November 17, 2017

Zoo for The Incredible Shrinking Man
Arne Hendriks

Evolution is not just a process of change: at least to me it also seems to be a process of holding on to what works. As one species mutates into another, even as it transforms, most of everything remains the same. We focus on the new, we focus on what’s different, and in our excitement we neglect the magic of continuity. How very contemporary. How very naive. How very anthropocentric. Much of our identity as a human species depends on ignoring that people are animals too. Even after so many transformations we still share numerous genetic sequences with even the smallest forms of life. More so, we carry their spirit within us. Rather than ignore we should embrace their presence in our lives. Because they are us.

The shrinking man!

We, as humans, still are most of the animals we’ve been in the past. This principle of common ancestry is why mice, worms, zebrafish, fruit flies and a wide range of other animals, have been selected by science to share their knowledge with the human species. It’s interesting how for example zebrafish scientists tend to make self-portraits that unconsciously acknowledge this relationship, putting the fish first. On the other hand the gaze is still very much one-directional, and these fish are treated in a specifically man-centered way. What would happen if the scientists were open to the whole of the animal, and not just their DNA? If they were able to embrace the zebrafish spirit that resides inside of them?

We mistakenly name such spirit animals, model organisms, which suggests they are a model, a simplification, of man. And although I do not wish to deny the complexity of some of the things Homo sapiens is, there are other levels of sophistication we seriously lack. Just look at the way we treat our planet and other forms of life. Just look at the way “model organism” scientists organise the learning experience. It’s a gene factory but it’s not life. 

We’re not that different from each other, or perhaps I should say, we’re much the same. Visiting a zoo, is like visiting close relatives. Sometimes they show us where we’ve been, delighting in memorising shared experiences. Sometimes they show us what we might have become, while perhaps in other cases allowing us a glimpse of our future, speculating on the animal we will become.

The relatively new discipline of trans-species psychology re-embeds Homo sapiens 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 Bradshaw, there is a common model of brain, mind and behaviour for humans and nonhuman animals that is conserved in evolution. If this is true, and i will presume here it is true, then it creates an exiting new situation for inter-special learning. Because learn we must.

So where then do we meet with our family? Where do I get the loving yet critical feedback on my functioning so typical of the way close relatives communicate with one another? If I were to sketch a zoo that I as an individual member of the human species desire, it would be a transient yet intimate space where I am allowed, perhaps to some extent even forced, to  reconnect to all that I forgot, ignored or repressed, and where I’m stimulated to imagine all that will become. A place where I meet my interspecial family. It would not just be a home to animals, but psychologists, economists, doctors and patients, chefs, shamans, horse and dog whisperers, architects, teachers, artists, mothers and fathers, children, politicians, traders on the stock market, nuclear physicists, small shop owners, … the cute girl from the pet store. Communities of people as well as animals, living together, learning together. Opening up a space for things to happen. A zoo that allows us to imagine a better future for all species, including the human species. And not just to imagine but to learn how to become that better species. Because with all that we are, there’s much we’re not. There are many things animals know that we don’t. Although I think the zoo could also be about the exchange of biomimetic principles, I believe there is something much more urgent. What I hope we can learn in this zoo is how to become one. Immanence. Perhaps it can teach us how to live on this planet. Because we don’t really know.

The ever larger human body is the manifestation of a species that is desperate to reconnect, while heading towards complete disconnection. We’re growing towards scarcity where we could be shrinking towards a situation of abundance. In this body we are not compatible with our environment. The challenge is that within us as a species the desire for small is not very present, in fact we desire the opposite, and therefor we grow taller and taller. The Dutch have grown an average 20cm’s taller since 1830. On an evolutionary scale that is unprecedented.

Starting from the idea of a zoo as a space for inter-special learning, there are some animals, not all but some, that show us how smaller is a quality, how smaller can be desired. Just to clarify, I’m interested in the desire for smaller within certain species of animals as an example of some of the things we might want to learn within a specific zoo space. There could be any number of things we feel animals could teach us. So to me, that is how to shrink and rebalance ourselves with earth, to someone else that might be how to fly, or how to hibernate. In each specific situation it starts with acknowledging the specific thing we lack or have forgotten as a species and setting up situations in which this learning can be developed and start to take place.

In order to learn from the animals within ourselves we need to have a space where we can live with and learn from them. The zoo as a hyper-hybrid community of mutual learning.

In relation to becoming smaller perhaps I can give a few random examples. The whole point of this talk is not that I know but that I want to find out.

1. Holistic Zebrafish Lab

It’s not all genes and epigenetics, but they are important. Zebrafish labs nowadays are hidden behind research facility walls, top-secret, copyright issues etc. Why not explore certain qualities we feel we need as society. Let’s look at behaviour as well as the hardware. The ability to live peacefully together. The ability to survive on just grass. The ability to shift between sexes. The ability to become smaller? Let’s introduce alternative value systems into the lab. Systems that if explored benefit both man and animal.

2.Mating rituals:

Females in H. sapiens prefer tall men, ultimately giving tall man a better chance at proliferating their tall genes. Over time this leads to taller people. It would help if female of our species were attracted to small men. A quality we do not often find within the human species. And frogs are mostly the same. 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. High energy calls, typically produced by alpha males, 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, sometimes more than 2 days after the whole thing began, the female makes her choice. And because all the big guys are eating, or sleeping, she always picks a smaller male.

Because 85% of physical size is genetically determined this is what keeps her species small. It’s patience! We need a zoo where we can learn to be patient in choosing a partner. Although existing formats such as these cannot be translated directly into human practise, in my zoo-space we would try. A Red-Eyed Tree Frog Disco. 

3. Food and environment:

Aldo and I tried to think up a shrink elixir several years ago. Food does have quite a big influence of how tall we become. And when it comes to eating habits, animals have a lot to share. People eat like pigs, meaning we eat anything. What we’ve noticed is happening around the world is that because of global warming animals around the world have been shrinking. Their metabolism speeds up but their feeding habits can’t keep up. as a result they’re getting smaller.

One of the most interesting examples of an animal that knows how to deal with changing food circumstances is the Galapagos marine iguana. It feeds of sea grass growing under water around the coastline of the islands. During warmer periods, typically around El Nino, there is less sea grass to go around, and the food staple for iguana shrinks. Amazingly, the iguana is able to shrink along with the available food. It can shrink up to 15% in size, including everything, also its bones through a process of recalcification.A zoo where I can first learn to appreciate and then learn how to appropriate such behaviour, that’s the kind of zoo I’d like to see in the not too far future.

4. But most of all we need a zoo where the non-human living will allow us to transform from being takers into becoming caretakers.

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