Small Amazonians

Birds are sensitive indicators of environmental change. A recent study of understory birds of the Amazon rainforest over a timespan of 40 years and 77 species shows again that most birds are adapting to the current drastic environmental changes by becoming smaller. By zooming in on non-migratory birds living in intact rainforests with limited local human presence any observed changes in morphology can be considered the result of global trends in environmental change. The decrease in body size seems to be the result of Bergmann’s rule, which states that that within a broadly distributed taxonomic clade, populations and species of larger size are found in colder environments, while populations and species of smaller size are found in warmer regions. Smaller animals have a higher surface area to volume ratio than larger animals, so they radiate more body heat per unit of mass, and therefore stay cooler in hot climates. The researchers were surprised to find that while their average weight dropped by 3 to 4%, wingspan actually increased by 2 to 3%. Although the mechanism behind this increase is poorly understood speculations are that larger wingspan may allow for more economic flight. It also increases surface area to volume ratio.

The morphological change in the Amazonians corresponds with a 40-year trend of increasingly hot and dry conditions during the rainforest’s drier season. As it turns out the research also showed that it is not so much the higher local temperatures that directly allow predictions of abundance of a species, but precipitation. More unpredictable rain patterns have led to more unpredictable availability of food and drinking water. Smaller body size, as well as greater wingspan seems to be a way to deal with unpredictability. If a species has the ability to shapeshift it has a greater chance of survival.

MCR3

According to research at the University of Cambridge the protein melanocortin receptor 3 appears to have an important role in linking signals of caloric sufficiency to the control of lineair growth of the human body. The research provides a mechanistic basis for the global secular trends toward taller human height due to higher level of caloric availability. Simply put, if people have plenty to eat they end up being taller and it is the MCR3 protein that plays a pivotal role in determining available abundance to the production of growth hormones. On the other hand, people with an altered MCR3 gene often end up shorter. Not surprisingly this is defined as a defect. Again, as so often, a deeply embedded cause and effect confusion seems to be in play where the stimulants of growth are associated with goodness while whatever stops growth is associated with something going wrong. So it is always GOOD food that leads to greater height. Alternative perspective on increased human height are very rare. We never hear about an unnecessary surplus of food leading to an unnecessary surplus in human height that makes the body more dependent on this unpredictable food surplus. Yes the reasons why people are tall may well be the current growth promoting conditions, yet the effect of these conditions, the being tall itself, is not necessarily a GOOD outcome. The Incredible Shrinking Man has linked this to the a plant growing up in a greenhouse. The conditions in the greenhouse stimulate the growth of very large plants, but is this ultimately desirable for the plant itself? What pressures and processes are at play within the organism itself? What is the relationship between external forces and intrinsic needs? What happens if conditions in the greenhouse change drastically? Although it is often claimed that tall people are healthier (another example of cause and effect confusion) this is certainly not a given. In fact short healthy people in many cases have higher life expectation. But this is not the point we want to make today.

Today we want to point out that short stature in human height related research is mostly presented as being part of the problem rather than seen in the light of the body coping with a situation. Height, although it may in certain cases be an indication of negative conditions, is itself not the condition. In fact it’s more likely a way of the individual to overcome negative effects of the condition. The adaptation of a more resilient smaller body type is part of an immune response. Much like the Dehnel phenomenon allowing animals to overcome hardships in nature, the smaller human body helps them deal with the physical consequences of non-height related challenges. The case of the altered MCR3 gene leads to later onset of puberty, as well as sarcopenia, a condition in which low lean mass, including muscle, contributes to disability in various chronic disorders. This is a serious condition that the body may try to cope with through staying smaller. Smallness is not part of the problem but part of the solution. The language used in scientific research when describing small stature should reflects this, so that we can recognise small stature as the coping mechanism that it is. Small is resilient.

Miss Heightism

If your ambition is to be Miss France, something one already might have issues with for any number of reasons, there are considerable discriminating parameters. You cannot have children, you cannot be married, tattoos are forbidden and you have to be at least 170cm tall. Selection on height is outright height discrimination and an example of the flawed idea that tall people are better or more beautiful than small people.

French feminist activist group Osez le féminisme (Dare to be feminist) and three unsuccessful applicants have filed an appeal against the pageant’s parent company on the basis that Miss France contestants perform a work service and therefore should be protected from prejudice under French employment law. Discrimination against employees on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, family situation or genetic characteristics is considered unlawful in France. While the mission statement of the competition is to find “the young woman most representative of beauty and elegance,” the strict registration requirements mean contenders for the crown are limited. According to Alyssa Ahrabare, the head of Osez le féminisme, Miss France currently “has a negative and retrograde impact on the whole of society.” and “feeds stereotypes that stand in the way of equality.”

Hopefully the day in court, rather than becoming a space for further polarisation, will be appreciated by beauty contests around the world as a invitation to change their damaging views on height and beauty. Although there are some encouraging signs of changing perspectives, many beauty pageants still firmly MISS the mark and operate within a backward version of reality.

