The Devil’s Dwarfs

During WWI the British Army made it perfectly clear that no man under the height of 160cm (5 ft 3 inches) was deemed strong enough to fight and serve their country. But as the war dragged into the second year, with the enormous losses in men’s lives and a growing understanding that this would not be an easy win, the 160cm height barrier suddenly became a lot less absolute. In fact the deteriorating circumstances drastically changed the official army standpoint as they asked the famous physiologist Marcus Seymour Pembrey to investigate the virtue of shorter soldiers. Permbrey soon enough declared that “The short man, in nearly every respect, made a better soldier than his taller comrades” Among the list of positives for the enlistment of small men in the army he suggested that: “The short man has a smaller weight of body to carry and the weight of his clothing and equipment is less; he is lighter upon horse; he does not require so deep a trench, and offers a smaller target to the enemy.” As a direct result the 1st Birkenhead Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment was created, consisting entirely of men that only one year before were deemed too weak to fight. Over 50,000 British and Canadian soldiers signed up. They arrived ready for battle after their own personal fight just to be allowed to serve their country. In the end the regiment, nicknamed the Devil’s Dwarfs, fought in some of the toughest battles of WWI.

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The Cell Cycle: Gap Zero

The Cell Cycle is a 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.

There is actually a long period in the life of a cell when it doesn’t seem concerned with growing at all. We call this time the interphase, the ’living’ phase of the cell in which it basically performs the functions it was designed for. At some point however, within this state of equilibrium, most cells will start to express the desire to duplicate. It starts to hamster nutrients, grows in size, reads its DNA, and eventually starts the process of mitosis. The cell reaches within itself, doubles up, and man has grown yet a little bit taller. The Incredible Shrinking Man beliefs most of the excess growth of the last 150 years has been unnecessary. It just adds weight and height but not to health or functionality. We need to calm our cells down. If we look at the interphase in more detail it becomes apparent that even during its living phase the cell is already making all the necessary preparations for its division, and therefor is already part of the growth paradigm. However for most cells there’s also a time, albeit much shorter, that nothing seems to happen at all. This period is called Gap Zero, and perhaps some possibilities towards relaxing our biologically programmed desire to grow ever taller can be found there. Cells enter the Gap Zero phase in response to a lack of growth factors or nutrients. During the phase, the cell cycle machinery is dismantled and cyclins and cyclin-dependent kinases disappear. Cells then remain in the Gap Zero phase until there is a reason for them to divide such as the repair of damaged tissue (good) or in response to that obsessive desire, expressed in a myriad of hormonal growth protagonists, to grow beyond what it good for us.

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Social Kogao Chins

A Japanese company for beauty products has developed masks to reduce the size of your face. The inside of the mask is laced with the metal germanium and generates heat on the skin surface to make you sweat out excess moisture. The existence of this product, no doubt condemned to end up in that unholy realm of unused stuff under the bed, in itself perhaps signifies no more than an understanding that small is beautiful. However Nathan Holton, a post doctoral researcher who studies craniofacial features at the University of Iowa, published a paper in the Journal of Anatomy that shows the desire for small faces has been deeply embedded within our genes for at least 20.000 years. And the proof is in our chin.

Co-author Robert Fanciscus explains that as humans migrated from Africa 20,000 years ago and settled down into societies, males had to become less competitive and more cooperative—giving an advantage to those with lower testosterone levels and a less violent nature. Modern humans evolved from hunter-gatherer groups that were rather isolated from each other to increasingly cooperative groups that formed social networks across the landscape. As it turned out this reduced testosterone level also softened and shrank the craniofacial structure. In other words, while we became more social, the modern human head and face became smaller and our chins emerged. Since we’ve grown to love our strong chin lines so much it makes you wonder what other loveable qualities further shrinking the human species will create.

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The Turkish Seat

The Turkish Seat, also known as the Sella Turcica, forms a bony throne for one of the most important protagonists in our ambitious desire for a smaller human species: the pituitary gland. It is here within the deepest part of the cavity (called the hypophysial fossa) above the Turkish Seat that this small gland, the size of a fingertip, synthesises growth hormone. Sella Turcica is part of the sphenoid bone towards the front middle of the skull, a few centimeters behind the eyes, where it seems to direct our gaze towards the ever larger. The sphenoid bone somewhat resembles a 3d printed Rorschach test reminding us that this obsession with growth is something we’ll need to overcome, if we are to truly grow as a species.

It’s going too far to hold the Turkish Seat accountable for the destructive desires that it helps to accommodate, yet we cannot help fantasising about what would happen if we were to restrict the pituitary’s physical space. If we’d create a slightly smaller chair for all this productivity would things slow down? There’s something wonderfully odd in the idea of downsizing the seat for the actual engine that creates the seat: something self-fulfilling. Would pituitaries respond like fish in a small aquarium?

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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. 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.” 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. If we learn how to reprogram the Dutch then perhaps we can reprogram the world.

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The Cell Cycle: Détente

The Cell Cycle is a 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 is interested in the scientific culture of model organisms. A model organism is an animal species that is studied to understand particular biological phenomena, with the expectation that discoveries made in the organism model will provide insight into human biology. This research 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. 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. Most often model organisms are literally very small animals and therefor a physical representation on The Incredible Shrinking Man’s 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.

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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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