The Tall Dutch

The Dutch are the tallest people in the world: its women stand almost 1.71 metres (5.6 feet) tall, and its men 1.84 metres. But how the Dutch became the world’s tallest people is still debated. The Incredible Shrinking Man has speculated that the arrival of the industrial production of cheese in the mid 19th century may have initiated the growth spurt. But food alone cannot explain all of the 20 cm we’ve grown over the past 150 years. By comparison, the height of the average American man only rose 6 centimetres over the same period. Now a Dutch scientist, Gert Stulp, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that tall Dutch men have more children than average or shorter men.

Stulp searched the public record LifeLines for clues. It contains details about the lives and health of more than 94,500 people who lived in the Netherlands from 1935 to 1967. In this 30 year snapshot, the people who had the most children were tall men, and women of average height. The most fertile men were 7 centimetres above the average height. Statistically, they had 0.24 more children than the least fertile men, who were about 14 cm below the average height. Compared to counterparts in other countries where they often tended to have fewer children, taller women also reproduced more in the Netherlands. The study concludes that natural selection must have played a part: with time, more and more Dutch had ‘tall’ genes. “Height is very heritable – taller parents tend to have somewhat taller children than shorter parents,” Stulp said. “Because taller individuals would have more offspring in the next generation who would be taller, the average height in that generation would be a bit taller on average than the preceding generation, if all else is equal.”

We knew that. However, Stump’s most interesting observation is that there seems to be a cultural preference as well. Dutch people seem to love tallness even more than others. He points to figures showing that, in the United States, it is shorter women and men of average height that have the most reproductive success. Now all we need to learn is how to reprogram the Dutch preference for tall. Perhaps it helps to know that each additional cm in height above 153 cm’s takes about 6 months of your average life expectancy.

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The Cell Cycle: Détente

The Cell Cycle is a new series of articles on the mechanisms and substances that regulate cell growth. The contemporary cell climate is one of constant biological and cultural high pressure to grow, to proliferate, to expand and conquer. The Incredible Shrinking Man wants to investigate how to relax and reverse this climate.

In order to grow, organisms produce cells. To do so it duplicates cells in a proces called the cell-division cycle.  This cycle is the series of events that take place in a cell leading to the production of two daughter cells. The cell cycle can be divided into four periods. 1.Gap Zero is a resting phase where the cell has left the cycle, stopped dividing and goes into a state of quiescence. 2.During interphase the cell grows, accumulating nutrients needed for mitosis preparing for cell division and duplication of its DNA. 3.In the mitotic phase the cell splits itself into two distinct daughter cells. 4.During the final stage, cytokinesis, the new cell is completely divided. The organism is now bigger. But how do we avoid unwanted growth? How do we stimulate cells to grow within certain limits but not beyond? How can we slow down the cycle if this is beneficial to the organism? How do we start to become The Incredible Shrinking Man?

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We are the Model Organism

The Incredible Shrinking Man has a keen interest in the scientific culture of model organisms. A model organism is a species that is extensively studied to understand particular biological phenomena, with the expectation that discoveries made in the organism model will provide insight into the workings of other organisms. This strategy is made possible by the common descent of all living organisms, and the conservation of metabolic and developmental pathways and genetic material over the course of evolution. Most of our knowledge is based on the reduction of complex issues to something simpler yet understandable. We subsequently explain our complex reality from this simplified point of view. We evolve from complexity to simplicity and back again. Without speaking out for or against this very specific method we can safely say that, especially western, knowledge has its fundament in reduction. We shrink to learn. We are the model organism.

a. Most model organism’s DNA is  90% (or more) the same as ours. This means that looking at a small model organism is much like looking into a genetic funhouse mirror in which much of what we see is distorted yet recognisable. Looking at a zebrafish reminds us of the fish in ourselves, and perhaps even of the many tiny homunculi that have preceded us.

b. Research on model organism has proven to be a very successful way to generate knowledge on complex issues involving the human body. Many of the things we know about what influences size is the direct result of research in much smaller and ’simpler’ organisms such as nematodes, fruitflies, zebrafish and knock out mice. Their small-size DNA is inside us too.

c. Most often model organisms are literally very small animals and therefor a physical representation on our desire for a smaller size. Perhaps ‘hanging out’ with model organisms makes us more susceptible to the desire to shrink. We are social creatures after all and when we realise these animals are like us we may want to be more like them (although this is far fetched there’s probably no harm in leaving this possibility open for the time being).

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The Short Date Paradox

The Incredible Shrinking Man has advocated the idea that it would be a positive thing if more women feel attracted to shorter men, much in the same way most men feel attracted to shorter women. Eventually this would result in shorter offspring. But here’s the catch: If both men and women would be attracted to shorter partners than at least one is not satisfied. You can’t have it both ways. If women develop a desire for shorter men then in order to both be satisfied the guy would need to desire taller women. But if they would, the average size of people wouldn’t change because the advantages of women dating shorter guys would be neutralised by the shorter guys dating taller women (and subsequently some of those having taller children).

