“Contact”: a Journey to the Heart of the Universe–Film Review

Ellie (Jodie Foster) listens for aliens at the array in “Contact”

The opening sequence tells the entire story… It is both spectacular and humbling at the same time as we begin with a view of Earth gleaming in a sunrise. An almost frantic jumble of broadcasts— news, TV shows, music—assail our ears. As we pull back from Earth and pass the outer planets, we hear older broadcasts… disco…Kennedy… the Beatles… Hitler…then ultimately the unintelligible static of all the radio stations on Earth. Then, as we leave the solar system, passing breathtaking nebulae, the sounds give way to silence. A dead silence, as we continue to pull back out of the galaxy and out of the local group of galaxies into the quiet depth of our vast universe. “It’s enough to make you feel tiny and insignificant and alone,” says Maryann Johanson of FlickFilosopher.com. “Which is precisely the feeling it’s meant to evoke.”  From that arcane vastness, we are brought back to our own “intimate” existence within it as the universe transforms into a dark reflection in a young girl’s eye.

With a powerful entrance like that, it is hard to imagine that this 1997 movie directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) and based on the novel by Carl Sagan, received very mixed reviews by critics.

Cindy Fuchs of the Philadelphia City Paper called it “far more mundane than its aspirations to cosmic insights might have produced.”  Kevin N. Laforest with the Montreal Film Journal said, “Contact is not a bad film, but I can’t say it’s all that good either.” Even TVGuide.com rated it a two out of four: “It’s really about [Jodie] Foster, and with her lips pressed tightly together and her hair carelessly shoved behind her ears, she’s utterly convincing as a researcher who’s subverted everything to a life of the mind. Unfortunately that adds up to a rather remote protagonist and Ellie is surrounded by a supporting cast of one-dimensional types…far too cold-blooded for summer audiences.” This is ironic, considering that the advertizing pitch calls Contact “a journey to the heart of the universe.” Finally, Christopher Null (Filmcritic.com) recommended it for its looks but not highly. Said Null: “Carl Sagan’s ode to the superior intelligence of aliens (and how us darned humans mess everything up) is consistently beautiful and interesting, but it never makes a point (except for that bit about the darned humans).

I think these critics have missed the point. Contact—and its somewhat tortured protagonist—demonstrates much in the way of “heart” and in doing so, makes a compelling story. Hearts beat deeply inside us, and this movie is no different; its “heart” runs deep, deep beneath the surface rhetoric that seems to have distracted several critics who likely prefer to take a shallow sip of their coffee steaming hot than wait and savor the rich flavor of a dark blend in a deep swallow.

Contact examines the moral, social and religious implications of our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence through the personal journey of astronomer, Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway (played impeccably and sensitively by Jodie Foster). Never knowing her mother (who died at child birth) and having lost her father when she was ten, Ellie grows into a strong-willed scientist who dedicates her life to finding alien life in the universe by foregoing a career at Harvard to join a SETI Observatory in the Puerto Rico jungle. In an earlier scene with her father, she asks the question we have all pondered at least once: “Do you think there are people on other planets?” to which her father blithely answers, “if it’s just us, seems like an awful lot of wasted space,” a simple argument that appeals to the young logically-minded Ellie and one that will dominate the perseverance of her adult life in her resolute search for life in the universe.

And persevere Ellie must, because nothing comes easy for her. Shortly after she settles at the SETI Observatory her teacher (and nemesis) David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) pays her a visit with implied threats of shutting the place down. Ellie also meets Palmer Joss (Mathew McConaughey), a man of faith, who is writing a book about the effects of science and technology on the third world. Although she is attracted to him, alarm bells go off in Ellie, who feels threatened by his faith (something she does not outwardly understand yet clings to in another form). Wanting to see him again, she introduces him to the man he wants to interview: Drumlin. And one of the most poignant conversations follows:

When Ellie challenges Drumlin’s apparent wish to do away with all pure research, he responds with, “What’s wrong with science being practical, even profitable? Nothing—”

Palmer cuts in, “—As long as your motive is the search for truth, which is exactly what the pursuit of science is.”

