Non hopping Kangaroo

When asked what defines a kangaroo, most people would probably say it’s the fact that they hop. Christine Janis of Brown University was studying a species of giant kangaroo, the Procoptodon goliah when it occurred to her that its weight of 240 kg, it’s bone structure and the fact that its spine showed signs of arthritis, probably meant that this kangaroo was unable to hop. Unlike its smaller cousins it probably walked in a bipedal motion on two hind legs, much like humans do.

When a species becomes larger, fundamental aspects such as metabolism, relative and absolute strength and locomotion change. When we take a look at the tallest people that ever lived one of the first things we notice apart from their towering height is that their movements, much like the giant kangaroo, are different from the movements of shorter members of the species. To a regular sized person these movements might look clumsy, slow and uncoordinated. People with acromegaly often need the assistance of canes, leg braces or other forms of support because their relative strength in relation to body weight has decreased so much that they can’t walk by themselves. Without support they’d have to crawl, perhaps sparking evolutionary processes that would transform us into an entirely new species. Throughout evolution size has often initiated such change. Is a kangaroo that doesn’t hop, still a kangaroo?

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Hara Hachi Bu


In the west we start a meal by saying  ”Have a nice dinner” or “Bon appetite”. We refer to the quality of the eating experience but never to the quantity. In contrast, on the Japansese island of Okinawa, they say “Hara Hachi Bu” which means “Eat until you’re only 80% full”. It wishes us to eat until we’re no longer hungry rather then eating until you can eat no more.

Hara Hachi Bu can be viewed as a culturally embedded manifestation of calorie restriction and the only known voluntary act of structurally eating less within an affluent situation. Its effects among elderly Okinawans are well known. They are healthier and get older then any other specific population. They’re also amongst the shortest populations, another reason why The Incredible shrinking Man is interested. Hara hachi bu, while related to the intake of food specifically, could well be translated into a universal principle of embracing scarcity. What if we’d stop wanting to fill up on everything, all the time? What benefits can be expected from doing with just 80% in general? Will it represent a first step towards shrinking?

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Savage Scale Models

In his structuralist anthropological study The Savage Mind Claude Lévi-Strauss writes: ” To understand a real object in its totality we always tend to work from its parts. Reduction in scale reverses this situation…in the case of scale models, in contrast to what happens when we try to understand an object or living creature of real dimensions, knowledge of the whole precedes knowledge of the parts.”

In regards to our undertaking of downsizing the human species to 50 cm these words regain a sense of urgency. Not because we regard a smaller human species as a scale model, but because the enormous benefits of the reduction in human size would create the possibility of seeing some of the consequences of human existence for our planet as a whole again, instead of being paralysed by the complexity of its parts. At 50 cm humanity would only need about 2 to 5% of the resources it needs now. Such reduction would completely all but neutralise the claim we have on the environment. Not only would we have all the renewable energy we’d need but there wouldn’t be much of a problem in the continuation of the use of fossil fuels since we’d emit CO2 into the atmosphere in such low quantities that reforestation rates would easily absorb all of it, and more. So although that living creature of real dimensions whom Lévi-Strauss mentions in the second part of this quote perhaps isn’t a scale model, it definitely is a model for scaling Earth’s challenges. The paradox being that a “knowledge of the whole” as Lévi-Strauss calls it, probably needs to precede the immense step it’ll take to actually decide to become smaller.

Thanks Ronald van Tienhoven.

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Females to Mars

Women in Mars.

Last year Kate Greene took part in a NASA-funded research project called HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation). It required that she and five other crewmembers live as astronauts on the surface of Mars. For four months they were cooped up in a geodesic dome on the side of the very Mars-like Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. The unsurprising result: it would be a lot more economic if we send smaller people to Mars. In fact Kate argues, they should be women, because women are smaller. The three female crew members in the Hawaii experiment expended less than half the calories of the three male crew members. During one week, the most metabolically active male burned an average of 3,450 calories per day, while the least metabolically active female expended 1,475 calories per day.

