving for growth and the strength of our ecological system. If we regard the ecology as a body, man in this body is his own primary threat. We’re simply not succeeding to find a balance between what we want, or what we think we have a right to, and what is good for us and Earth. KankerCel wants to unravel our craving for growth from the idea that nothing symbolises the destructive human submission to growth more powerfully than its embodiment in cancer. To do so we will set up dialogues between cancer researchers and specialists from the fields of economics, politics, business and psychology, among others. Hopefully such an interdisciplinary approach will open up space for the alternatives of less and teach us a thing or two about how to fight cancer.

  • Share/Bookmark

Abundance Fantasies: The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat

Perhaps no Hollywood movie director and choreographer personifies the desire for abundance better than Busby Berkeley. His choreographies were wildly extravagant, the geometric patterns hallucinatory, and the props and costumes beyond anything seen before. His work oozes a profound and limitless desire for abundance. And yet we’d like to recruit his point of view as an instrument to come another step closer to the embrace of scarcity.

Since the very start of this investigation into shrinking the human species The Incredible Shrinking Man has had a paradoxical relationship with the notion of abundance. On the one hand it is this desire within humanity that seems instrumental in the destructive relationship with our planet. However, on the other hand  it may serve as a powerful argument for shrinking our species. Smaller people need less. We could shrink towards a state of unimaginable abundance. At a human height of 50 centimeters 1 chicken feeds 100 people and a banana would easily be enough for two dozen banana milkshakes. In the 1943 musical movie The Gang’s All Here, Berkeley underlines his abundance-sensitivity in the iconic choreography for The lady in the tutti frutti hat. Performed by Carmina Miranda, the song and choreography features 40 dancers carrying as many giant bananas pointing towards an abundant future. If we shrink. There’s an honesty in Berkeley’s need to go over the top, a choreography of deeply embedded desire, that may teach us something about the desire we carry within ourselves.

  • Share/Bookmark

Bumblebee Mega-Small

A study by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México explored the effects of food availability on the colony and body size of 21 bumblebee taxa. Not surprisingly according to the study, the size of a colony is a direct result of food availability. The more food, the larger the colony. A similar relationship can be found almost universally between individual body size and food availability. The more food is available to an individual, the taller he or she grows. However, put together, this does not automatically lead to larger individuals within larger communities. On the contrary, the bumblebee study shows a negative relationship between colony size and the size of the individual. The more food is initially available, the larger the colony, but the smaller the individual bumblebees. And that could be good news in relation to mankind and the size of our cities, that have dramatically increased in size over the last century.

The Incredible Shrinking Man investigates how to shrink the human species towards a state of resource and food abundance. Can we learn from bumblebee colonies how to accommodate an increasing number of citizens in our megacities while on the other hand reducing individual body size?

  • Share/Bookmark

Long Legs High Risk

Long legs beautiful? Perhaps, but according to a study presented at the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting  the long-legged have a 42 percent higher risk of developing bowel cancer.

Lead author of the study Guillaume Onyeaghala has two hypotheses that may explain the association. One idea is that because taller people have longer colons they have more chances to develop the condition. The other suggestion is that increased levels of growth hormones — which affect leg length in particular — are also the driving factor for colorectal cancer. The growth hormone IGF-1 is elevated during puberty, and has been shown to be a risk factor for colorectal cancers at high levels, the study said.  Onyeaghala looked at data on participants in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, a long-running cohort of more than 14,500 men and women. Specifically, the new study examined three aspects of the participants’ height: overall height, torso height and leg length. Researchers also looked at how many participants developed colorectal cancer over the nearly 20-year study period. The only factor that was linked to people’s colon cancer risk was their leg length; the researchers did not find a significant link between people’s overall height or torso height and their cancer risk, Onyeaghala said. The results support the hypothesis that the growth factors that drive bone growth in the legs are a risk factor for the disease.

  • Share/Bookmark

3rd Trimester Foetal Hunger

Perhaps pregnant women in their last trimester shouldn’t eat too much. In the winter of 1944/45 the Second World War resulted in a severe famine in the Netherlands. The Dutch survived on as little as 30% of their daily needed caloric intake. It is a well-defined group of individuals all of whom suffered just one period of malnutrition, all of them at the same time. And some of them were pregnant.

Because of good health-care infrastructure and record-keeping in the Netherlands analyses of health records allowed for a systematic comparison of the effects of fetal starvation. Depending on their time of conception the unborn babies were subject to different outcomes as a result of their malnourishment. Foetuses under 3 months old during the famine were likely to be born normal size, having caught up with typical developments. Yet later in life many of these individuals developed high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Contrary to this group the unborn babies between 6 and 9 months old during the Dutch Hunger Winter who had been well nourished up until the last few months of gestation, were born small and generally remained so for the rest of their lives. They also did not develop higher rates of obesity or disease. Even more extraordinarily some of these effects are present in the grandchildren of the women who were malnour­ished. And even their children still showed shrink effects.

Well-Controlled 3rd trimester foetal dieting may very well be a first step towards a shorter and perhaps even healthier human species.

  • Share/Bookmark

Small-Bodied Survivor

Ever since 2004 when several remains of a 50.000 year old tiny bodied human species were excavated, the Indonesian island of  Flores and its ancient population have been in the centre of paleontologists attention. Homo floresiensis as it was named inspired a lively and sometimes heated debate about smallness and the human species. Who was this very very small human? How long had it been around? How did it get to be so small? And where did it come from?