Drumlin counters peevishly, “Well, that’s an interesting position coming from a man who crusades against the evils of technology.”

To which Palmer responds, “I’m not against technology; I’m against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth.”

Palmer and Ellie collide from two different worlds and despite their differences, they are profoundly attracted to one another. But as quickly as she falls for Palmer, she recoils from him.

Nothing comes easy for Ellie: “small moves, Ellie,” her father is accustomed to telling her, “small moves…” Shortly after she and her colleagues have been shut down by Drumlin and have set up anew (thanks to eccentric billionaire entrepreneur, S.R. Hadden, played by John Hurt), Drumlin and others shut them down yet again. But, as though a greater force intervenes, this is when Ellie makes her momentous discovery and intercepts an alien message from Vega, a young star still surrounded by a proto-planetary cloud of debris about 27 light years away from us. The scene is scientifically plausible and elegantly powerful—as we witness the drama of this phenomenal discovery unfold in a frisson of action.

Zemeckis wisely shows us exactly how such an event would really play out. And Sagan didn’t pick Vega out of whimsy: a sphere sixty light years thick of radio communication radiates from Earth from our radio and TV broadcasts. These signals may be captured by alien technology and sent back as a “message”. In theory, such a signal could be received on Earth anytime after 1990, the round trip time for a light or radio signal to travel to Vega and back from the first global signal, which in itself is momentous and telling. In another spine-tingling scene, the scientists who have descended upon Ellie decipher the arcane harmonics of the “message” as the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 (the first truly global TV broadcast made) over which Hitler presided. In fact, in another stroke of irony, the now infamous swastika is the first icon they decipher. Later still, they discover embedded instructions to build a machine that appears made to take a human on an extra-galactic trip.

Ellie (Jodie Foster) listens for aliens at the giant array in “Contact”

At the same time that Ellie intercepts this message, Palmer Joss experiences a meteoric rise to stardom with his bestselling book, Losing Faith: the Search for Meaning in the Age of Reason (which could well have been the alternate title for the film; it certainly describes the subtext of the story and the major thematic element: Faith & Meaning). In an interview with a prominent news show host, Palmer asks the question that most of us have avoided:  “The question that I’m asking is this: are we happier? Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology?…We shop at home, we search the web—at the same time we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than any other time in human history…We have meaningless jobs, we take frantic vacations [and] trips to the mall to buy more things to fill these holes in our lives.” Ironically, Palmer touches a similar nerve in Ellie when he brings up her dead parents: “It must have been hard… being alone…” insinuating that her fanatical search for intelligent alien life may simply be filling a hole in her heart. She flees Palmer shortly after, fearing his revealing intimacy. When they next meet, years later, they fall naturally into their familiar banter and she turns the table to challenge his faith in the same way: “What if science simply revealed that [God] never existed in the first place?” She then evokes Occam’s Razor, which says that “…all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one…what’s more likely? An all powerful mysterious God [who] created the universe then decided not to give us proof of his existence or that he simply doesn’t exist at all and we created him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?” Both of them are saved from an answer by the intrusive rings of their cell phones.

Space-time vehicle in the film Contact

Ironically again, it is Ellie’s lack of belief in God that causes her to be overlooked for the momentous journey in the alien craft, in favor of the crafty Drumlin with the oily smile. Unfortunately, a religious zealot sabotages the mission and Drumlin, along with the whole alien craft and construct, are blown up in a spectacular explosion at NASA’s Cape Canaveral. Ellie gets her chance after all when they build a second one. Her journey in the alien space craft, which we are later told takes up eighteen hours of her time but passes instantaneously on Earth (to the point where they all think nothing actually happened), is truly epic and elegantly portrayed. Her encounter with the aliens is also in keeping with the plot and imagery of the story. One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is the one where Ellie is introduced to the incredible and indescribable beauty of the vast Universe. It is at this point that she experiences her epiphany: science is not the sole purveyor of truth in the Universe. As she gazes at the splendor revealed before her, she acknowledges that the language of science is unable to express the sheer magnitude of the breathtaking scene. Grasping at something to say, she blubbers with a scientific term then finally gasps, “No words…to describe it…they should have sent a poet…”

