Abundance Fantasies:Evangelical Carrots

In our series on Abundance Fantasies we explore how we can activate our deeply rooted desire for abundance, codified within our language, our myths and religions, to initiate the desire to shrink. There’s an unmistakable relationship between fundamental human desire for abundance and how this desire was appropriated and canonised within religious stories.

According to the Pew Research Center Guatemalans have the highest rate of believers that faith reaps success. In the small Guatemalan village of Almolonga the recruitment to become an evangelical christian and the promise of abundance go hand in hand. According to its mayor Siquiná Yac, Almolonga’s giant carrots are the manifestation and proof of the prosperity gospel that faith can bring material reward. God is in the carrot. Is humanity’s destructive relationship with abundance, defined by its readiness to sacrifice the longterm health of the planet, the result of the subconscious need for divine comfort?

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Side-tunneling

The small have strategies to ensure that their genetic knowledge on how to be small is preserved. Since smaller size within a species often means the individual lacks the physical strength to power their way into the female’s heart they need to outsmart the strong. Like the small dung beatles in research done by Douglas J. Emlen.

Dung beetles show enormous variation in body size and horn size. Large males grow large horns, while small males grow only rudimentary horns and sometimes no horns at all. One would think that having small or no horns gives a disadvantage in competing to find a mate. Yet reality is more poetic. Horned and hornless males turn out to have very different types of reproductive behavior. Females excavate tunnels beneath dung, where they feed, mate and lay eggs. Large, horned males guard the entrances to tunnels containing females where they fight with all other males that attempt to enter. While this show of testosterone is going on, small, hornless males dig new tunnels that intercepted the guarded tunnels below ground. Side-tunneling behavior allows sneaking males to enter tunnels beneath the guarding male, and mate with females undetected.

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The Makhunik Ceiling

There are strong indications, especially in local architecture, that 100 years ago the average resident of Makhunik in eastern Iran, measured just 100cm in height – some 50cm shorter than the average height at the time. Of the roughly 200 stone and clay houses that make up the ancient village, 70 or 80 are exceptionally low, ranging between 1.5 to 2m – with the ceilings of some as low as 140cm.

Growing crops and keeping animals has always been difficult in this dry, desolate region. Turnips, grain, barley and a date-like fruit called jujube constituted the only farming. People subsisted on simple vegetarian dishes such as kashk-beneh (made from whey and a type of pistachio that is grown in the mountains), and pokhteek (a mixture of dried whey and turnip). The Makhunik grew to the exact same height as Homo floresiensis, a dwarfed Homo erectus that underwent a process of insular dwarfism on Flores, Indonesia. Although the remote region around Makhunik is not an island, its isolated location made interaction with people from other villages very difficult. Genes inclined for small size didn’t travel far and local conditions stimulated these genes to be expressed as wondrously small people. Apart from pathological forms of dwarfism the people of Makhunik are the first and definitely the most recent example of a 100cm Homo sapiens. Perhaps it’s an indication of a genetically embedded ‘natural’ ceiling to how short we could become, once we create the right conditions.

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Fritz Quotes: Idolatry of Giantism

“What I wish to emphasise is the duality of the human requirement when it comes to the question of size: there is no single answer. For his different purposes man needs many different structures, both small one and large ones, some exclusieve and some comprehensive. Yet people find it most difficult to keep two seemingly opposite necessities of truth in their minds at the same time. They always tend to clamour for a final solution, as if in actual life there could ever be a final solution other than death. For constructive work, the principal task is always the restoration of some kind of balance. Today, we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism.”

Fritz Schumacher was an economic thinker and writer. His collection of essays titled “Small is beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered” is an important theoretical source in regards to the desire to shrink.

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The Dehnel Phenomenon

The Dehnel phenomenon, named after its discoverer, Polish zoologist August Dehnel, is the ability of certain species of animals such as shrews and weasels to shrink skull, bones and major organs in order to survive scarce food situations. Interestingly, they shrink in anticipation, before the actual scarcity arrives, unlike the Marine iguana of the Galapagos islands who shrink as a consequence of food scarcity during El Nino global warming events. A recent study of the Dehnel phenomenon in the Common shrew shows an average decrease in skull size of 15 to 20% during autumn, as well as the ability to regrow the skull in spring months by almost 10%, leaving the older adult with a slightly smaller head than juveniles.

Shrews live in seasonal environments with great differences in food availability but they are unable to hibernate or migrate to deal with winter scarcity. Shrews need to eat near-constantly to survive so being smaller means they need less food. “If you shrink an organ like the brain which is disproportionally more ‘expensive’ than other kinds of tissue you might save energy,” said Javier Lázaro, one of the authors of the study. An average decrease in body-mass of 19% leads to a winter reduction of 18.2% in a shrew’s absolute resting metabolic rate. According to his co-author Dina Dechmann:  “Normally, animals in colder zones are larger and have a good volume-to-surface ratio to compensate for heat losses. The shrew, on the other hand, has a low volume-to-surface ratio and could possibly save vital energy through shrinking”. Although exceptional “the phenomenon might be more common than we think”. It is unknown why the shrews brain case does not completely regrow in adults in the spring, or how exactly tissue is reabsorbed to generate the shrinkage, and what is driving the effect. Dechmann: “Currently, in collaboration with colleagues of a university hospital, we are looking at changes in the bone substance and observe reversible processes that are reminiscent of lesions in osteoporotic bones. The alterations of the brain and heart also underline medically interesting similarities”.

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Deaf Fish

A recent study shows that every second farmed salmon we eat is deaf resulting of a deformity in the ear, caused by accelerated growth in aquaculture. The study’s lead author, Ms Tormey Reimer, says when they went looking for the cause of the deformity they found that the fastest-growing fish were three times more likely to be afflicted than the slowest. “We also found that we could reduce the incidence of the deformity by reducing how fast a fish grew. Such a clear result was unprecedented,” says Ms Tormey, a masters graduate from the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne.

