Small Is Beautiful

Global warming shrinks sheep!

Every day we are confronted with an endless litany of pending disasters brought on by global warming.  From hurricanes to droughts, from famine to pestilence, from shrinking glaciers in Greenland and on Mars, nothing bad happens in the world that isn't somehow caused by humankind's frightful addiction to technological comfort and our obstinate insistence on continuing to breathe out CO2.

Now comes yet another disaster, courtesy of man's selfishness: midget sheep.  CNN reports:

Changing winter conditions are causing Scotland's wild Soay sheep to get smaller, according to a study that suggests climate change can trump natural selection... The researchers analyzed body-weight measurements and life-history data for the female members of a population of Soay sheep. The sheep live on the island of Hirta in the St. Kilda archipelago of Scotland and have been studied closely since 1985.  [emphasis added]

This astonishing discovery comes as a shock to scientists, whose models predicted that the sheep should be getting larger, not smaller:

"According to classic evolutionary theory, they should have been getting bigger, because larger sheep tend to be more likely to survive and reproduce than smaller ones, and offspring tend to resemble their parents," said study author Tim Coulson of Imperial College London. "Our findings have solved a paradox that has tormented biologists for years -- why predictions did not match observation."

Small Makes More Babies

To anyone but a scientist, it's obvious that nothing can keep getting bigger indefinitely.  After all, if we've been around for tens of millions of years, why aren't we all the size of mountains?  Or, why aren't fossils all Lilliputian in scale?

In fact, quite the opposite is found in the fossil record: the dinosaurs of old seem to be rather larger than today's lizards.  It would be more sensible to suppose that animals keep getting smaller, at least if you only look at simple mathematical averages.

This little gem provides a great illustration between science and scholasticism.  Scholasticism is when scholars spend their lives in the library or professorial study thinking about the way things "ought to be" - coming up with fancy theories and ideas.

Science, on the other hand, is found in the laboratory or out in the field, looking at the way things actually are.  All the evolutionary theories of increasing size are worthless when that's not how it works in real life - very much like climate scientists whose computer models insist that global warming must be happening, when in fact there are data which suggest that the world has been getting cooler for the last ten years at least.

Besides which, what's wrong with cute little sheep?  Farmers have been learning to love tiny cows, as the Times of London reports:

In America, small cow breeds such as the mini-Hereford are catching on among professional farmers keen to save money as the cost of feed skyrockets. These Herefords consume about a third less feed than normal cows and produce proportionately more beef for the amount of grain they eat[emphasis added]

If global warming shrinks cattle and smaller animals are more productive at producing necessary food, isn't that a good thing?  We already know more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is good for plants - after all, it's what they breathe.  A little more carbon would be the best thing to ever happen to farms.

But there's one more benefit that urgently needs to be researched: Could whatever shrinks sheep shrink people too?  Goodness knows we have an awful lot of people around who are larger than they need to be; there, at least, evolutionary theory seems perfectly true with respect to people.  Each new generation grows larger and has a rough time squashing into infrastructure designed for yesterday's more moderate sizes.  This is such a problem that people who've been "super-sized" are demanding the right to be able to fit in airplane seats, hospital equipment, and other items which they've outgrown, at vast expense to everybody but themselves.

"Unfortunately it is too early to tell whether a warming world will lead to pocket-sized sheep," said Coulson.

Let's find out - and then try to make it work on humans too!  Could "global warming" actually be good for public health?  That really would make some small-minded people feel sheepish.

Kermit Frosch is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Kermit Frosch or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments
"studied closely since 1985". Wow. That's a pretty solid sampling of what, a few billion years of evolutionary history?

"Unfortunately it is too early to tell whether a warming world will lead to pocket-sized sheep", but not too early to destroy our country because of the little that we can tell?

It's like my radiologist father always says, "there are no experts".
July 16, 2009 3:13 PM
Mr. Frosch, you insinuate that evolutionary scientists subscribe to the ludicrous belief that species will tend to get bigger over time because bigger animals have some sort of advantage. This is as erroneous as would be quoting Ecclesiastes 2:24 to "prove" that good Christians can be contract killers because Ecclesiastes 2:24 clearly states that "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work".

In other words, you are attempting to discredit evolutionary science by taking one piece of it and pointing out how it makes no sense by itself. This doesn't work because it ignores vast areas of evolutionary theory. Yes, SOMETIMES larger size is a survival advantage, but other times it is not. Common sense tells us that above a certain size an animal simply cannot move, as its skeleton and muscles will not be capable of supporting it (or even allowing it to breathe -- consider the beached whale). Many other factors naturally select against ever-increasing size gain on the part of any species.

Your article ignores this as because of this, while it may cause some sage nods and snickers in the ranks of those who reject evolution on Biblical grounds, it isn't really good for anything else.

July 16, 2009 4:10 PM
Not just sheep, fish are shrinking now too...
July 21, 2009 4:46 PM
Discover agrees about shrinking fish,

but they blame global warming and list no other causes. Fisherfolk have been catching too many fish. Fishers take big ones by preference. If we're eating big ones, wouldn't the rest be smaller? Global warming or not?

What a glib, politically-correct assumption!
July 21, 2009 6:39 PM
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