Upon her return, Ellie is challenged by skeptics who think she suffered a giant delusion (remember that on Earth, no time had passed during her supposed eighteen-hour voyage). Ellie offers up a strained scientific explanation (e.g., wormhole travel through space-time also called Einstein-Rosen bridges) which is challenged by National Security Advisor, Michael Kitz (James Woods) as only theory, and must finally resort to her faith; one she selflessly offers to the world: “I… had an experience. I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe, that tells us undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that none of us are alone.”

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality Practice said it best: “Robert Zemeckis has fashioned a truly awesome movie that celebrates the spiritual practices of listening, wonder, love, and zeal. It affirms that there are times and places where reason must yield to mystery.”

The SETI Institute, who currently conduct the search for alien life, have a website dedicated to the movie.

Indian River, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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.

Look Who’s Been Reading Darwin…

From Anne in Monument Valley, Arizona, to George in Brighton Pier, UK … from Heather coasting on the Ohio River to Noah gliding in a BC Ferry and Jo-Anne basking in the Gulf Islands of BC Canada … from Honoka in Kyoto’s Higashiyama District and Mika in Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest to Rick in his cozy Alberta home and Viviann in a cozy café  … from Anne with her favourite dog in Ladner Marsh and Margaret with a favourite ale in an outdoor pub to Carina beside her favourite Buddha and Cathy by her favourite pool … people are reading Darwin’s Paradox.

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.

The Paradox of Pandemics & Darwin’s Paradox

On Writing My First Speculative Fiction Novel: The Darwin-Angel Duology

The first novel I wrote at the tender age of fifteen was Caged in World, a hundred-page speculative story about a world that had moved “inside” to escape the ravages of a harsh post climate-change environment. 

It was 1969, the year that humans first stepped on the moon and the first Concorde test flight was conducted in France. But I was concerned by the environment and what was happening on our planet. It was seven years since Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring, which warned of our declining bird and bee populations and impacts to human health from unregulated pesticide/herbicide use (such as carcinogens and hormone disruptors). It was just a year after Paul Erlich’s Population Bomb warned that attempts to stretch the Earth’s resources to support the ever-growing population would result in mass starvation, epidemics, and, ultimately, the breakdown of social order. 

In the 1960s it was already apparent that environmental imbalance and destruction were global concerns and we were on the brink of an environmental crisis.  Unchecked deforestation was destroying forests around the world, including the boreal and old-growth forests of my own country Canada. Brazil had already begun cutting down trees and burning forest at an alarming rate. Unregulated use of pesticides, herbicides and growth hormones created toxic contamination of our natural world and our food and water supply—despite Carson’s dire warning with Silent Spring. Our waterways were being contaminated by mining wastes and industrial effluents. Killer smog. Noxious algal blooms. Oil spills. Dead zones. The list was growing.

Bamboo Forest, Kyoto, Japan (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I joined S.T.O.P. (Society To Overcome Pollution) and marched in protests to call for responsible behaviour by governments and large corporations. I tried to raise awareness at my school about our deteriorating environment and likely consequences to human survival; my own teachers tried to silence me. I wrote my first dystopia, Caged in World.  The eco-novel was about a subway train driver and a data analyst caught in the trap of a huge lie. The story later morphed into Escape from Utopia. My dad, who was impressed with my dedication and what I’d done, became my first agent; he brokered a meeting with a Doubleday editor he’d met and impressed (my dad was a character and very charming); I did my first book pitch at age sixteen. The editor read my book and, while he didn’t pick the book for Doubleday, he told me that the story was original and imaginative and that I should keep writing.  

Several drafts—and years later—the novel became the eco-medical thriller Angel of Chaos, set in 2095 as humanity struggles with Darwin’s Disease—a mysterious neurological environmental pandemic. Icaria 5 is one of many enclosed cities within the slowly recoving toxic wasteland of North America, and where the protagonist Julie Crane works and lives. The city is run by technocrats, deep ecologists who call themselves Gaians, and consider themselves guardians of the planet.

