Darwin’s Paradox Revisited: Compassion and Evolution

In 2007, when I started my first blog, The Alien Next Door, I wrote an article that explored the term “Darwin’s Paradox”—it’s not just the title of my science fiction thriller Darwin’s Paradox released that year by Dragon Moon Press—but  a term coined by scientists to describe the paradoxical phenomenon exhibited by coral reefs.

Defying The Laws of Thermodynamics

Darwin described coral reefs as oases in the desert of the ocean. Coral reefs comprise one of the richest ecosystems on Earth, in apparent violation of the laws of thermodynamics (high productivity in a low-productivity environment). Productivity ranges from 50 to 250 times more than the surrounding ocean. How do they thrive in crystal-clear water, largely devoid of nutrients? Part of the answer lies in the coral’s efficiency in recycling nutrients like nitrate and phosphate.

First, the rough coral surface amplifies water turbulence at a microscopic level, disrupting the boundary layer that usually settles on objects under water and lets the coral “hoover” up the sparse nutrients. I stumbled upon a similar phenomenon during my grad work on temperate streams and published my serendipitous discovery in the journal Hydrobiologia. I was researching how periphyton (attached “algae”) colonized submerged glass slides and observed that the community preferred the edges of the slides because the micro-turbulence there provided more opportunity for attachment and nutrition.

Second, lots of corals also function symbiotically with specialized algae (called zooxanthelae), which provide the coral with food (through photosynthesis) and, in turn, get food from the wastes created by the coral.  

Can the science of symbiosis teach us something about another Darwin’s Paradox?

The Evolution of Compassion

In a September 2013 article in the Jewish World Review, Boston Globe reporter Jeff Jacobywrote:

“Charles Darwin struggled with a paradox: If evolution is a struggle for survival, how could generosity, compassion, and other altruistic virtues have spread through natural selection? Darwin could see the clear evolutionary benefit to groups that inculcated ethical values in their members. Imagine two competing primitive tribes, equally matched — except that ‘one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, [and] to aid and defend each other.’ (Darwin, “The Descent of Man”). There was little doubt that tribes highly endowed with such virtues ‘would spread and be victorious over other tribes.’”

“How did any tribe evolve such ethical qualities in the first place?” asks Jacoby. Brave individuals who risked their lives for others “would on average perish in larger numbers than other men.” It hardly seemed possible, Darwin conceded, that, “such virtues … could be increased through natural selection, that is, by the survival of the fittest.” So, how did it and why?

Jacoby quotes Sir Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, who pointed to “the central drama of civilization: Biological evolution favors individuals,” says Sacks. “But cultural evolution favors groups.… Selfishness benefits individuals [only in the short-term and only in a limited way—my comment], but it is [ultimately] disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that individuals can survive at all.”

Jacoby describes the vast literature in evolutionary psychology and sociobiology that have demonstrated humanity’s hard-wired moral capacity. “We are born with an aptitude for empathy and fairness,” said Jacoby, citing recent neurological experiments that have demonstrated that an act of generosity triggers a pleasurable response in the brain.

Abraham Lincoln summarized it in seven words: “When I do good, I feel good.”  Psychologists call it the “helper’s high”. Neuroscientists and behavioral scientists are demonstrating unequivocally the benefits of altruism to our health and happiness. Scientists have designed experiments that actually trace altruism—and the pleasure we gain from it—to specific regions and systems in the brain. Key studies now provide striking evidence that our brains are wired for altruism. 

The Social Brain and the Seat of Compassion  

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Moll et al, 2006), a team of neuroscientists lead by Dr. Jordan Grafman, reported that, “when people made the decision to donate to what they felt was a worthy organization, parts of the midbrain lit up—the same region that controls cravings for food and sex.” The brain experiences a pleasurable response when we engage in good deeds that benefit others. 

