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, en we already are connected to the animal we can be in the future. The principle of common ancestry allows us to learn much 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.

Humanity has been quick to benefit from the quantification of genetic data of the model organism to overcome our inherited shortcomings 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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A Frog’s Patience

Bigger males, both human and animal, are generally more successful in attracting and being selected by females. But not in all species. The Incredible Shrinking Man seeks inspiration from those few species where females favour the small, like Agalychnis callidryas, the Red-eyed tree frog.

In most frog species females choose a mate during a lek mating chorus often lasting several days. Typically male frogs gather around the female and try to impress her  by calling out. Variation in acoustic characteristics is presumed to be important determinants in reproductive success and normally high energy calls are preferred. However, in the case of the red-eyed tree frog it is staying power more than anything else that gives males the edge. The females display enormous patience. After the first 24 hours of the mating ritual most of the taller loudmouthed males have left because they are hungry and tired. 36 to 48 hours later, the beta-males have left as well at which point only the smallest males continue to still compete for the female attention. Smaller males expand far less energy which allows them to participate in the lekking longer. At this point, well over 2 days after the whole thing began, the female makes her choice. The females are seduced by stamina and perseverance, not brute force. One can imagine that climbing trees is easier for the small males. Although existing formats such as these cannot be translated directly into human practise, mating behaviour in Homo sapiens is not fixed. The introduction of religious, political and economic systems and their subsequent social consequences has changed how we choose a partner. Our mating rituals and attraction values depend at least as much on cultural developments as it does on the laws of nature. Under certain circumstances small frogs and other pygmy animal species might just show us a way out of our growth obsessed mating behaviour.

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Japanese Miniatures: Cat Maximisation

Our series of Japanese Miniatures investigates the specific Japanese sensitivity for small as expressed in their love for things like bonsai, sushi, netsuke, and capsule hotels. Japan ‘knows’ things about shrinking that may help the human species embrace the desire for, or overcome hurdles to, becoming smaller.

Cat maximisation, through furniture miniaturisation, merges the internet’s love for cats with the mini-furniture-making skills of Japanese artisans. The result hovers somewhere between a nightmare and a dream. People regularly express future fear of the cat when confronted with the idea of shrinking the human species. Seeing normal-sized cats on top of shrunk sofas creates a spectacle reminiscent of the 1957 science fiction film The Incredible Shrinking Man in which, after being exposed to a cloud of radioactive particles and pesticides, the protagonist in the film, Scott Carey, starts to shrink. Eventually he lives in a doll house when in a rather terrifying scene his cat named Butch, hunts Carey down. Yet cat maximisation is not just about fear and horror. On the contrary, the relatively friendly visualisations may also create a mental preparation space for a possible future of co-existence between man and pet. And we’re not sure who’ll benefit from this exercise the most. Let’s not forget, even at a considerable smaller size the human species is still the most ferocious predator on the planet. It’s probably not man who should be afraid once we start shrinking. Just ask tigers.

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Cumulative Default Yielding Response

People continue to grow taller despite the fact that physical dominance is no longer an evident evolutionary advantage and is not very cost-effective. Archaic biological systems have been replaced by confused growth-obsessed cultural values. Despite the evidence that in Western societies being tall continues to be positively related to social status in both men and women, the proximate mechanisms underpinning this phenomenon remain relatively obscure. According to Gert Stulp one potential explanation is that taller individuals are more likely to win a dyadic confrontation with a competitor. In the old days the big bully would get his way. But how did archaic confrontational outcomes turn into widespread contemporary social behaviour where all actors, big and small, continue to play outdated roles. Dominance in the animal kingdom is defined as ‘an attribute of the pattern of repeated, agonistic interactions between two individuals, characterized by a consistent outcome in favour of the same dyad member and a default yielding response of its opponent rather than escalation’. The form and function of such confrontations can be as diverse as the society in which they occur. Although the advantage of winning one confrontation may be small, the cumulative effect of many such advantages creates a default response that facilitates their further rise. Rather then seek confrontation the smaller individual already moves out of the way. They clear the space for the bigger individual to take center stage and are, to a large extent, responsible for the perception of tallness as a success-formula since they are the ones facilitating their ascend rather then the tall having to compete for it. Height-dependent perceptions only contribute to greater dominance of taller individuals if shorter individuals act on their perceptions, and treat those who are taller as more competent, authoritative, and dominant than they are. So they shouldn’t, because they aren’t. In fact, if we agree that a smaller human species is preferred, it’s time men, both big and small, redesign their default behaviour.

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Kuhnian Shift

According to Thomas Kuhn when enough significant anomalies have accrued against a current paradigm, the scientific discipline is thrown into a state of crisis. During this crisis, new ideas, perhaps ones previously discarded, are tried. Eventually a new paradigm is formed, which gains its own new followers, and an intellectual “battle” takes place between the followers of the new paradigm and the hold-outs of the old paradigm.

