Our Vegetarian Sunfish

Brian Langerhans and Thomas deWitt of the department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at Texas A&M University examined the specificity with which freshwater snails use environmental cues to induce defensive phenotypes such as shrinking. In one environment they introduced a molluscivorous sunfishspecies. In the other a non-molluscivorous, plant-eating, sunfish . Perhaps surprisingly snails in both environments developed predator avoidance behaviour, either by developing more rotund shells that are harder to crack, or by becoming smaller, making it more difficult for the sunfish to hunt them.

Apparently for freshwater snails a reduction in size can also be induced without exposure to real danger. But people are not snails. Who or what is our vegetarian sunfish? Is there a friendly danger signal to help us shrink before the real collapse of the ecosystem?

  • Share/Bookmark

The Long Tail of the Human Genome

If the human species embraces a desire to become smaller, as it embraced the desire to become taller in the past and present, then it is of some interest to know how fast this desire could influence human size and if desire alone is enough. How fast would evolution respond to a smaller-sized ideal? Will we be able to downsize fast enough that it will have a profound positive effect on man’s ecological footprint?

The work of the evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant on Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos islands shows that natural selection can be a surprisingly speedy process. The average beak size of Medium and Small Ground Finches on the island of Daphne Major changes almost from year to year in relation to the available food sources. Bigger beaks win in times of drought while smaller beaks win during wetter times. Beak size sort of jojo’s up and down showing evolution is not necessarily a lineair process. In fact it quite often moves back and forth between known phenotypes. It is one of life’s many ways to deal with changing circumstances. The human species, it would seem, has moved towards the taller type long enough. Perhaps it is time to return to any of the other much smaller expressions still available on the long tail of the human genome.

  • Share/Bookmark

Top 5 Shrinking Superheroes

#5 Shrinking Violet (Salu Digby):  Violet is from the planet Imsk. Originally, she could only shrink down to subatomic sizes, if necessary. Later she is able to grow to giant sizes as well.

#4 The Atom (Ray Palmer): Dr. Raymond Palmer is a physicist and professor specializing in matter compression as a means to fight overpopulation, famine and other world problems. Using white dwarf star matter he finds after it lands on Earth, Palmer fashions a lens that enables him to shrink any object to any degree he wishes.

#3 Wasp (Janet van Dyne): She is usually depicted as having the ability to shrink to a height of several centimeters, fly by means of insectoid wings, and fire bioelectric energy blasts.

#2 Doll Man (Darrel Dane):  Doll Man is the first comic book superhero with a shrinking power. “The World’s Mightiest Mite,” is research chemist Darrel Dane, who invents a formula that enables him to shrink to the height of six inches while retaining the full strength of his normal size.

#1 Ant-Man (Hank Pym): Dr. Henry Pym is the original iteration of Ant-Man and married to the afore mentioned Janet van Dyne. Biochemist Dr. Henry “Hank” Pym discovers an unusual set of subatomic particles he labels “Pym particles“. Entrapping these within two separate serums, he creates a size-altering formula and a reversal formula, testing them on himself.

  • Share/Bookmark

Degrowth: Down to the Kohr

Leopold Kohr was an economist and political scientist known for his opposition to the “cult of bigness” in social organisation and the inspiration for Fritz Schumacher’s iconic publication Small is beautiful and the Degrowth movement. Here are two quotes from his 1951 book The Breakdown of Nations.

On BIG: “Wherever something is wrong, something is too big. If the stars in the sky or the atoms of uranium disintegrate in spontaneous explosion, it is not because their substance has lost its balance. It is because matter has attempted to expand beyond the impassable barriers set to every accumulation. Their mass has become too big. If the human body becomes diseased, it is, as in cancer, because a cell, or group of cells, has begun to outgrow its allotted narrow limits.”

On SMALL: “Smallness is not an accidental whim of creation. It fulfils a most profound purpose. It is the basis of stability and duration, of a graceful harmonious existence that needs no master. For little bodies, countless in number and forever moving, forever rearrange themselves in the incalculable pattern of a mobile balance whose function in a dynamic universe is to create orderly systems and organisms without the necessity of interfering with the anarchic freedom of movement granted to their component particles.”

  • Share/Bookmark

The Economics of Robert Wadlow

With a height of 272 cm the American citizen Robert Wadlow was the tallest person who ever lived. Wallow had become so tall and heavy that he needed braces to walk and his limbs had became slightly insensitive. When one of the braces gave him a blister and it got infected it killed him. His body had become so tall that it was unable to organise enough energy to fight his infection. There’s a tragic connection between Wadlow’s condition and our current economic system. Debora MacKenzie writes: “It appears that once a society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile. Eventually, it reaches a point at which even a relatively minor disturbance can bring everything crashing down. To keep growing, societies must keep solving problems as they arise. Yet each problem solved means more complexity.”

  • Share/Bookmark

Bigger Before Better

A common leadership philosophy in business is to get better before you get bigger.  With evolution it doesn’t work that way. Evolution doesn’t plan ahead. If it would, the human body would certainly not be getting taller in a world of dwindling resources. Evolution is purely a trial and error process, but it does allow to take knowledge from the past into the future. Quite possibly beings learn something in times of physical growth that is beneficial for times of shrinkage. Sometimes things need to become bigger before they get better, which in our vision primarily means smaller but at least just as good.

Present tall human size may in fact create the embodied knowledge for a future smaller sized human species. For dinosaurs to evolve into birds they first grew big, and then shrunk. Sometimes BIG  initiates developments unimaginable if things had remained SMALL. An increase in size leads to a different set of challenges and solutions. But SMALL can still benefit. Birds might not have come into existence if it were not for the increased strength and greater lightness in bone structures of tall dinosaurs, eventually enabling birds to fly. Man is at its tallest size ever, and some believe we can’t or at least shouldn’t get taller than this. But before we shrink to a more practical size, what have we learned from being this tall?  Stronger bone structure? A more efficient metabolism? Another embodied perspective on time and space? An understanding of the interconnectedness of all life?

  • Share/Bookmark

KancerCel: Dialogues on Malignant Growth

The Incredible Shrinking Man is interested in the relationship between cancer and our society’s obsession with growth. To connect the desire for less with the necessity to overcome our desire for more Arne Hendriks is developing KankerCel (CancerCell). KankerCel merges the languages of cancer research and economics in search of a new vocabulary that is more resilient against our obsession with growth. KankerCel is supported by Zero Footprint Campus and the Utrecht Science Park.

  • 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