Dr. Grafman found that the subgenual area in the frontal lobe near the midpoint of the brain was also strongly active when his study subjects made the decision to give to charity. The area houses many receptors for oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social bonding. “The finding suggests that altruism and social relationships are intimately connected—in part, it may be our reliance on the benefits of strong interpersonal connections that motivates us to behave unselfishly,” reports Elizabeth Svoboda in the WallStreet Journal. The team also found that the nucleus accumbens, which contains neurons that release the pleasure chemical dopamine, was triggered when a person chose to help another.

A 2007 study headed by neuroscientist Scott Huettel and reported in Nature Neuroscience(Tankersley, et al., 2007) connects altruism to the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), an area in the upper rear of the brain that lets us perceive goal-directed actions by someone or something else. Results suggest that altruism depends on, and may have evolved from, the brain’s ability to perform the low-level perceptual task of attributing meaning and motive in the actions of others.

“Our findings are consistent with a theory that some aspects of altruism arose out of a system for perceiving the intentions and goals of others,” said Dr. Huettel. “To be altruistic, you need to see that the people you’re helping have goals, and that your actions will have consequences for them.” 

Research led by Michael Platt reported in Nature Neurosciencein 2012, showed that the anterior cingulate gyrus(ACCg) is an important nexus for the computation of shared experience and social reward. That same year researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York published research in the journal Brainthat suggested that the anterior insular cortexis the activity centre of human empathy.

I find it both interesting and exciting that these studies link different brain regions to altruistic and compassionate behavior. “There are certain to be multiple mechanism that contribute to altruism, both in individuals and over evolutionary time,” added Huettel. This is the nature of the brain, whether we look at intelligence, motivation or physical characteristics. And I am convinced that we will someday find that many other areas—if not the entire area—of the brain are involved. Moreover, researchers have shown that engaging—or even witnessing—generous acts can reduce stress, increase immunity (e.g., increased antibody levels), and longevity.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, explains the chemical activity that happens in our heads when we commit acts of altruism. “There are multiple reward systems that have been tied to pleasurable feelings when people help others or contribute to the well being of the people around them,” she notes. These reward systems are comprised of three main chemicals that are released when we commit an act of kindness and feel pleasure: Dopamine, Oxytocin and Serotonin. According to Simon-Thomas, Dopamine is most closely related to hedonic pleasure — or pleasure derived from self; oxytocin is tied to more social pleasure — especially with regard to physical contact; and serotonin is implicated in a more broad mood state. “All three of these, again, are sort of intersecting and interacting, and depending on the context that you’re in, represent feelings of pleasure in different context,” she explains. “All these systems are activating and parallel, and sort of influencing one another as you go through life.” So when I do a good deed, I am rewarding myself with a cocktail of wonder drugs that please me and make me smile.

So, what I’ve known since I was a child is now proven: doing good deeds is mutually beneficial to the giver and the receiver.

Path through winter forest in the fog, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Altruism in All Beings

The notion that all aspects of life on this planet—not just humanity—have the capacity to act altruistically remains controversial—even among professional scientists and researchers. We are not unique in experiencing or practicing altruism, in acting altruistically and benefiting from our own altruistic acts. It is however a matter of perspective, bias and open-mindedness. Many examples of altruistic behavior and empathy exist in the rest of the living world on our planet.

Nature’s Heroes

Scientists have been demonstrating for years that cooperation among organisms and communities and the act of pure altruism (not reciprocal altruism or kin/group selection) is, in fact, more common in Nature than most of us realize. Valid examples of true altruism in the wild in many species exist. The key here is “in the wild”—not in captivity, where inherent behavior is often modified (see my Alien Next Door article “The SamaritanParadox Revisited: The Karma Ran Over the Dogma”).

Despite the overwhelming evidence for altruism in every aspect of our world, some researchers continue to design experiments and then draw sweeping conclusions based on animals in captivity to suggest that only humanity possesses the ability to behave altruistically—and then again only by social-instruction (aka “the Selfish Gene” of Richard Dawkins vs. the “Social Gene” of Lynn Margulis).