Currently, one of the most destructive paradigms is that in order to make up for the scarcity our economic system creates we have to produce more. Alternatively, The Incredible Shrinking Man proposes to think of ways to shrink towards abundance. Since 2010 we’ve investigated (and continue to investigate) how such a paradigm shift may be embraced without force. Max Planck said that ”a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” This may be so, but the question is if we have the time to wait for a new generation to value shrinking as much (or more) than growth, and if the new generation will indeed think so. On an evolutionary time-scale there is no doubt scarcity will lead to smaller less needy people. Yet the laws of evolution, powerful as they are, seem too slow. On the other hand Darwin’s Finches show that evolution is not a lineair process and embedded within the human species there probably exist several genetic recipes for smaller body types. Unfortunately in this scenario the process will only kick in when things already got very nasty. If we leave shrinking down to the laws of nature it will be far more violent and painful than if we allow a cultural shift. Let’s not forget that because of the laws of proportion the biggest advantages for the planet are in the first 10% to 20% reduction. Someone of 150cm weighs half of a person of 180cm. That, plus a 10 to 15 year longer life expectancy, increased relative strength, and a much larger planet to walk around on, among plenty of other things, might just push our desire in the right direction.

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Lodan Report: Private to Public

Kampung Lodan, Kerapu and Tongkol are 3 riverside villages situated in the north of Jakarta. Shrink-thinking is deeply embedded within the spirit of their people. We’ve visited the community to learn about some of the more practical sides of smaller.

When the inhabitants of the Ciliwung communities arrived in Jakarta in the 60’s and 70’s nobody wanted to live on the dirty, unhealthy river banks that flooded regularly. But the new arrivals had no choice and built their tiny homes right up to the river’s edge. Thirty perhaps forty years later the city governor decided that people could not live along the river because of safety and other reasons (mostly because by now the prices of land had risen considerably). He decided homes were not allowed within 5 meters of the water. The new policy creates an existential threat to the closely knit Ciliwung communities. Most of them were born along the Ciliwung. They work there and are reluctant to move to the new housing projects the government has made available. The inspiration is how they reacted. Rather than leave the communities in the 3 kampungs decided to ’shrink’ their homes by repositioning the front of their house 5 meters from the river’s edge. In the process they gave up more than half of their already small houses. As a result of this creative shrink gesture 5 meters of private space became public space. Public space to meet each other, public space to grow vegetables and fruits, public space to cook and do the dishes (as most inside kitchens became so small one could hardly move in them), and public space for strengthening a sense of community. When something shrinks, something grows.

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Shrink Exercises: A01 to A10

There are BIG things one can do to embrace the idea of shrinking, like finding a short partner, hormone therapy, or gently curbing the excess growth of your children by feeding them growth suppressing foods. And there are SMALL things you can do to embrace the idea of shrinking. Small things like standing next to a very tall person, or objectvisiting an Ames room, or gently folding and tearing paper in half. Folding a paper in half, tearing it, then folding and tearing it in half again, and then again until a satisfactory reduction in size has been accomplished embodies notions of scale, of direction, of materiality, and of time. If we consider contemporary man to be an A1, then how far can we go? The Incredible Shrinking Man believes such exercises can open up a thought process that allows the embrace of unfamiliar concepts, like shrinking the human species.

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Studio of Suspended Disbelief

Whenever The Incredible Shrinking Man is invited to participate in a public event, such as an exhibition, festival or symposium, we simply pack up the research studio and relocate the investigation to the new space. There we continue reading, writing, discussing and creating new material to inspire the notion of a smaller human species. It’s research in progress, open to the public to engage in. Many of the insights into our relationship with body size were inspired by such coincidental meetings. Each studio setting is slightly different since the investigation continuous to move forward. However, it always contains a presentation of the general ideas, a collection of stories from the website, a library with books and papers, video’s, and objects and images to inspire both the researchers and the public. The public studio is primarily meant to initiate a paradigm shift regarding our species and contains several elements meant to disrupt understanding rather than illustrate what we think we already know. It requests of those that enter to suspend disbelief and to imagine how to embrace the idea of less and shrink towards a world of abundance.

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Trans-species Psychology

Trans-species psychology re-embeds humans within the larger matrix of the animal kingdom by erasing the notion that humans are substantively cognitively and emotionally different from other species. According to the ecologist/psychologist Gay A. Bradshaw, there is a common model of brain, mind and behaviour for humans and nonhuman animals that is conserved in evolution.

The new paradigm creates interesting new perspectives on the possibilities for interspecies learning. Where science has embraced and profited from the idea that all life is genetically similar, creating a multi-billion dollar model-organism industry and expanding our knowledge of the human genome, the notion of trans-species psychology is still in its infancy. But it could very well be this parallel embrace of the ’softer’ side of the fundamental wholeness of all life that brings important new insights in who we are as a species and how to rebalance our place on Earth. In the exploration of the possibilities to downsize the human species and especially how to inspire the intrinsic desire to do so, The Incredible Shrinking Man investigates a number of dwarf animal species such as the pygmy squid, the red-nosed tree frog and the burying beetle. Here survival strategies have created an interesting mating pattern with a female preference for smaller partners. Seen from the psychological framework of these small species perhaps unlocking such desire within Homo sapiens is not be as farfetched as one might at first presume.

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