In the early 2000s, Alan Drysdale, a former systems analyst in advanced life support with NASA, was thinking about the problem of astronaut bodies. He turned to a NASA document on physiological metrics called STD-3001, Man-Systems Integration Standards, which details needs and effluents for a range of body types. Drysdale also found that most women need way less. Drysdale says his calculations suggest all things being equal, a female crew would launch for half the payload cost. “Small women haven’t been demonstrated to be appreciably dumber than big women or big men, so there’s no reason to choose larger people for a flight crew when it’s brain power you want,” says Drysdale. “The logical thing to do is to fly small women.”

The Incredible Shrinking Man believes it is even more logical to fly small people. Our previous work with Donald Platt suggests NASA is already in the know.

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Co-Ex Interface

When first confronted with the idea of a human species with an average height of 50cm, initially most people express their fear for cats and dogs and how our diminutive size might affect our relationship with them. The Incredible shrinking Man doesn’t deny that this may represent a risk, even if some animals could shrink along with us. Such primary response however shouldn’t disallow us to envision much more compelling possible scenarios for the future relationship between small man and animal. If we stick with fear we remain ignorant.

So let’s bypass fear for now and embrace possibility. Like this elderly lady does with her research puppet and squirrel feeder avatar. Her feeding, without any other goal but the joy of caring for another living being, allows us a glimpse of a possible future when man has become so short that our position in the natural order of life has changed radically and specific cultures of engaging with animals will have evolved. The relationship with other species, especially undomesticated ones, could become a matter of negotiation, education, play and wits more than institutionalised dominance and physical strength. Like a lion tamer, where man and animal form a fragile but exciting equilibrium. Such new co-existence, by default, allows for a more ecological understanding of the human species, and therefore a chance at a necessary understanding of our fragile existence on Earth itself.

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The Baby Illusion

Dr. Jordy Kaufman, senior researcher at the The Swinburne BabyLab, asked himself why many parents, after the birth of a second child report that their first child appears to grow suddenly and substantially larger? Is it simply because of the contrast that stems from the comparison of the older child to the new sibling or is there a more complex bio-psychological reason for this phenomenon? Kaufman hypothesized that parents are subject to a kind of ‘baby illusion’ under which they routinely misperceive their youngest child as smaller than he/she really is. Then, when a new baby is born, this illusion ceases and the parent sees, for the first time, the erstwhile youngest at its true size. No wonder they’re shocked. They routinely misperceive their youngest child as smaller than he or she truly is. To proof this, the researchers asked mothers to estimate the height of one of their children by marking a featureless wall. The outcome was that youngest-children’s heights were significantly underestimated by no less than an average of 7.5 cm while estimates on older children were right on the money. (+ o.4cm).

It’s possible that the “baby illusion” actually leads to better caregiving, Kaufman said, because a perception of baby-like features, such as cuteness or smaller size, helps parents prioritize care for the child who most needs it. Although the illusion of smallness is not what we’re after at The Incredible Shrinking Man, we do have an interest in the relationship between the perception of size and emotional attachment, for instance in the relationship between men and women.

Read the full REPORT for more information on the psychological reasons for the baby illusion.

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Desiccation Tolerance

Small people have more skin than tall people, in relation to body volume. With every 10% decrease in body height, body volume decreases with 27%, while skin surface decreases with only 19%. This means, among other things, that smaller humans dehydrate more rapidly. There’s more evaporation and less volume. In regards to shrinking the human species to an average size of 50 centimetres it may be of some interest to investigate how specific organisms deal with situations of desiccation by physiological or behavioural adaptations.