The Gaians’ secret is that they are keeping humanity “inside” not to protect humanity from a toxic wasteland but to protect the environment from a toxic humanity. 

Since she was a young child, Julie has been hearing voices in her head. She’s not a schizophrenic, but a gifted veemeld (someone who can tap into machine intelligence wavebands). Feeling an inexplicable “karmic” guilt and intent on making a contribution to her society, Julie searches for a cure to Darwin Disease; instead, she makes a horrifying discovery that incriminates her in a heinous conspiracy to recast humankind.

“This is a story with great scope … As Julie finds out the truth about her father, she discovers a truth that will tear her world apart.

Bill Johnson, author of “a story is a promise”

By virtue of their gifted powers in communicating with the machine world, veemelds are considered a commodity, to be used, traded, hoarded and discarded by ruling technocrats all over North America.

I spent several years shopping the book to agents and publishing houses. Although I received many bites, all finally let go. In the meantime, I did several things: 1) I started writing short stories, some of which were cannibalized from the book, and several were published; 2) I wrote Angel’s prequel, The Great Revolution (never published, it sits in a drawer hibernating) and Angel’s sequel Darwin’s Paradox, (which was published). In fact, in 2007, Dragon Moon Press in Calgary made an offer to publish Darwin’s Paradox; the sequel became my debut novel. Dragon Moon Press later picked up Angel of Chaos and published it in 2010 as a prequel.

“Angel of Chaos is a gripping blend of big scientific ideas, cutthroat politics and complex yet sympathetic characters that will engage readers from its thrilling opening to its surprising and satisfying conclusion.”

Hayden Trenholm, Aurora-winning author of The Steele Chronicles

Darwin’s Paradox follows humanity in its cloistered indoor world as it deteriorates with the disease. Darwin’s Disease—related to indoor living—sweeps across humanity with debilitating genetic deterioration, violent death and the promise of extinction.  This is something the self-professed deep ecology Gaians are content to see in—if it means preserving the natural world. Of course, the Gaians—being self-serving humans after all—have an exit plan.

In 2012, Derek Newman-Stille of Speculating Canada wrote an essay on Darwin’s Paradox entitled Patient Zero and the Post Human; the article provides an insightful description of the eco-novel and interesting historical context and irony to our current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic:

“In Darwin’s Paradox Nina Munteanu displays her awareness of scientific discourse: focussing on areas like chaos theory, biological theories of co-evolution, symbiosis and virology, and ecological theories. Her protagonist, Julie, is patient zero in a spreading epidemic that has infected most of modern civilisation. Munteanu creates a civilisation where human society is centred around a few urban locales, leaving large parts of the world unoccupied by human beings, and allowing for ecological development uninterrupted by human interference. Technology in this future world has fused with the viral epidemic, questioning the barriers of the human and the nature of human existence. The nature of humanity has changed with this introduction of other elements into the human biosystem, creating a post-human world in which the possibilities of the future of human existence are called into question, and in which several powers are vying for control of the next stage of humanity and the future of the human race.

Munteanu’s  Darwin’s Paradox illustrates a collision of past and future as Julie is haunted by her past and ideas of home, while simultaneously representing a next stage in human evolution. The city Icaria 5 itself is a representation of past and present intersecting: buried under the city of Toronto and rising from the structures of the past. Munteanu’s plot is full of family secrets, the hidden past, and the resurfacing of guilt (particularly Julie’s guilt about being patient zero in the spreading viral apocalypse). She explores the draw of the past and home and the continual pull the past has upon one’s existence. Munteanu explores Julie’s simultaneous desire to return home and her realisation that home has forever changed – becoming a foreign place.