Now, at a 700.000 year old site called Mata Menge, researchers have found strong evidence that the ancestors of Homo floresiensis were indeed a group of Homo erectus that came to Flores one million years ago, possibly following a tsunami or other major disaster. Interestingly they then became subject to a much more rapid process of insular dwarfism then had previously been suggested. In the course of just 300.000 years since first appearing on Flores the hominin lost 1/3rd of its height. This is up to 500.000 years faster then previously suggested.  So, for at least 700.000 years the tiny species roamed the island of Flores, long before Homo sapiens even existed. Adam Brumm at Griffith University in Queensland, who co-led the excavations together with Gert van den Bergh of the University of Wollongong, said: “The island is small and it has limited food resources and few predators, other than komodo dragons, so large-bodied mammals that wound up on this rock would have been under immediate selective pressure to reduce their body mass. Being big is no longer an advantage when you’re trying to survive in such an isolated and challenging environment.”

  • Share/Bookmark

Body Inflation

Skol blowfish people

Body inflation is the practice of inflating or pretending to inflate a part of one’s body. It is commonly done by inserting balloons underneath clothes and then inflating them. Some people have specially made inflatable suits made from latex rubber to make themselves bigger all over. Others explore this fantasy through animation, cartoons or manipulated photography.  Sexual gratification is one of the most common reasons for this practise. In our series on Abundance Fantasies we explore how a deeply rooted desire for abundance manifests itself in our vocabulary, our myths and legends, and our behaviour. If we are to deflate society’s obsession with more, bigger and larger, we first need to understand what inspires this obsession, even if it comes out in obscure and playful ways such as body inflation.

One might argue that body inflation is a more direct and honest translation of the growth obsession that is so much part of how most of humanity expresses itself these days.

  • Share/Bookmark

Royal (Feynmann) Antelope

The royal antelope is the smallest member of the deer family. It stands only 25cm tall and weighs a mere 3kg. It is closer in size to a pet rabbit than to other antelopes. Its evolution may have been the result of dietary strategy. Antelopes are herbivores, and each species tends to eat specific types of foliage. A single tree can feed any number of antelope, as each different height lets each species eat leaves in its own range. The ancestors of royal antelopes ate lower leaves, and due to competition from other small antelopes eating leaves at the same level, it gradually evolved to become the incredibly tiny animal it is today.

The tiny deer is mentioned in the Micro-livestock report as a possible animal for game farming in eastern and southern Africa. The large uninhabited expanses of land here are difficult for farming. However, the royal antelope has some advantages over regular cattle and larger species of deer such as higher turn-over, resistance to many local diseases and a preference for other and more varied grasses and foliage than bigger species. They also affect the habitat less then cattle because they spread out more while feeding and therefor cause less erosion. The report states: “Antelope farming is not a panacea for Africa’s food problems but it might pave the way to a new and more gentle way to make savannas useful.”  Instead of destroying the natural habitat to enforce big animals to feed ourselves, local farmers might allow nature to thrive while still creating food security.

  • Share/Bookmark

Red Knot Migration

Reductions in body size in various animals are increasingly being identified as a response to climate warming. It’s not surprising, as early as the mid 19th century biologists observed that animals in warmer condition often tended to be smaller. The principle was formulated as Bergmann’s Rule. It is is an ecogeographic principle that states that within a taxonomic clade, populations and species of larger size are found in colder environments, and species of smaller size are found in warmer regions.

There have been examples of fish, horses, crustaceans, birds and even the human brain becoming smaller as the environment warms up. A new investigation by Jan Gils et al. of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research presents an interesting new case of the migratory red knot bird. Migratory animals have adapted to life in multiple, often very different environments. They spend their summers far away from their wintering grounds. Possibly this makes them more able to adjust to changing environmental situations. However, the paper suggests the complexity of their existence also makes them more vulnerable for changed circumstances. Seasonal migrants can experience reduced fitness at one end of their range as a result of a changing climate at the other end. Juvenile red knots stay smaller because global warming causes there to be less food available in their Arctic breeding grounds. Later, upon arrival in their tropical wintering grounds the resulting smaller, short-billed birds have difficulty reaching their major food source, deeply buried mollusks. In response the red knots have taken to eating shallowly buried seagrass rhizomes. This vegetarian switch, although forced by circumstance, is an interesting development. If the red knot manages to adept and survive it could inspire different human eating habits. A vegetarian diet is in many ways the much better option. The question is if we will adept before circumstances leave us with no choice?

  • Share/Bookmark

Shrink Agents

It’s not easy for an individual human being, nor for the human species in general, to embrace the radical change implied in an existence as a smaller being. Growth, it seems, is the rhythm of life. But not for all life. Fortunately there are species of animals and plants that go against the tide and embody some of the shrink values we would like to develop within the human community. Through a process of interspecial learning these specific growth antagonists may be able to ‘teach’ us how to appropriate some of their qualities and abilities. Or perhaps our increased ability to manipulate and exchange genetic information will allow us to physically import the embodied shrink desires of other species. Could it inspire a preference for smaller partners in women, like in the pygmy squid female? What if people were able to shrink up to 20% of their regular body size in times of food scarcity like the marine iguanas of the Galapagos? What if we could adopt the bonsai tree’s ability to arrest growth through hormonal self-therapy as well as their potential for extremely long, if not eternal, life? Such ideas may seem radical. On the other hand perhaps the first and most important step is the understanding that smallness has amazing potential for an equally, if not more, satisfying and fulfilling life.

  • Share/Bookmark