Rafting Monkeys

We know of only three species of pre-historic mammals that managed to cross the Atlantic ocean between Africa and South-America. One of them was the now extinct Ucayalipithecus monkey about 35 million years ago. The other species of “immigrant” mammals were New World Monkeys, flat-nosed primates that are found in south and central America today. The third was a caviomorph, the ancestor of creatures like the capybara.

How they managed to survive the cross-over has long been a topic of heated discussion but it is now presumed that these animals made the journey on floating islands of vegetation that broke off from coastlines. Some of these island rafts were relatively big and may have included shrubs and small fruit trees that provided the intercontinental travellers with the means to survive. According to Erik Seiffert, professor of clinical integrative anatomical sciences at Keck School of Medicine: “It would have been extremely difficult, though very small animals the size of Ucayalipithecus would be at an advantage over larger mammals in such a situation, because they would have needed less of the food and water that their raft of vegetation could have provided. This is presumably why most of these overwater dispersal events that we know of in the fossil record involve very small animals”

The image is a still from the acclaimed Werner Herzog film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”, which tells the tale about a 16th century search for El Dorado in the Peruvian Jungle. In the surreal final scene of the movie its main character Aguirre, played by Klaus Kinski, finds himself on a raft overrun by small monkeys. It becomes clear that at least this time not Aguirre, but the small shall inherit the Earth.

The Peruvian Variant

Nearly 4,000 common variations in DNA are known to affect stature. Each variant nudges your height up, or down, with one millimeter or so. But now researchers have identified the single largest genetic contributor to human height known to date. The sensational findings of the effects of the previously unknown variant (E1297G) of the FBN1 gene are based on an analysis of samples from ethnically diverse Peruvians, a population known to have some of the shortest stature in the world. The variant was associated with an average of 2.2 centimeters in height reduction. People with two copies of the gene variant were even a whopping 4.4 centimeters shorter.

Meta analyses of genetic studies of height have predominately been conducted on European populations and include more than 700,000 individuals. The new variant was not present in any of the large genetic studies simply because Peruvians had never been included in any genomic studies of height. According to researcher Soumya Raychaudhuri “Just amassing and amassing data isn’t the answer. If you’re not looking at different populations, you’re going to miss really important stuff.”

Important stuff like how we could shrink towards abundance rather than grow towards scarcity. Quite tellingly the Peruvian flag features a horn of plenty overflowing with produce. Small people need less and therefor have more. The Peruvian variant E1297G could show us the way.

David and Goliath

It’s interesting to listen to Malcolm Gladwell deconstruct the presumptions behind the story of David and Goliath. Rather than presenting it as one of our best known underdog stories he suggests that Goliath in fact never stood a chance. According to Gladwell this was never a fight between a very tall and mighty warrior and a small and therefor weak shepherd boy but the story of an immobile and almost blind giant suffering from acromegaly against an agile, well-equipped and healthy young man. Goliath was nothing but a very large sitting duck. Before he could engage David in hand to hand combat he was hit between his eyes by David’s slingshot.

Gladwell: “What they didn’t understand was that the very thing that was the source of Goliath’s apparent strength was also the source of his greatest weakness. And there is, I think, in that a very important lesson for all of us. Giants are not as strong and powerful as they seem and sometimes the shepherd boy has a sling in his pocket.”

Kohrisms

The Austrian economist and political scientist Leopold Kohr opposed the “cult of bigness” in social organization. He inspired the movement for a human scale and the Small Is Beautiful movement. His most influential work was The Breakdown of Nations. In 1983, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award. In the series Kohrisms we want to give attention to some of his precise insights in the nature of big and small.

In The breakdown of Nations he writes: …smallness is not only a convenience. It is the design of God. The entire universe is built on it. We live in a microcosmos. Perfection has been granted only to the little. Only in the direction of the minuscule do we ever come to an end, to a finite, a boundary, where we can conceive the ultimate mystery of existence. In the direction of the colossal we arrive nowhere. We may add and multiply, and produce increasingly vaster figures and substances. But never an end, as there is nothing that cannot always again be doubled, though doubling in the physical sense soon means collapse, disintegration, catastrophe.

The Zooms: Feynman’s Zoom

The Zooms are modest symbolic gestures intended to initiate an embodied practise of the desire for smaller. Although they are often hardly more than physical whispers these actions attempt to overcome the inability to act in the face of the omnipresent desire for BIG. They are not very good and they’re not spectacular. They just are.

Feynman’s Zoom celebrates Richard Feynman’s lecture “There’s plenty of room at the bottom“. In his lecture, held during the annual meeting of the American Physical Society at Caltech, Feynman laid the conceptual foundations for the field now known as nanotechnology.  He imagined a day when machinery could be made considerably smaller and more compact and huge amounts of information could be encoded onto increasingly small spaces. However The Incredible Shrinking Man is less interested in the celebration of the technological revolution founded upon these insights than in the elegant adjusting of the gaze implied within. From looking outwards to the impossibly distant, to the almost introspective gaze at what is right in front of you. In Feynman’s Zoom this symbolic reordering of the human scale of attention is represented by the simple movement of the head, the arms and eyes away from a wide sky-bound direction to an earthbound focus. A Bruno Latourian re-adjustment of attention. There is plenty of space if we’re willing to re-adjust.

Feynman’s Zoom is performed by product designer Finn Bekkering.