The deformity occurs in the otoliths, tiny crystals in a fish’s inner ear that detect sound, much like the ear bones in humans. So even a small change can cause massive hearing problems. Normal otoliths are made of the mineral aragonite, but deformed otoliths are partly made of vaterite which is lighter, larger, and less stable. The team found that vaterite was seemingly caused by a combination of genetics, diet and exposure to extended daylight (since fish only eat and grow during the day, many farms expose their stock to bright lights 24 hours a day). However, there was one factor that linked them all: growth rate. As in people and farm animals, growing fast often means growing too fast. Small is not only more beautiful, it also hears better.

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Transient Dwarfism of Soil Fauna

It’s been well established that rising temperatures and CO2 levels in the environment tends to decrease animal size. But what about the keystone species and ecosystem engineers that make soil? Although there’s not been much contemporary research into this the fossil record allows us to presume upon the future of soil fauna. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) is the best analog for contemporary global warming since they share similar magnitudes and rates of CO2 and temperature increases. Soil organisms, as recorded by trace fossils in the Willwood Formation in Wyoming, show significant body-size reductions as well as an increased abundance during the PETM. Burrow diameters of the most trace fossils in soils are 30-46% smaller. As burrow size is a proxy for body size, significantly dwellings suggest their tracemakers were smaller. This reduction in size may have resulted from higher subsurface temperatures, lower soil moisture conditions, or nutritionally deficient vegetation in the high-CO(2) atmosphere inferred for the PETM. As body size reduced, population and soil production activity increased. Can worms be proxies for people?

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Vechur A2 Milk

The Incredible Shrinking Man is not big on dairy because it promotes excess growth in the body. But we’ll make an exception for the milk of the tiny Vechur cow originating from the warm and humid climate of the state of Kerala in southern India. According to the locals it’s the specific environmental conditions that keep the cows so small. And it is not just the Vechur. Kerala has a remarkably high number of small native Indian cows including the Vadakara Dwarf, Punganur cattle, the Kasaragod Dwarf and the High Range Dwarf. One might consider it a local farmer’s speciality, born from local necessity. Small farmers in India do not always have the financial possibilities to maintain large cows. Smaller cows are less expensive to buy and maintain, a farmer with several small animals is less vulnerable to loss than a farmer with a single large animal, they give faster return on investment, and require cheaper facilities, among other things. The biggest thing least talked about is that these cows produce milk that does not, like regular cow milk, stimulate growth hormone production. In regular cow milk casein type A1 turns into caseomorphine, a substance known to stimulate the production of IGF-1 and growth hormone. Vector cow milk contains more casein A2 type, which is digested without turning into caseomorphine.

It’s hard to imagine that man’s deeply embedded obsession with the idea that bigger is better almost killed these amazing animals. In 1961 local Indian policymakers confused by the paradigms of growth and innovation created the ‘Kerala Livestock Improvement Act‘ that gave livestock inspectors the power to castrate bulls of what they deemed ‘inferior’ cow breeds and to replace them with larger European crossbreeds. This flowed mainly from the idea that higher milk yields, regardless of costs and consequences, were all that mattered. Perhaps such practises and abundance fantasies were also related to the bovine deity Kamadhenu. Not surprisingly it came at considerable costs in terms of money for food, facilities and medicine to maintain health of the larger non-indigenous cows. For small farmers it became impossible to keep a cow, depriving their families of much needed protein and income. Most small Indian cow species were pushed to the brink of extinction. However, nowadays, in a reversal of fortune, the special and vital place for small cows is recognised and some small cow species are starting to thrive again. Perhaps they’ll turn out to be the preferred cows of our future, producing a milk without undesired growth effects, easier to keep and maintain, and cute.

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From Model Organism to Spirit Animal

Evolution is not just a process of change: it’s also a process of holding on to what works. When one species mutates into another, most of everything remains the same. We still are most of the animals we’ve been in the past, and we’re already connected to the animal we can be in the future. The principle of common ancestry allows us to learn much about the human genome through studying the DNA of kindred spirits like fruit flies, mice and zebrafish. We’re not that different from each other, animals and people.

To overcome our inherited shortcomings humanity has been quick to benefit from the quantification of genetic data of model organisms, yet we are reluctant to learn from its behaviour. Scientists working with model organisms are  less interested in what and how it eats, how it chooses a partner or how it organises other aspects of its life. And that’s a mistake. Human behaviour has much to re-learn from animal behaviour. Rather than being scientific models, representing a simplification of human reality, we should understand the model organism as a spirit animal that can show us a way out of our moral darkness. If we’re able to take this first step there’s no limit to the things we could learn: things like shrinking.

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Land Reclamation

It is certainly not a coincidence that the Dutch are known for their expertise in the process of land reclamation. They live surrounded by the sea and The Netherlands are a small country. Yet the most obvious reason for the Dutch desire to create new land is not discussed. The Dutch are the tallest people in the world, and therefor we live on the smallest planet, as was proven scientifically by the Karolinska Institutet in 2013. Land reclamation is the (sometimes subconscious) understanding that the human species is growing towards a situation of scarcity. And the Dutch, because of their size and thus embodied experience of a shrinking world, are more sensitive than others to this inescapable truth. Perhaps it is then also not a strange notion that The Incredible Shrinking Man research over the past 8 years was based in The Netherlands. Much like our Dutch colleagues from globally operating land reclamation companies like Royal Hastening, Boskalis and BAM International, we are interested in making the world bigger. But we intend to do so by becoming smaller.

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