Munteanu explores society’s fear of epidemic and the role of medical technology as a mechanism for solving all of the world’s problems. She illustrates that medical technology has its limits and complicates the nature of technological methods of solving problems by allowing virus and technology to meld.  Simultaneously Munteanu explores the continuation of society’s obsession with beauty and perfection by creating a society where one can restore one’s beauty through instant medical treatments: Nuyu and Nuergery, using nanites to restore one’s youth and change undesirable aspects of one’s form. Political groups fearing the over-use of technology and the complications to the idea of the human that these surgeries may cause begin using scarring to assert their difference and reluctance to submit to social controls.

Media plays an important role in Munteanu’s vision of the future, illustrating the continuance of the media hegemony for defining the nature of “truth” as media messages replace facts and political leaders manipulate the media system to enforce their own controls over society and further embed their interests into the developing social system. She illustrates the danger of the current system of using the politics of fear as a mechanism for controlling voters (particularly focussing on the use of fear by political groups to shift cultural ideas, sympathies, and ultimately gain control of the developing social system).  In Munteanu’s vision of the future, it is impossible to trust anyone completely and layers within layers of plot are illustrated, leaving the reader distrusting of every message he or she receives.

Munteanu raises questions and challenges the development of society’s current systems, asking her readers to think critically about messages they are given and to question everything. She illustrates that the truth is socially constructed and that ideas of the truth serve social purposes and can be used to support hidden agendas.”—Derek Newman-Stille, Patient Zero and the Post-Human

In some ways, the Darwin duology shares a special place in my heart—not just because the duology became my first and second traditionally published novels, but because through them I found my writing voice. Since first writing Caged In World, I spent close to four decades honing my craft; I published short stories and two novellas (Collision with Paradise in 2005 andThe Cypol in 2006), and attended writing workshops and conventions, before publishing my first novel with a traditional publisher. It was a fulfilling heuristic path that taught me writing craft in all its facets.

Since publishing my first novel in 2007, I have published on average a book every year (alternating each year between fiction and non-fiction).  I now have fourteen books published with various publishing houses. Most are in keeping with an environmental theme. My latest non-fiction book Water Is… was picked by Margaret Atwood in New York Time’s ‘Year in Reading’ in 2016. My latest eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water was published by Inanna Publications in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

My journey as writer has been rich and varied. I’ve moved and lived from one end of Canada to the other. I raised a family and travelled the world. I worked as a field researcher and environmental consultant, investigating many water bodies in Canada and helping communities in watersheds. I taught limnology and phycology at the University of Victoria and currently teach writing at the University of Toronto. I continue my personal research in the natural world to satisfy my unending curiosity. I’ve changed. My writing has changed. But one thing will never change: my passion for the written word and the worlds of the imagination. That journey will never end (until the end, that is).

Readers have asked for a sequel to Darwin’s Paradox. I’ve also been approached by several writers to collaborate on a sequel. While many of their ideas were wonderfully original, I’ve not taken any of them on their offer. Others have said that both novels would make a great series or movie. I’m inclined to agree. If that were to come to pass, I might be persuaded to create a Darwin’s Paradox series and continue the story of Julie, Daniel, and Angel.

Bamboo Forest in Kyoto, Japan (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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.

Johannes Kepler Wrote the World’s First Work of Science Fiction

Johannes Kepler

“A spindly middle-aged mathematician with a soaring mind, a sunken heart, and bad skin is being thrown about the back of a carriage in the bone-hollowing cold of a German January…He is now racing through the icy alabaster expanse of the countryside in the precarious hope of averting another: Four days after Christmas and two days after his forty-fourth birthday, a letter from his sister has informed him that their widowed mother is on trial for witchcraft — a fact for which he holds himself responsible.”

This is how Maria Popova of brainpickings starts her article entitled: “How Kepler Invented Science Fiction and Defended His Mother in a Witchcraft Trial While Revolutionizing Our Understanding of the Universe.”

It all started with Somnium (The Dream), Kepler’s work of science fiction.

Despite having sufficient mathematical evidence to confirm Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe, Kepler understood that the proof was overly complex and abstract to persuade his peers, much less the scientifically illiterate public. He realized that where data and evidence could not dismantle their “celestial parochialism,” storytelling could. Somnium resulted.

