Beyond Phlebotinum

Phlebotinum is the versatile substance or incomprehensible technology that causes an effect needed by a plot. It basically does everything except solve specific limits and dangers required by the plot. Without it, the story would grind to an abrupt halt. The problem with introducing plot fuel into speculations about downsizing the human species is that in doing so it reinforces the prejudice that shrinking our average size is unrealistic and can only be achieved in fairy tales and fantasy stories. It creates a certain blindness for the fact that proof of the real possibility of becoming smaller is everywhere. No need for shrink beams and magic potions. If we are to embrace becoming smaller as a species we must move beyond Phlebotinum, and realise that this is something that could and perhaps should be achieved for real.

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Kleiber’s Law

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Larger animals have relatively slower metabolisms than small ones. A mouse must eat about a third of its body mass every day not to starve whereas a human can survive on only 2%. The relationship follows a power law: basal metabolic rate (R) is proportional to the ¾ power of an animal’s mass (M). This relationship, the Kleiber Law, can be drawn as a straight line on a log-log plot. This relationship holds, from simple organisms to most complex ones, from microbes to whales and even forests, across 27 orders of magnitude in body mass. Small adults of one species respire more per unit of weight than large adults of another species because a larger fraction of their body mass consists of structure rather than reserve; structural mass involves maintenance costs, reserve mass does not.

Smaller people need considerably less calories than tall people, but perhaps not as much less as one would expect. An individual of 150cm in height needs approximately 23% less calories than a person of 180cm in height: still an extremely significant decrease.

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Hyperthermal Shrinking

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Global warming has the potential to shrink the human species. As we’ve discussed before mammals, and many species of birds and fish, shrink when the climate heats up. During the last two hyperthermals, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (55 million years ago) and the Eocene Thermal Maximum 2 (53 million years ago), temperatures rose as much as 8 degrees celsius. A 2013 study of ancient horses found that it caused mammal body size to decrease up to 30%.  The paper suggests a similar outcome is possible in response to human-caused climate change. Perhaps humanity is already in the process of creating a global shrink climate.

Gingerich, professor emeritus of earth sciences, evolutionary biology and anthropology at the University of Michigan said that “decreased body size seems to be a common evolutionary response” by mammals to extreme global warming events, known as hyperthermals, “and thus may be a predictable natural response for some lineages to future global warming.”. “Developing a better understanding of the relationship between mammalian body size change and greenhouse gas-induced global warming during the geological past may help us predict ecological changes that may occur in response to current changes in Earth’s climate”. After both hyperthermal events, body sizes of all mammals rebounded. Results have been confirmed in a 2017 study by the University of New Hampshire.

(In 2006, Gingerich proposed that mammalian dwarfing could be a response to the lower nutritional value of plants grown under elevated carbon dioxide levels. Under such conditions, plants grow quickly but are less nutritious than they would normally be. Animals eating such plants might adapt by becoming smaller over time.)

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Where is 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 species of molluscivorous sunfish. In the other a non-molluscivorous, plant-eating, sunfish. One species eats snails, the other doesn’t. Despite the lack of appetite in the latter species 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 be induced without being exposed to real danger. They just need to think they are. Unfortunately people are not snails. It seems fear for ecological collapse is not yet proving as good an incentive as is the unfounded fear of being eaten by a vegetarian fish. Who or what is our sunfish? Is there a friendly danger signal to help us shrink before the ecosystem collapses?

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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?

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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.

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