In man, a 7% fall in body weight caused by water loss is described as severe dehydration, while water depletion leading to a 15-20 % loss of body weight causes coma and death respectively. Certain animals however deal with such, and much more extreme levels of dehydration, easily by tolerating a larger proportion of overall water loss from the body. Their desiccation tolerance is aided by a specific sugar by the name of trehalose that enables them to retain the cellular structures necessary for life while they wait for a drop of rain. The sugar is thought to form a gel phase as cells dehydrate, which prevents disruption of internal cell-organelles, by effectively splinting them in position. Rehydration then allows normal cellular activity to be resumed without the major, lethal damage that would normally follow a dehydration/rehydration cycle. Among the animals performing this resurrection are waterbears, sea monkeys and the larvae of a small fly, Polypedilum vanderplanki, which can lose up to 97% of its watercontent and wake up after re-hydration without so much as a skirm. Although it is not our aim to introduce another speculative element to the already steep challenge of shrinking the human species it’s important to think of ways to limit the physical risks of becoming smaller, or at least embrace the new possibilities of such a future. If fruit-flies can be a our genetic body-double than certainly vanderplanki can.

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Small Fork Interface

Tiny cutlery can function as an effective shrink experience machine. Eating a normal sized meal with a small fork gives its user a real sense of abundance. Not only will the tiny fork interface prolong the time of having a meal, it also functions as a lense to perceive your food differently. Such utensils can be applied to temporarily upset and overcome the instinctive act of sizing things up with our body (as was proven by the Barbie Doll illusion) and for a moment feel an overwhelming enormity of food ingredients we’ve become familiar with. It’s zooming in without a magnifying glass.

Thanks Asia.

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Catch-Up Growth

Catch-up growth is the accelerated growth of an organism following a period of slowed development. Such slowing down is most often the result of environmental influences such as food scarcity, sudden changes in temperature, or other environmental stress factors. After the situation is normalised, growth not only returns but speeds up to compensate for lost time. The Incredible Shrinking Man is investigating specific environmental factors as strategies to reduce human height. Among these are calorie restriction and the modification of diet to include growth relaxers. If calming down growth during a certain period only results in the acceleration of growth afterwards it is important to know how to neutralise such effect.

Two hypotheses have been proposed to explain the mechanism : the neuroendocrine hypothesis, for which no persuasive experimental data have been produced, and the growth plate hypothesis, which cannot explain the increased growth rate observed in human catch-up growth. So it’s all still a bit of a mystery. And there’s good reason even beyond the desire to become smaller to investigate further. As any farmer will tell you in domestic animals compensatory growth is known to reduce lifespan. Now a new research paper titled ‘How boys grow determines how long they live‘, shows that the same health risks apply to people. Perhaps because of the body’s irrational focus on gaining height, other more important things get less attention, like making sure your organs, immune system and brain are well developed. In fact it makes you wonder if ‘normal’ growth hasn’t already been replaced by a permanent state of catch-up growth, speeding towards ever greater height and in the process compensating for … For what?

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FOXO3a

Recent studies have identified the FOXO3a (Forkhead Box 3a) transcription gene as an important regulator of morphological scaling. It’s a key regulatory gene in a nutrient- and energy-sensing biological pathway (insulin/IGF-1 signalling pathway),that is evolutionarily conserved from yeast to humans. FOXO3a anticipates food scarcity by slight alterations to its functionality with resultant phenotypic changes including increased insulin sensitivity, longer lifespan and most importantly, smaller body size. This highly conserved stress response increases an organism’s chance of survival because it needs less resources to sustain itself. A recent study by the University of Hawaii concluded that the G allele of the FOXO3a SNP rs2802292 (genotypes GG and GT) is associated with shorter stature as well as longevity. They are just ever so slight alterations in the genetic fabric yet have considerable impact. One of the authors of the paper,Dr. Willcox, stated that people with the “protective” version of the gene had double the odds of living to 100 — triple, if the person inherited that gene from both parents.

Interesting, yet the more important question is how much height reduction could be achieved if our desire for longevity makes us embrace FOXO3a SNP rs2802292.

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