Somnium (The Dream), was a fictional account of a young astronomer who travels to the Moon. Rich in scientific ingenuity and symbolism, the allegory advanced the controversial Copernican model of the universe—that our planet revolves around the Sun, not the other way around. The young astronomer finds that lunar beings believe Earth revolves around them. Using the moon beings’ delusion as metaphor for our delusion about Earth’s central position in an immutable universe, Kepler hoped to awaken people to the truth of Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe. But we weren’t ready for the truth; instead Somniumresulted in Kepler’s elderly mother’s being accused of witchcraft. 

Popova adds: “As Kepler is galloping through the German countryside to prevent his mother’s execution, the Inquisition in Rome is about to declare the claim of Earth’s motion heretical — a heresy punishable by death.” This was a dangerous time for anyone with a scientific mind.

This was a world, Popova reminds us, where the will of God supersedes the laws of nature. A world where the Devil is more real and powerful than gravity. A time when most people believed that the sun revolved around the Earth every day in a circular orbit. Kepler would disprove this belief by demonstrating that physical forces move the heavenly bodies in calculable ellipses. But he paid a price for his unconventionality. Kepler was a game-changer, a scientific seditionist who would spill the apple cart of conventional thought with ungodly science. He invented the word orbit and developed a scientific method to predict eclipses. He was the first astrophysicist. And yet…

“All of this he would accomplish while drawing horoscopes, espousing the spontaneous creation of new animal species rising from bogs and oozing from tree bark, and believing the Earth itself to be an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism,” writes Popova. “Three centuries later, the marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson would reimagine a version of this view woven of science and stripped of mysticism as she makes ecology a household word.”  

The superstitious villagers of Kepler’s hometown overlooked the metaphor and science of Somnium and focused instead on what they recognized as autobiographical: the young narrator (a young astronomer who apprenticed with Tycho Brahe like Kepler did) and a witch-like mother, who was a herb doctor (like Kepler’s own mother). Having recognized a likeness, they saw Kepler’s allegory as non-fiction. This meant that the narrator’s mother, who conjures up spirits to assist her son in his lunar voyage, and Kepler’s mother were one in the same. Katharina Kepler—a blunt, independent and outspoken woman—was soon called out as a witch. Villagers who had a bone to pick with her took advantage and rumors spread: a mother claimed that her daughter’s arm grew numb after Katharina brushed against it in the street; the butcher’s wife swore that pain pierced her husband’s thigh when Katharina walked by; the limping schoolmaster dated the onset of his disability to a night ten years earlier when he had taken a sip from a tin cup at Katharina’s house while reading her one of Kepler’s letters. She was accused of appearing magically through closed doors, of having caused the deaths of infants and animals.

The burning at the stake of Anne Drake (anonymous engraving)

“After years of exerting reason against superstition, Kepler ultimately succeeded in getting his mother acquitted,” writes Popova. “But the seventy-five-year-old woman never recovered from the trauma of the trial and the bitter German winter spent in the unheated prison.” She died shortly after she was released.

Thousands of people were tried for witchcraft during that time. Most of the accused were women, whose defense fell on their sons, brothers, and husbands. Most trials ended in execution. In Germany, some twenty-five thousand were killed. In Kepler’s small hometown, six women had been burned as witches just a few weeks before his mother was indicted.

Popova tells us that Katharina Kepler “first enchanted her son with astronomy when she took him to the top of a nearby hill and let the six-year-old boy gape in wonderment as the Great Comet of 1577 blazed across the sky.”

But Katharina’s fate was written by the world she lived in.  Kepler understood that as a man, his privileges in education—and standing—provided him with additional social standing beyond his mother’s. “I was born a man, not a woman,” he wrote, “a difference in sex which the astrologers seek in vain in the heavens.” 

Maple-Oak swamp forest in spring, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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.

Embracing Your Future: Flying Algal Ships

Hydrogenase design by Vincent Callebaut

You walk toward English Bay to the nearest Hydrogenase Hub, where you are meeting with your team to discuss the presentation.

