Infertility in the Age of Water

Diary Water cover finalIn a scene of my near-future eco-thriller A Diary in the Age of Water (Inanna Publications, 2020) the diarist’s young colleague Daniel rather too enthusiastically proclaims the impending extinction of males.

“Scientists all agree that environmental factors are the main triggers for male and female infertility through epigenetics…Epigenetics rules climate change-related adaptations. And everything appears stacked heavily for females and intersex humans. Males might go extinct with climate change!”

–A Diary in the Age of Water

Lynna Dresden, the diarist in A Diary in the Age of Water, thinks Daniel rather buffoonish and a traitor to his male kind. Then again, here is how another Daniel starts his article in a 2018 issue of GQ Magazine entitled “Sperm Count Zero“:

Men are doomed. Everybody knows this. We’re obviously all doomed, the women too, everybody in general, just a waiting game until one or another of the stupid things our stupid species is up to finally gets us. But as it turns out, no surprise: men first. Second instance of no surprise: We’re going to take the women down with us.

There has always been evidence that men, throughout life, are at higher risk of early death—from the beginning, a higher male incidence of Death by Mastodon Stomping, a higher incidence of Spiked Club to the Brainpan, a statistically significant disparity between how many men and how many women die of Accidentally Shooting Themselves in the Face or Getting Really Fat and Having a Heart Attack. The male of the species dies younger than the female—about five years on average. Divide a population into groups by birth year, and by the time each cohort reaches 85, there are two women left for every man alive. In fact, the male wins every age class: Baby boys die more often than baby girls; little boys die more often than little girls; teenage boys; young men; middle-aged men. Death champions across the board.

Now it seems that early death isn’t enough for us—we’re on track instead to void the species entirely.

–Daniel Noah Halpern, GQ Magazine

sperm_decline_chartBoth Daniels are talking about the alarming rate at which sperm counts worldwide are falling. They’ve dropped by half in the last fifty years in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand—according to a 2017 paper by researchers at Hebrew University and Mount Sinai medical school and more recent studies in 2018.

While an unhealthy lifestyle (being overweight or obese, smoking, stress and alcohol or recreational drug use) is most often implicated, more insidious causes exist.

PHTHALATESResearch shows that consumption and/or exposure to many common constituents of urban living can decrease fertility, increase miscarriage, spontaneous abortion, and lower auto-immune systems. Examples include car exhaust, pesticides, common detergents, hair dyes, cleaning solvents, oil based paints, adhesives, gasoline; and consumption of MSG, coffee, alcohol.

A 2019 study by scientists at Nottingham University identified two chemicals common in home environments that damage sperm in men and dogs. GQ Daniel goes on to explain: “Phthalates and BPA [used to make plastic soft and flexible or harder and stronger] for example, mimic estrogen in the bloodstream. If you’re a man with a lot of phthalates in his system, you’ll produce less testosterone and fewer sperm. If exposed to phthalates in utero, a male fetus’s reproductive system itself will be altered: He will develop to be less male.”

sperm count and platics

This leads Age of Water Daniel to bring up the rise in intersex mammals (individuals born with any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones or genitals that do not fit the “strict definitions for ‘male’ or ‘female’ bodies”). A 2016 article in Environmental Health Insights by Rich et al. attribute an increasing number of human children born with intersex variation to an increase in hormone disrupting chemicals in our environment.

Phthalates bookLeaning on his microscope, Daniel went on, “Wherever there’s a sewage treatment plant, pulp and paper mill, or herbicides and pesticides in a stream, you get endocrine disruption, which causes more female or intersex fish populations…[Degradation products of surfactants used in commercial and household detergents] inhibit breeding in male fish. And herbicides like atrazine—”

“—Create feminized males with female eggs, along with reduced immunity to disease,” I finished for him.

I knew all this. Hormonal disruption is global. Environmental toxicologists have been finding it in many aquatic animals like fish, turtles, alligators and frogs. And some terrestrial animals…Even humans…Was it also causing the steep rise in ambiguous sex in humans? Is Daniel an intersex human? Apparently 1 in 30 now have bodies that differ notably from standard male or female. Klinefelter, androgen insensitivity syndrome, presence of ovotestes, mixed gonadal dysgenesis, and mosaic genetics are all on the rise. Which was he?

As if he knew what I was thinking, Daniel said dramatically, “The environment is changing us faster than most think and it’s doing it through epigenetics and HGT.”

–A Diary in the Age of Water

Phthalates and BPA can be found everywhere. GQ Daniel lists them: “BPA can be found in water bottles and food containers and sales receipts. Phthalates are even more common: They are in the coatings of pills and nutritional supplements; they’re used in gelling agents, lubricants, binders, emulsifying agents, and suspending agents. Not to mention medical devices, detergents and packaging, paint and modeling clay, pharmaceuticals and textiles and sex toys and nail polish and liquid soap and hair spray. They are used in tubing that processes food, so you’ll find them in milk, yogurt, sauces, soups, and even, in small amounts, in eggs, fruits, vegetables, pasta, noodles, rice, and water. The CDC determined that just about everyone in the United States has measurable levels of phthalates in his or her body—they’re unavoidable.”

