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. 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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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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