Examples of altruism abound and range among mammals, birds, invertebrates and even Protista. Some examples include: dogs, cats, ducks, squirrels, wolves, mongooses, Meer cats, baboons, chimpanzees, vampire bats, dolphins, walruses, lemurs, African buffalo—to name a few.

de Waal explained that “evolution favors animals that assist each other if by doing so they achieve long-term benefits of greater value than the benefits derived from going it alone and competing with others” (de Waal 2006). The prevalent phenomenon of altruism is Nature’s answer to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. “Empathy evolved in animals as the main … mechanism for [individually] directed altruism,” said deWaal. And it is empathy—not self-interest—that “causes altruism to be dispensed in accordance with predictions from kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory.” deWaal further proposed that the scientific community has become polarized between evolutionary biologists on the one side, and, on the other, a discrete group of economists and anthropologists that “has invested heavily in the idea of strong reciprocity,” which demands discontinuity between humans and all other animals.

“One of the most striking consequences of the study of animal behavior,” says anthropologist Robert Sapolsky, “is the rethinking … of what it is to be human.” He notes that, “a number of realms, traditionally thought to define our humanity, have now been shown to be shared, at least partially, with nonhuman species.” (Sapolsky 2006). This makes some of us uncomfortable. To some, it threatens to make us less special. The corollary is that this demonstrates that we possess intrinsic virtue, not something “painted” on through cultural teaching or diligent personal effort. Of course, it also means that all other beings possess intrinsic value too. In the final analysis, what we generally “know” is colored by what we believe and want to continue believing.

First big snow in Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Universal Altruism and Gaia

What does all this mean? Does the very existence of altruism demonstrate the connectivity of all life on Earth? Let’s not stop there. Does the grace of altruism reflect a fractal cosmos imbued with meaning and intent? Was it the grace of altruism that allowed it all to happen in the first place? Don’t we all come from grace?

Despite struggles with acceptance for some of us, we are emerging enlightened to the fractal existence of grace and altruism embedded in the very nature and intentions of our universe.

I come full circle to my book Darwin’s Paradox, a tale of fractal intelligence and universal cooperation. A tale of emerging awareness of Self and Other as One…Evolution through cooperation… Creative DNA…Manifestation through thought and intent…Self-organization and synchronicity…A hero’s journey…and coming Home…

In this season of gratitude, we celebrate altruism in giving and in receiving graciously.

Merry Christmas!

First snow over Thompson Creek outlet, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Links / Books of Interest:

Altruhelp.com. 2011. “Altruism: the Helper’s High”. Altruhelp.com. http://blog.altruhelp.com/2011/04/01/altruism-the-new-high/

Atwood, Margaret. 2009. “Dept: Not Just A Four Letter Word”. Zoomer. March, 2009 (www.zoomermag.com)

Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford School of Medicine: http://ccare.stanford.edu

Jacoby, Jeff. 2013. “Darwin’s conundrum: Where does compassion come from?” http://www.jeffjacoby.com/13700/darwin-conundrum-where-does-compassion-come-from

Ridley, Matt. 1998. The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. Penguin Books, 304pp.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. August 31, 2013. “Hard-Wired for Giving” in The Wall Street Journal;http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324009304579041231971683854

Svoboda, Elizabeth. 2013. “What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness” Current. 240 pp.

Munteanu, Nina. Aug, 2010. “The Samaritan Paradox Revisited: The Karma Ran Over the Dogma” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/08/samaritan-paradox-revisited-karma-is.html

Munteanu, Nina. June, 2010. “What Altruism in Animals can Teach Us About Ourselves” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/06/what-altruism-in-animals-can-teach-us.html 

Munteanu, Nina. March, 2010. “Gaia versus Medea: A Case for Altruism” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/03/gaia-versus-medea-case-for-altruism.html

Munteanu, Nina. Feb, 2009. “Margaret Atwood’s Wise Words About Dept & Altruism…A Portrait of the Artist as a Real Hero” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2009/02/margaret-atwoods-wise-words-about-debt.html

Munteanu, Nina. August, 2007. “Is James Bond an Altruist?—Part 2” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/08/is-james-bond-altruist-part-2.html

Nina Munteanu. August, 2007. “Co-evolution: Cooperation & Agressive Symbiosis” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/08/co-evolution-cooperation-agressive.html

Nina Munteanu. July, 2007. “Altruism at the Heart of True Happiness” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/07/altruism-at-heart-of-true-happiness.html

Ridley, Matt. 1998. “The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation.” Penguin Books. 304 pp. http://www.amazon.com/Origins-Virtue-Instincts-Evolution-Cooperation/dp/0140264450

References for Altruism in All Animals:

Bradley, Brenda. 1999. “Levels of Selection, Altruism, and Primate Behavior.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, 74(2):171-194.

