dwarfism, condition in which an animal or plant is less than normal in size and lacks the capacity for normal growth. Dwarfism is deliberately produced and perpetuated in certain species (e.g., in breeding miniature dogs and cultivating dwarf plants). Among humans, dwarfism usually results from a combination of genetic factors and endocrine malfunction. It can also be caused, however, by acquired conditions, such as kidney disease. Pituitary dwarfism is caused by an insufficiency of the pituitary growth hormone (hypopituitary dwarfism). Typically, the pituitary dwarf stops growing in early childhood but retains normal body proportion, mental capacity, and sexual development. Pharmaceutical companies are cloning human growth hormone to stimulate growth in children afflicted with hypopituitary glands. This type of dwarf, who is completely normal except for size, is commonly called a midget. Cretinism is a type of dwarfism accompanied by mental retardation and distortion of the body, resulting from an insufficiency of thyroid hormone. Unlike cretinism and pituitary dwarfism (which are thought to be caused by a combination of heredity and endocrine malfunction), achondroplastic dwarfism is the result of a completely hereditary, dominant genetic trait. Typically, the growth of the limbs is stunted, but the size of the trunk and mental capacity are normal. Humans who range in height from 2 to 4 ft (5.08–10.16 cm) are generally classified as dwarfs. However, small size that is an inherited characteristic of race (such as among African Pygmies) is not considered to be dwarfism since the individuals in such groups are physiologically normal.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.