Short-Tongued Bombus

A study in Science shows that in a period of just 40 years two alpine bumblebee species (Bombus balteatus and Bombus sylvicola) rapidly evolved significantly shorter tongues. Short-tongued species are more generalist foragers, able to feed on many different types of flowers. They are replacing more specialised, long-tongued bumble bees that feed on flowers with deep corolla tubes. The shift seems to be a direct result of a reduction in flower abundance due to global warming. Alpine regions are considered “canaries in the coal mine” for their sensitivity to increasing temperatures and drying soils. With lower floral resources, fitness advantages of long-tongued specialist phenotypes have diminished, driving the rapid evolution of shorter-tongued bees.

Ecological partnerships evolve through the matching of functional traits between partners, such as tongue length of pollinators and flower tube depth of plants. Changes that disrupt such matching can alter plant species recruitment and the trajectory of coevolution. As it stands, the longer-tubed and the longer-tongued are struggling to make ends meet. Short prevails.

Vamana

The Hindu god Vishnu manifested himself on earth through ten primary incarnations. Within each of these incarnations are lessons for humanity. The first four incarnations are animal/human hybrids between a man and a fish, a turtle, a boar and a lion. The last six manifestations are people, including for example Krishna, the popular blue god, and Buddha (although this is generally contested by buddhists). The first in the group of the human avatars is a dwarf called Vamana. This position between the hybrids and the other human avatars raises certain questions that will be addressed another time.

The story involving Vishnu’s incarnation as Vamana is an interesting tale of hubris, underestimation and a ruler’s desire to be liked despite being very powerful. It takes place in the context of the long-running battle between gods (the Devas) and demons (the Asuras). After the battle is decided in favour of the demon king Bali, Vishnu comes to the aid of the Devas by reincarnating as Vamana. During an audience with the new ruler, the dwarf asks Bali to allow him a piece of land the size of three footsteps where he can meditate. Although Bali is warned that Vamana is an incarnation of Vishnu he does not regard him as a threat and wants to shown his benevolence. He grants Vamana his wish. As soon as he has done so Vishnu/Vamana expands to his cosmic size and spans all of Heaven and Earth in just two enormous steps. With his third step he pushes Bali into the underworld, showing humanity that prejudice against the small doesn’t pay off. The continued debate as to why Vishnu manifested himself as a dwarf seems to originate especially in the general view of dwarfs being inferior to regular-sized people. Perhaps what the story is trying to tell us is precisely the opposite.

For a detailed account of the story visit HERE.

Suez-Maxed Out

At 07:40  on 23 March 2021, one of the largest containerships in the world, the Ever Given (400 x 59 x 21m) , was passing through the Suez Canal. After losing the ability to steer because of high winds the ship became stuck and blocked the canal, creating an economic choke-point. As many as 360 containerships piled up behind the Ever Given waiting to pass the canal. The blockade lasted for 6 days but the ripple effect is believed to continue for many months to come. We’re reminded of the words of science journalist Debora MacKenzie“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.” It seems that a big ship and a long canal, both intended to tackle the complex puzzle of an Ever Increasing consumer demand, have lived up to that analysis.

Since the beginning of containerization in the mid-1950s the capacity of containerships increased by some 4000%, from about 500 Twenty-foot equivalent units to over 21.000 TUEs today. The Ever Given is a ship in the so-called Suezmax category, a naval architecture term for the largest ship measurements capable of transiting the Suez Canal in a laden condition, and specifically designed to make maximum usage of the canal’s depth and width. The economies of scale continue to incite the use of the largest container ships possible while a shrinking number of harbours and canals are able to handle these colossal ships. They’ve simply outgrown the infrastructure leading to what is called a diseconomy of scale where higher output leads to increasing prices. Still, there are are even larger ship designs on the drawing boards, such as the Malaccamax class that is designed to just squeeze through the Strait of Malacca and could carry up to 30.000 TEUs. The question is if this will add to, rather than solve, the problems facing us. Perhaps we should ask the livestock, trapped on the Ever Given, how they feel about it.