De Waal, Frans, with Robert Wright, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer. 2006. “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved”. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goodall, Jane. 1990 Through A Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Moll, Jorge, Frank Krueger, Roland Zahn, Matteo Pardini, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, and Jordan Grafman. 2006. “Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation.” In: Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA, 103(42): 15623-15628. http://www.pnas.org/content/103/42/15623.full

Sapolsky, Robert M. 2006. “Social Cultures Among Nonhuman Primates.” Current Anthropology, 47(4):641-656.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. 2013. “What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selfishness.” Current.

Tankersley D et al.  2007. “Altruism is Associated with an Increased Response to Agency.”  Nature Neuroscience, February 2007, Vol. 10(2), pp. 150-151.

Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. 2006. “Altruistic Helping In Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees.” Science, 311, 1301–1303.

Warneken, F., Hare, B., Melis, A. P., Hanus, D. & Tomasello, M. 2007. “Spontaneous Altruism By Chimpanzees and Young Children.” PloS Biology, 5(7), e184.

de Waal, F. B. M. 2008. “Putting the Altruism Back Into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy.” Annu. Rev. Psychol., 59, 279–300.

de Waal, F. B. M., Leimgruber, K. & Greenberg, A. R. 2008. “Giving Is Self-rewarding for Monkeys.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA, 105, 13685–13689.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

“Ecology of Story: World as Character” Workshop at When Words Collide, Calgary

EcologyOfStoryI recently gave a 2-hour workshop on “ecology of story” at Calgary’s When Words Collide writing festival in August, 2019.

The workshop—based on my third writing guidebook: “The Ecology of Story: World as Character”explored some of the major relationships in functional ecosystems and how to effectively incorporate them in story. We  briefly explored how ecosystems and ecological processes work and looked at several of the more bizarre examples of ecological adaptation.

I showed how treating world and place as character provides depth and meaning to story through its integration with plot, theme, and other characters. We looked at these story components as integral to help ground the reader in context and meaning of story. We explored place / setting as metaphor, symbol, archetype, and allegory.

Through literary examples of setting and place, we looked at how readers are drawn into story through metaphor, sensual description, and thematic integration through POV character.

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Reviewing the story we created through an exercise

Then came the story-building part of the workshop—a snappy, fast-paced dialogue among all workshop participants. Using the book’s cover image as story-prompt, we worked through the story components of premise, theme, character, plot and setting. Following a lively discussion, we succeeded in creating a stunning first crack at a story that was both original and intriguing. And at whose heart was a strong sense of place and identity.

creating a story

“The Ecology of Story” had only recently been launched at Type Books in Toronto and saw its first use at the Calgary When Words Collide conference. Books were sold out an hour after the workshop.

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“The Ecology of Story” recently achieved Amazon Bestseller status in the Ecology category.

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Nina starts her “The Ecology of Story” workshop with Part 1: ecology

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Nina talks about some interesting adaptations in reproduction

 

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Stream on Vancouver Island, BC (photo by Kevin Klassen)

 

nina-2014aaaNina is a Canadian scientist and novelist. She worked for 25 years as an environmental consultant in the field of aquatic ecology and limnology, publishing papers and technical reports on water quality and impacts to aquatic systems. Nina has written over a dozen eco-fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels. An award-winning short story writer, and essayist, Nina currently lives in Toronto where she teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…”—a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, teacher and environmentalist—was picked by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times as 2016 ‘The Year in Reading’. Nina’s most recent novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”— about four generations of women and their relationship to water in a rapidly changing world—will be released in 2020 by Inanna Publications.

