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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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 why do archaic confrontational outcomes still determine 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’. 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 clears the space for the bigger individual to take center stage. To a large extent this makes the smaller individual 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, small people should seek dominance.

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