Rod at Dawn

In 1994 popstar Rod Stewart gave a concert on Copacabana beach in Rio di Janeiro. And it turned out to be a legendary concert as it attracted the largest crowd of people in history for a musical event. 4 to 5 million people came to listen to Rod. And that’s an interesting number, because it is approximately the number of people alive at the dawn of the agricultural revolution. If Rod Stewart had performed his concert in 10.000 BC he would have had the entire population of the world in front of him. The rest of the planet would have been completely empty of people. 

Today there are 7.8 billion people, that’s 1560 times as many people as when agriculture was invented. This means that for every 1000 people in 10.000 BC there are over 1.5 million people now. But perhaps a bigger reason to be concerned is footprint. While the early hunter gatherers survived on 100 watts of energy per day, western man uses approximately 10.000 watts

Mayan Dwarf Liminality

Short-statured people, dwarfs and people with achondroplasia play a significant role in Maya mythology. It was believed that dwarfs lived together with the gods before humans existed. Because of this presumed divine proximity and their intimacy with the unknown, small-statured people were highly regarded. Dwarfs had elevated social roles that were steeped in cosmology and religious mythology. Similar status was given to dwarfs in ancient Egypt, with several well-documented short persons rising to the very top of the royal bureaucratic apparatus.

This appreciation of small sized individuals shows how in some cultures storytelling allows appreciation of the specific capacities of the small while harnessing a universal understanding that man is created equal. Rather than discriminate, patronise or ridicule the short-statured the cultural compass of Maya and ancient Egyptians created mental and practical space for other-normative sizes. Over the course of the next months we will further investigate some of the small statured protagonists of Maya mythology. We hope to learn more about how local storytelling and myth is able to create conditions allowing people to see the specific qualities of the small-bodied and to tap into worlds and learnings that give another perspective. The Maya channeled the ‘otherness’ of dwarves into visual metaphors for liminality and transformation, and thus expanded our understanding of what it means to be human. This could potentially inspire an open and curious attitude towards the small and foster appreciation for smallness as a quality rather than a disadvantage. Smallness is a superpower.

Down with the Dead Puck

When John Chayka, general manager of the Arizona Coyotes of the National Hockey League, used his seventh-overall draft selection to pluck talented centre Clayton Keller, he was sold on the teen’s playmaking ability and his knack for creating time and space. At 177cm and 77 kg, Keller was the smallest in stature among the first-rounders and one of 3 players in that round measuring under 183 cm.

The emergence of more short star players is part of a trend in professional ice-hockey visible since the “Dead Puck Era” (1995-2004) when a preference toward bigger players and physicality were prized over speed and offensive skill. General blindness towards the qualities of small made it more difficult for short players to achieve success at the NHL level in a period when uncalled obstruction, so-called clutch and grab, masqueraded as defensive hockey. Games often ended in massive brawls that had very little to do with ice-hockey skills. However, ongoing rule changes have all but put an end to clutch and grab, opened up the ice, and give clear emphasis on speed, skill and IQ. It’s become a playmaker’s game, not an intimidation game. The game is now built around a player’s ability and creativity. Small people by default have more space and time and, as ice-hockey shows, they are able to create some for others as well. And not just in hockey.

Thx Xander Cummins (on the right).

Guts for Brains

The human brain is generally regarded as the organ that makes us stand out from all other forms of life. People have unusually large brains in relation to the size of the body: About 3x larger than that of our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. And since the brain consumes a lot of energy, up to 25% of the basic metabolic rate, largeness comes at a considerable cost.

Despite cognitive benefits the energy required imposes serious constraints on brain size evolution. One possibility is to raise overall metabolic rate and simply add the required calories to the diet but greater energy-needs also create greater dependence and vulnerability and often are simply impossible. In the expensive tissue hypothesis Aiello and Wheeler argue that within a species the brain can become larger if the body reduces the size of other major metabolic organs. As it turns out for a primate of our body size the digestive tract is a lot smaller than is to be expected. Human sacrificed guts for brains. Such sacrifice was possible because people were able to find food sources that are much easier to digest, allowing the gut to operate much less energy intensive and compensate for the metabolic cost of the larger brain. Aiello and Wheeler went on to postulate that a larger brain would allow for more complex foraging behaviour, which would result in a higher quality diet, which would then allow the gut to shrink further, freeing up more energy for the brain, which ultimately led to the invention of cooking, agriculture, the Green Revolution and today’s advances in crop development. And when the gut couldn’t shrink any further those needs have moved well beyond the limitations of the body. This is your brain on fossil fuel.

Height Blind

Greater height in humans is commonly associated with advantages such as leadership skills, wealth, intelligence or social status. Differences between short and tall men are often found for these traits, mainly in favour of tall men. But are height-related effects biologically determined or do they result from socially-driven mechanisms? A recent study of the University of Wroclaw exploring height stature perceptions of congenitally blind individuals, who are unable to perceive other people’s stature through the visual channel, found that none of the traits assigned to the tall man by the sighted people was assigned to this person by the blind individuals.

In the experiment a short story was read to 34 blind as well as 34 seeing participants. The story described a non-existing person called Thomas and included a brief note about the character’s height: in one version, read to the first half of the participants, he was 166 cm tall, in the second version he was 190 cm tall. After hearing the story, the participants were asked to assess to what extent Thomas was intelligent, wealthy, a good leader and how high his social status was. The results indicate that blind people do not associate tallness with a man’s interpersonal abilities, unlike the sighted participants, among whom we observed a pronounced, positive, height-related stereotype. These findings suggest that sight is strongly related to developing the positive stereotype of high male stature. The preference for tall men seems not to be a biological inclination, but rather a learned association.

It reminds us of a fantastic project by Hans Hemmert where all visitors to a party wore makeshift shoes to be the same height. Unnerving to some, liberating to most.