Buddhist Auxology

Buddhist auxology is the not-yet-existing study of all aspects of human physical growth from the perspective of the desire to be as small as possible. It would be a multi-disciplinary science involving health sciences/medicine, nutrition science, genetics, anthropology, anthropology, anthropometry, ergonomics, history, economic history, sociology, public health, and psychology, among others. Buddhist economic theory considers it a sign of elegance when needs are fulfilled with as little resources as possible. An increase in human size is quite the opposite from elegant.

Although the larger human body requires more, it is not more human. Perhaps one might even argue that, pound for pound, larger humans are less human since their human essence is diluted in more flesh. Human essence and elegance is sacrificed in order to maintain the ever more demanding biological presence of the larger body. Its increasing needs degrade and transgress our humanness while at the same time degrading and transgressing our environment. In order to become more human again, to concentrate as much human essence in as little human flesh as possible, buddhist auxology investigates how to shrink towards abundance.

Woolly Desire (35 kg)

Between 13.000 to 11.000 years ago, sheep were the first animals to be domesticated by humankind. At first flocks were kept mainly for meat and milk. Archaeological evidence found at sites in Iran suggests that selection for woolly sheep began around 6.000 BC. As wool became more important for the manufacture of textiles the selective pressure on sheep to be more productive increased. Eventually this led to several of the domesticated species losing the ability to naturally shed their wool. In nature the ability to shed is part of an autonomous management system to deal with changes in temperature, entanglements, and for purposes of general hygiene and health. By losing the ability, or rather by mankind taking this ability from them, the sheep lost their autonomy. Shedding became shearing, as sheep became fully dependent on people to releave them of their woolly coats.

The repercussions of our desire for greater quantities of wool recently manifested itself when animal rescuers located a sheep that got lost in the Australian wilderness about five years ago. During those years its fleece had continued to grow. In the end the thick wool coat weighed over 35 kilograms, putting an almost unbearable weight on one lost sheep’s shoulders. It seems there is no escape for sheep, even if they do. Their DNA has been infected with the human desire for growth. Embedded human desire has become their prison.

Vertical Empathy

He who shrank is a 1936 sci-fi story by Henry Hasse, originally published in Amazing Stories Quarterly. It is about a man who is forever shrinking through worlds nested within a universe with apparently endless levels of scale. Written long before moon travel and our current explorations of Mars, and decades before Richard Feynman gave his famous lecture titled  “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”, it directs our attention to what is right in front of us.

“If I could not pierce the stars above, that were so far, then I would pierce the atoms below, that were so near. They are everywhere. In every object I touch and in the very air I breathe. But they are minute, and to reach them I must find a way to make myself as minute as they are, and more so!” 

As the protagonist in the story shrinks, an interesting reversal of size happens where in some moments he is as big as the stars he travels between, only to shrink onto the surface of planets in the next moment where he meets with lifeforms, then again becoming the size of a breadcrumb and beyond, before shrinking into the next universe where a similar sequence of events unfolds. And again. And again, endlessly. The story interprets the act of shrinking as a way to travel through dimensions without moving horizontally. Rather, the protagonist travels through infinite space vertically by becoming ever smaller. It approaches  shrinking as a way to explore in depth the realities invisible to our current senses. Not just from an empirical perspective but as an intimate mode of knowing and experiencing. Shrinking as an act of vertical empathy.

No Small Fish

One of many food-related ecological challenges is the overconsumption of fish. Worldwide, especially in the global south, fish is still a key component of a nutritious and healthy diet. Until we find and are able to produce widely available and sustainable alternatives (which we must) hundreds of millions of people depend on what the oceans provide for them. Overfishing is threatening the balance in our oceans as we’re struggling to allow fish stocks to restore. This is especially the case for a number of larger fish species because they generally need more time to mature and create off-spring.

Marine ecologists argue that rather than eat these large fish like tuna, salmon and halibut it would help to eat smaller fish like herring, mackerel and anchovies. The strategy for survival of small fish is designed by nature to withstand heavy predation. They grow faster and have more offspring and therefor have the ability to bounce back relatively quickly. As a welcome and healthy side-effect there’s also less time for contaminants like mercury to build up in their fat reserves which makes it a healthier alternative to large fish.