While we ponder the paradox let’s remind ourselves of the fact that the tales about tall men are tall tales indeed.

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Mandragora

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The Incredible shrinking Man desires a more ecological human existence. We’ve outgrown our naturally given space on Earth and are starting to experience the consequences, or even consider exit strategies. But rather than fantasising about a departure from the planet that designed us, we investigate the possibilities to retrofit humanity back into Earth’s future plans. In this quest we’ve been inspired more than once by other than human species, like the pygmy squid, the Pseudis paradoxa or any of the many other dwarf species we’ve listed in the Dwarf Zoo. But it is not just fauna that helps us reprogram our thinking. Often it’s flora as well. Plants have all sorts of interesting strategies to limit size if necessary or desirable. Like jasmonates, the phyto-hormones that keep bonsai trees from growing beyond the possibilities of a limited environment. Almost since the beginning of this investigation we’ve tried to envision a man that understands the bonsai tree, perhaps even better then himself. We’ve wanted to carve out a space where man, flora and fauna re-merge into shared consciousness. A sort of mental mandragora.

The roots of the mandragora often look like a little man, even to those without any fantasy for such things. Combined with its hallucinogenic properties it was an obvious receptor for archetypical animistic beliefs and bestowed with fantastic properties. It has its modest place in folklore but not far beyond. Perhaps suggesting we consider the mandragora as a model for future man is still too intuitive, still too immature and part of some wishful thinking but we need to start investigating it more within the public eye. In the end this is obviously not be about a little man with branches for arms, or a walking and talking bonsai. It is about a shared consciousness that could allow us to find our rightful place in all of life. Can we look at a muddy root and learn something about ourselves?

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Minidampf Monorails

One of the most straightforward consequences of shrinking the human species is that most of our built environment would have to be re-designed. Our cities, production facilities, agriculture and transport systems would all need to be downsized to fit our down-sized needs. And some things can stay the way they are. 8000 passengers would fit into a regular sized Boeing 747, traffic jams would be a thing of the past, and railway track capacity will double, re-fitting them to facilitate minidampf monorail trains: one going on the left rail, and one on the right.

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The Simple Growth Obsession Test

We’re obsessed with growth. The Simple Growth Obsession Test is a simple test to check for yourself how much growth and our deeply embedded sensitivity for signs of growth create an emotional response when confronted with signs of its absence or presence. The test itself is a simple animation of an arrow going up alternating with an arrow going down. Click HERE to do the test. Even without providing a context for the arrow most people respond positively to the arrow facing upward and register a negative response when the arrow points down. Although it is just an arrow, a graphic rendition of direction, it connects to a complex variety of mental and physical sensors, programmed either culturally, genetically or epigenetically, to be repulsed by the earthbound direction, and delighted by the skybound one. The Incredible Shrinking Man wants to intimately know and understand what constitutes and drives this response and how it ultimately determines behaviour.

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700 Genetic Factors (for now)

Since 2007 researchers of the Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (GIANT) consortium are quickly uncovering the polygenic traits that influence human height.  Recently they analysed data from the genomes of another 253,288 subjects and were able to identify 697 gene variants, the pieces of DNA that vary from person to person, in 424 gene regions as related to height. The variants were enriched for genes, pathways and tissue types known to be involved in growth and together implicated genes and pathways not highlighted in earlier efforts, such as signaling by fibroblast growth factors, WNT/β-catenin and chondroitin sulfate–related genes. They identified several genes and pathways not previously connected with human skeletal growth, including mTOR, OGN and binding of hyaluronan. The results indicate a genetic architecture for human height that is characterized by a very large but finite number (several thousands) of causal variants.  Soon we’ll have a map of all genes related to height, at which point it’s possible to learn how these genes express themselves under different circumstances.

If we know how we grow, we’ll know how to shrink.

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Abundance Fantasies: Fish Story

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 cultural artefacts. The question is how we can activate these cultural pathways to initiate the desire to become smaller, because when we become smaller we shrink into abundance. In this post we discuss fish stories.

Fish stories are called fish stories because they relate to the tendency of anglers to exaggerate the size of their catch: “That fish was so big, why I tell ya’, it nearly sank the boat when I pulled it in!” In most cases the listener is aware that the claim made in such stories is a little, or a lot, besides the truth. Most often such conversations turn into a friendly argument about the truth of the claim. But truth is besides the point here. What a fish story really expresses is a deeply rooted desire for abundance, or its fictive possibility. We all want to catch the big fish, or at least imagine it’s out there. In fish stories we pull ourselves from the perilous swamp of life and dream of heroic feats of control and ability to provide for ourselves and others, much Like Baron von Münchausen did. Unfortunately in reality stories about catching enormous fish are further from the truth than ever. Not only is there much less fish in the ocean because of overfishing but global warming causes the fish to get smaller. Unless we shrink the human species to 50cm: in that case almost every caught fish will be a fish worth bragging about and we’ll all be heroic fishermen.

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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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