These chemicals affect sperm’s ability to swim, navigate and fertilize an egg. DNA fragmentation in the sperm head also occurs, which is basically equivalent to a sperm having a brain hemorrhage. Recent studies suggest that 20-30% of young men today have sperm counts in a range that is associated with reduced fertility. Sarbjit Kaur at the Punjab Agricultural University found that men who live in industrial cities had six times more abnormal sperm than men living in a relatively clean rural town.

TheHandmaid'sTale-bookDr. Marilyn F. Vine at the University of North Carolina demonstrated that smoking men had lower sperm counts by 13-17%. Smokers also had more abnormal sperm. Likewise, women who smoked experienced more spontaneous abortions, early menopause and abnormal oocytes. Follicular fluid also contained high levels of cadmium, a heavy metal present in cigarettes, and cotininie, a metabolite of nicotine.

A growing concern for infertility has entered our general mindset, reflected in the theme of infertility in literature and motion pictures.

Notable examples include Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Raising Arizona (1987), Aeon Flux (2005), The Children of Men (2006), Private Life (2018) and my own A Diary in the Age of Water (2020).

Although we are not close to experiencing the global infertility pandemic portrayed in the barren 2027 world of The Children of Men, this cautionary tale of a world gone mad with grief should linger like the whispered truth of a fairy tale.

children of men scene

scene from “Children of Men” motion picture

 

Suggested Reading:

Carr, Teresa. 2019. “Sperm counts are on the decline—could plastics be to blame?” The Guardian.

Belluz, Julia. 2019. “Sperm counts are falling. This isn’t the reproductive apocalypse—yet” Vox.

Halpern, Daniel Noah. 2018. “Sperm Count Zero.” GQ Magazine.

Fetters, Ashley. 2018. “Sperm Counts Continue to Fall.” The Atlantic.

Stein, Rob. 2017. “Sperm Counts Plummet in Western Men, Study Finds.” NPR.

 

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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 Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

“Natural Selection”: Fascinating Dramas Set in a World Too Close to Our Own

NaturalSelection-front-web“I write SF about a near future ‘Gaian’ world too, and at times felt I was reading a prequel to my own novels, but that’s not why I rated this collection so highly. I did so for two reasons. First, because the science was so interesting, combining visionary metaphysical speculation with AI corporate tech in scenarios that often seemed chillingly possible. Second, because of the author’s focus on the effects of these developments on human beings with complex pasts and desires. Jealousy, lust, loneliness, grief and love are all drivers of these taut and fascinating narratives…”–Amazon Review

 

 

Author’s Introduction to Natural Selection

leaves02croppedEvolution is the language of destiny. What is destiny, after all, but self-actualization and synchronicity? If evolution is the language of destiny, then choice and selection are the words of evolution and “fractal ecology” is its plot.

How do we define today a concept that Darwin originated 200 years ago in a time without bio-engineering, nano-technology, chaos theory, quantum mechanics and the Internet? We live in an exciting era of complicated change, where science based on the limitation of traditional biology is being challenged and stretched by pioneers into areas some scientists might call heretical. Endosymbiosis, synchronicity, autopoiesis & self-organization, morphic resonance, Gaia Hypothesis and planetary intelligence. Some of these might more aptly be described through the language of meta-physics. But should they be so confined? It comes down to language and how we communicate.

Is it possible for an individual to evolve in one’s own lifetime? To become more than oneself? And then pass on one’s personal experience irrevocably to others—laterally and vertically?

leaf-sketchOn the vertical argument, the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamark developed a theory of biological evolution in the early 19th century considered so ridiculous that it spawned a name: Lamarkism. His notion—that acquired traits could be passed along to offspring—was ridiculed for over two hundred years. Until he was proven right. Evolutionary biologists at Tel Aviv University in Israel showed that all sorts of cellular machinery—an intelligence of sorts—played a vital role in how DNA sequences were inherited. When researchers inserted foreign genes into the DNA of lab animals and plants, something strange happened. The genes worked at first; then they were “silenced”. Generation after generation. The host cells had tagged the foreign genes with an “off switch” that made the gene inoperable. And although the new gene was passed onto offspring, so was the off switch. It was Larmarkism in action: the parent’s experience had influenced its offspring’s inheritance. Evolutionists gave it a new name. They called it soft inheritance.

As for passing on one’s experience and acquisitions to others laterally, education in all its facets surely provides a mechanism. This may run the gamut from wise mentors, spiritual leaders, storytellers, courageous heroes to our kindergarten teacher.  Who’s to say that these too are not irrevocable? This relies, after all, on how we learn, and how we “remember”.