Peeling a Pomelo

“Peeling a Pomelo” is a simple exercise allowing you to experience what it’s like to be very small. All you have to do is imagine you’re peeling a mandarin rather than a pomelo.

The pomelo (Citrus maxima) is the largest member of the citrus fruit family and can have a diameter of up to 25 cm. To help create the illusion first rub a mandarin peel under your nose and on your hands so that the scent of the mandarin dominates the scent of the pomelo. It also helps to hide references that may disrupt your suspense of disbelief such as pieces of furniture or household objects that unwittingly remind you of your real size. Remember that we use our body to measure things in reality but that things in reality also give us a sense of our size. Perhaps find an empty space, sit on the floor, face a wall. Create a context that helps you to inspire the fantasy of being small. Place the pomelo in front of you while conjuring up an image of a mandarin. Perhaps squint your eyes to blur reality and fantasy. Touch, weigh, feel, use your hands to measure the fruit, and the fruit to measure your hands. Then, start peeling. Break through the skin into the soft layer just beneath. Experience its thickness, its resistance, as you encounter the bouncy juicy fruit body. Rip out a big fleshy part of mandarin. Use both hands to bring it to your mouth. Close your eyes. Bite into it, and feel your body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing.

Harden’s Step-back

Team sports are to a large extent about the creation, or reduction, of space and time. While the offence tries to find space and time to score, the defence is trying to shut these dimensions down. Therefor, in theory, each offensive act is countered by a defensive act, making it impossible for either side to score. In reality however, things like coincidence, mistakes, and especially the creativity of the players, breaks theory down.

One such very creative spacemaker is basketballer James Harden of the Brooklyn Nets. And one such creative space & time-making move, perfected by Harden, is the step-back. It creates opportunity to score because it does exactly what its name suggests: it takes a step back. It starts with an offensive player quickly moving forward, drawing in a defender, and then suddenly decelerating and stepping back, causing the defender, who is still in a forward motion, to lose contact, allowing the attacker to fire of a shot. Considering step-backs happen on the move against locked-in defenders, you’d think it would be a relatively wasteful shot type. Yet the step-back actually produces a higher conversion rate than the average attempt. According to B/R Insights, NBA players shot 48.9 percent on step-backs in 2015-16 and 45.1 percent on every other shot.

James Harden’s (and Stephen Curry’s) step-backs have inspired the 5 & 1 Step-back choreography introduced by The Incredible Shrinking Man to physically define the 20% space it feels we need for positive change.

Illustration by the visualiser of space Mike Sudal

Court Dwarfs

If we are to overcome the irrational prejudice against smallness we must understand how its current perception is the cumulative result of past ways of seeing. Rather than being an abstraction such ‘traditions of perception’ can often be traced back to specific historical traditions and practices: Like the quaint interest of ruling classes in ‘collecting’ dwarfs.

Having a considerable number of little persons as part of the court entourage was a widespread phenomenon both during Egyptian and Roman times as well as far into 18th century Europe and China. While it is true that in many cases the relationship between ruler and dwarf was one of great inequality, the story of the court dwarfs is far from being a one-sided story of slavery and abuse. Many of the court dwarfs rose to positions of considerable influence and wealth, turning what seemed to be a handicap into their most prized asset. Their small size not only seems to have taken away the mistrust and fear of position with those in power, allowing for greater intimacy and even friendship, but was also considered to represent a connection with supernatural forces and Heaven. Dwarfs were discussed, written about, painted and sculpted, and their lives have been woven into the fabric of 5.000 years of history. As such they hold up a mirror to explore our current relationship with small otherness, to overcome our irrational prejudice, and to allow their obvious qualities into the contemporary perception of mankind.

In our series on Court Dwarfs we will visit with some of these extraordinary individuals to learn how their stories have shaped our perception of smallness. And even more importantly, how to embrace its obvious quality.