Mating Swarms

Selection on male body size is the result of four components of lifetime reproductive succes . 1. Daily mating success (how often do you get lucky). 2. Fecundity (number of offspring per mating). 3. Stamina (time remained within a situation of possible mating). 4. Longevity. It is commonly presumed that larger males are favoured by sexual selection and therefor have a greater contribution to the gene pool of future generations. However, if body size is a stable trait as we see in many animal species then advantages for large size in lifetime reproductive success must be balanced by advantages for shorter size. If not, body size would continue to increase indefinitely, and in most species it doesn’t. A 1992 paper by the University of Newcastle on the stabilising mechanisms in male body size of midges shows that one of the forces keeping them positively small is that small males have greater success at mating.

This is how it works: Aerial mating swarms of nonbiting male midges (Chironomus plumosus) form at dusk and attract females from the surrounding vegetation. Females fly into the dancing swarm and are grasped by a male. The pair then leaves the swarm and mates. Swarms vary greatly in size and an individual’s probability of mating is greatest in the smallest swarms since there is less competition. On the other hand, being part of a smaller swarm increases an individual’s risk of predation. You have a bigger chance to be eaten, but an even bigger chance to not be eaten and have sex. As it turns out, small males have developed a preference for participating in smaller swarms.

In the case of Chironomus plumosus only the first component of lifetime reproductive success, daily mating success, favours the small. However as we’ve seen in many other species, stamina (the red-eyed tree frog) and longevity (the supercentenarians) often also favour the small. And as far as people are concerned when it comes to fecundity, having less offspring, for the time being, sounds like a better idea anyway.

Hard(en) Deceleration

According to Marcus Eliott, who has analyzed the biomechanics of hundreds of NBA players, Brooklyn Nets basketball player James Harden is pretty pedestrian by all traditional performance metrics. But when Harden came for a closer examination there were several areas in which Harden was an outlier—not only among basketball players, but among thousands of athletes. And they were all related to the same underlying trait: Harden is the best at slowing down. The force he generates when he stops his downward momentum ranked in the 98th percentile, and his “rate of eccentric-force development” was in the 99th percentile. To play this way requires an extraordinary amount of body control. It’s more common to see players who are better at the exact opposite: accelerating quickly and decelerating slowly. Acknowledging the ability to slow down as an elite type of athleticism is seen as a radical idea.

James Harden’s counterintuitive ability combined with the notion of hara hachi bu, eating until you’re 80% full, inspired the shrink choreography “The 5&1 Step-back”. This simple move is executed by simply taking five steps forward and then taking a step back. While taking the step back there’s the subtle experience of the creation of space. Harden’s creation of time and space is the result of a rapid slowdown, a distancing himself from the forward motion the others are entangled with. That’s why The Incredible Shrinking Man loves him.

Salmons Too

Most of us presume growth of body length in vertebrates to be unidirectional, with organisms progressively increasing in body size as they become older. However, under challenging environmental conditions for some vertebrates body length shrinkage is also possible. This ability is called the Dehnel phenomenon. Small mammals, such as insectivorous shrews, show body length shrinkage of up to 7%, while their skulls can shrink up to 20% and loss of mass of up to 35% in anticipation of winter. The ectothermic Marine iguanas living in the Galapagos archipelago can shrink as much as 20% of their body length when food availability dramatically decreases. The dynamics of the growth in length of these animals can be explained by a combination of anorectic stress and environmental conditions. According to research by the University of Oulu and the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute young salmon have a similar ability to shrink. In examining in 2010 how juvenile salmonid fish responded to harsh environmental conditions, the researchers were faced with unexpected and previously undocumented observations, indicating that young salmonids shrink up to 10% of the body length, over the course of winter.

The Incredible Shrinking Man continues to collect stories like this to resist the prevailing idea that shrinkage is an unnatural movement. That it goes against some higher principle of growth. Shrinking is not and it does not, neither in the body, nor in nature, nor in culture.

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.

The story involving Vishnu’s incarnation as Vamana is an interesting tale of hubris, underestimation and a ruler’s desire to be liked. It is set during the long-running battle between gods (the Devas) and demons (the Asuras). After the battle seems to be decided in favour of the demon king Bali, Vishnu comes to the aid of the Devas. He reincarnates as a dwarf and asks the now ruler Bali to gift him a piece of land the size of three footsteps where he can meditate. Although Bali has been warned of the true nature of Vamana as the incarnation of Vishnu he does not regard him as a threat and grants him his wish. As soon as he does Vishnu/Vamana expands to his cosmic size and spans all of Heaven and Earth in just two enormous steps. Left with no place to put his third step bali offers his head and is pushed back into the underworld. The story shows that prejudice against smallness is ill-informed. The continued debate as to why Vishnu manifested himself as a dwarf seems to originate especially in the general yet mistaken view that dwarfs are inferior to regular-sized people. They’re not, obviously.

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.