 

Ecology, Story & Stranger Things

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Illustration by Anne Moody, typology & design by Costi Gurgu

One of the lectures I give in my science fiction writing course and conference workshops is called “Ecology in Storytelling”. It’s usually well attended by writers hoping to gain better insight into world-building and how to master the layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. My upcoming writing guidebook “Ecology of Story: World as Character” addresses this subject with examples from a wide range of published fiction. The book will be released in June/July of 2019 by Pixl Press.

In my lecture (and book) I talk about the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments. I describe the trophic (energy) relationships from producers to consumers and destroyers in a complex cycle of creative destruction.

Students perk up when I bring up some of the more strange and interesting adaptations of organisms to their environment: twisted stories of adaptations and strategies that involve feeding, locomotion, reproduction and shelter.

Purposeful Miscommunication & Other Lies

alconbluebutterfly-ants

Alcon blue butterfly and caterpillar with ant

For instance, the Alcon blue butterfly hoodwinks ants into caring for its larvae. They do this by secreting a chemical that mimics how ants communicate; the ants in turn adopt the newly hatched caterpillars for two years. There’s a terrible side to this story of deception. The Ichneumon wasp, upon finding an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, secretes a pheromone that drives the ants into confused chaos; allowing it to slip through the confusion and lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar. When the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the wasp eggs hatch and consume it from inside.

This reads like something out of a noir thriller. Or better yet, a horror story. Nature is large, profligate, complex and paradoxical. She is by turns gentle and cruel. Creative and destructive. Competitive and cooperative. Idle and nurturing.

Extremophiles & Anhydrobiosis

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Tardigrade on moss

When I bring in the subject of extremophiles, who thrive in places you and I would cringe to set foot in, students’ imaginations run wild with ideas.

I describe a panoply of weird adaptations in Nature—involving poisons, mimicry and deception, phototaxis and something called anhydrobiosis, which permits the tiny tardigrade to shrivel into a tun in the absence of water then revive after a 100 years with just a drop of water.

All this adaptation hinges on communication. How an organism or population communicates with its environment and among its own.

Examples of “strange” communication are the purview of the science fiction writer … and already the nature of our current world—if you only know where to look. The scope of how Nature communicates—her devices and intentions—embraces the strange to the astonishing. From using infrasound to chemical receptors and sensing magnetic fields. To allelopathy. Aggressive symbiosis. And so much more.

Talking Trees

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Dr. Suzanne Simard

UBC researcher Suzanne Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of research, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest.

This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root).

forest-conversing

mycelium connects trees underground

These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia. Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest.

Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.

Fatal Attractions & Natural Bullies

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Bracken fern fronds

The “ordinary” Bracken fern thrives in a wide range of conditions on virtually every continent (except Antarctica). That’s because it plays the “long game” by having several strategies to outlive and outcompete its surrounding nemeses.

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The symbiosis of Bracken fern and ant

Strategies include a loose lifestyle such as several ways to reproduce and grow to accommodate seasons, drought and burning; a shady arrangement with the local thugs (aggressive ants) who protect it for its tasty nectar; use of cyanide and ecdysones by its young shoots; and tough carcinogenic fronds that contain glass-like silicates.

Despite its many uses by humans (e.g., used for potash fertilizer, heating fuel, roofing, bedding for animals), the Bracken fern is considered a pest. In truth, it is a hardy versatile adapter to changing environments. And that is what our climate changing world is fast becoming.

I highly recommend the works of Annie Dillard and Loren Eiseley for wonderful and bizarre examples of natural wonders that resonate with metaphor.

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Stream in coastal rainforest on Vancouver Island, BC (photo by Kevin Klassen)

I also recommend my upcoming book “Ecology of Story” (Pixl Press), which will showcase a diverse set of examples from the literature of metaphoric environment and creatures. “Ecology of Story” is due for release in Summer of 2019. Look for it on Amazon, Kobo, and a fine bookstore near you. Two other books in my writing guide series include: “The Fiction Writer” and “The Journal Writer“.

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nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.