Evolution is choice. It is a choice made on many levels, from the intuitive mind to the intelligent cell. The controversial British botanist Rupert Sheldrake proposed that the physical forms we take on are not necessarily contained inside our genes, which he suggested may be more analogous to transistors tuned in to the proper frequencies for translating invisible information into visible form. According to Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, any form always looks alike because it ‘remembers’ its form through repetition and that any new form having similar characteristics will use the pattern of already existing forms as a guide for its appearance.  This notion is conveyed through other phenomena, which truly lie in the realm of metaphysics and lateral evolution; concepts like bilocation, psychic telegraphing, telekinesis and manifestation. Critics condemn these as crazy notions. Or is it just limited vision again? Our future cannot be foretold in our present language; that has yet to be written. Shakespeare knew this…

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy—Shakespeare

The nine stories contained herein touch on many of these concepts, spanning a 20-year writing period starting in the 1980s from “Arc of Time”, first published by The Armchair Aesthete in 2002, to “Julia’s Gift”, written in 2007, a year that marks a significant nexus in my personal evolution. That’s when I met someone who changed my life and defined my life path, my evolution, and ultimately, I suspect, my destiny.

Each story reflects a perspective on what it means to be human and evolve in a world that is rapidly changing technologically and environmentally. How we relate to our rapidly changing fractal environments—from our cells to our ecosystems, our planet and ultimately our universe—will determine our path and our destiny and those we touch in some way. My friend Heidi Lampietti, publisher of Redjack Books, expressed it eloquently, “For me, one of the most important themes that came through in the collection is the incredible difficulty, complexity, and importance of making conscious choices—and how these choices, large and small, impact our survival, either as individual humans, as a community, a species, or a world.”

Each story touches on a focal point, a nexus in someone’s personal evolution, where a decision—or an indecision—will define one’s entire later path in life. Several stories (e.g., “Butterfly in Peking”, “Frames” and “Julia’s Gift” all set in the same universe as my “Darwin’s Paradox” duology) explore this through war: a paradoxical struggle between those who follow the technological path and those who embrace nature’s intelligence. War is itself a paradox. It is both tragedy and opportunity. The very action of being at war seems to galvanize us and polarize us. War heightens contrast, increases pitch, and resonates through us in ways we have no inkling. It brings out the very worst but also the very best in us; for, as some of us sink into despair and self-serving debauchery, others heroically rise in altruistic service and humble sacrifice to help others. War defines us, perhaps like no other phenomenon.

Several stories are quirky adapted excerpts from my two books, “Darwin’s Paradox” (2007 by Dragon Moon Press) and its prequel “Angel of Chaos” (2010 by Dragon Moon Press). You will find some of the same characters there, though names have been changed to protect the innocent. You will also find the sprawling semi-underground AI-run city of Icaria (a post-industrial plague Toronto) and a character itself. Several of the characters portray “gifted” and troubled misfits—outcasts, anti-heroes, artists not in sync with the rest of the population. Yet how that person’s choices—and how s/he is treated by their community—would influence an entire species or world (“Mark of a Genius”, “Neither Here Nor There”, “Angel’s Promises”, and “Natural Selection”).

Lastly, I explore how humanity evolves, communicates and relates through forces larger than itself, either produced through its own making via technology (in “Virtually Yours”) or through timeless universal intervention (in “Arc of Time”). The last story (in fact the first written) provides a very different interpretation of an old biblical myth about new beginnings and our cyclical destiny of “creative destruction”.

I hope you enjoy reading them all. I enjoyed writing them.

“The Arc of Time” was first published in the Summer/Fall 2002 issue of The Armchair Aesthete. It was reprinted in Imagikon (2003) then scheduled for the premiere issue of Ultra! A charity issue dedicated to cystic fibrosis (Aardwolf Publications), Fall/Winter, 2004. Sadly, Lari Davidson, the editor and visionary behind the project passed away suddenly and the issue never came to fruition.

“Virtually Yours” first appeared in Issue 15 (December 2002) of Hadrosaur Tales.  It was reprinted in Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine (Issue 3, Spring 2004) then translated into Polish and reprinted in the January 2006 issue of Nowa Fantastika (Poland). It was translated into Hebrew and reprinted in Bli-Panika (Israel) in 2006. “Virtually Yours” was selected for the 2006 “The Best of Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine” anthology (Bundoran Press) and was nominated for the Canadian Aurora Prix and the Speculative Literature Foundation Fountain Award.

“Angel’s Promises” was published in Issue #30 (March, 2003) of Dreams & Visions then selected for the anthology “Skysongs II: Spiritual SF” (2005). It was nominated for the SLF Fountain Award.

“A Butterfly in Peking” was first published in Issue #17 (2003) of Chiaroscuro. It was translated into Polish and reprinted in the Summer 2005 issue of Nowa Fantastika (Poland) then translated and reprinted in The Dramaturges of Yann (Greece) in 2006.

“Mark of a Genius” first appeared in Scifidimensions (August 2004 issue) and “Neither Here Nor There” first appeared in Another Realm (September 2005).  “Frames”, “Julia’s Gift” and “Natural Selection” make their first appearance here.

Amazon description of Natural SelectionNaturalSelection-front-web

A man uses cyber-eavedropping to make love. A technocratic government uses gifted people as tools to recast humanity. The ruins of a city serve as battleground between pro-technologists and pro-naturalists. From time-space guardians to cybersex, GMO, and biotech implants, this short story collection by science fiction novelist Nina Munteanu promises a journey of great scope, imagination and vision.

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist 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.