The hub is a floating algal farm. The farm and the elongated seed-shaped airship docked at its centre both produce biofuel—essentially hydrogen—from the microorganism Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Your mom, a former environmental consultant and algal scientist—now she writes science fiction—explained to you that this unicellular organism has both plant and animal properties; it carries out photosynthesis but is also heterotrophic (able to use organic carbon to grow) and will in the absence of oxygen produce gaseous hydrogen and metabolites such as formate and ethanol through hydrogenase enzymes. Chlamydomonas reinhardtii was first discovered as a clean source of hydrogen back in 1939 by German scientist Hans Gaffron at the University of Chicago (ironically the same year Germany invaded Poland). Gaffron called it “photosynthetic hydrogen production by algae”; and today it is a process that produces electricity and biofuel with zero emissions. 

The algae farm recycles CO2for the bio-hydrogen airship you will be boarding after your meeting in the hub. You enter the airy station, whose honeycomb circular design resembles a stylized lily pad and glance up through the high nano-glass ceiling toward the elongated seed-shaped transport rising ten stories above you. The sun glances off the diaphanous double helix frame that resembles a freshwater spirogyra. The hub you’re standing in is a floating algae farm with solar cells on top and hydro-turbines below to capture tidal energy. The algae farm recycles CO2 for the bio-hydrogen airship you will be boarding after your meeting in the hub. You enter the airy station, whose honeycomb circular design resembles a stylized lily pad and glance up through the high nano-glass ceiling toward the elongated seed-shaped transport rising ten stories above you.

The sun glances off the diaphanous double helix frame that resembles a freshwater spirogyra. The hub you’re standing in is a floating algae farm with solar cells on top and hydro-turbines below to capture tidal energy.

The concept is the “subversive architecture” of Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut and inspired by the principles of biomimicry, coined by Janine Benyus in 2002 in her book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”.  Callebaut conceived Hydrogenase in 2010 as a 100% self-sufficient and zero-emission transport system using algae. He claimed that a hectare of seaweeds could produce 120 times more biofuel than a hectare of colza, soya or sunflower without consuming land needed for crops or forests. He called Hydrogenase a true miniature biochemical power station. Able to absorb CO2 as the main nutrient through photosynthesis the algae, under anaerobic conditions, produce hydrogen in vitro or in bioreactors. 

You swipe your PAL over the ticket booth sensor and the optional ticket-brochure pops out. You take it and read the specs between glances at the tall vessel loading in the dock of the hub. It’s really like a vertical dirigible, you think, studying the seed-shaped airship with self-cleaning “intelligent” nanostructured glass—inspired by the lotus leaf that doesn’t get wet. The semi-rigid unpressurised airship stretches vertically around an arborescent spine that twists like chloroplast ribbons 400 meters high and 180 meters in diameter.

You read that each Hydrogenase airship is covered with flexible inflatable photovoltaic cells and twenty wind turbines to maneuver and collect energy. The interior spaces provide room for housing, offices, scientific laboratories, and entertainment, and a series of vegetable gardens that provide a source of food while recycling waste.

You read that this self-sufficient organic transport flies about 2000 meters high at about 175 km/hr (twice the speed of a conventional ship). Given its ease in negotiating airspace and its ability to land and take off from virtually any location, the Hydrogenase is used by many groups in various capacities. Your friend Michael who teaches at the University of Victoria uses one as a mobile research station in his studies along the coast of northern British Columbia.  

The vessel is made of “intelligent layers” and “self-separable ceramics”. Its bionic coating draws inspiration from sharkskin that is self-cleaning and flow-efficient. 

Hydrogenase concept with algal farm pods and air ships

You head down the spiral staircase to the third subsea level toward the meeting room you booked earlier on your PAL. The view is spectacular from here through the nano-glass panes. Rays of shimmering light stream through a gently swaying forest of kelp. You glimpse the sun-glinted flickering of hundreds of anchovies as they school through the kelp. This floating farm is an organic purifying station of four carbon wells where the algae recycle the carbonated waste brought by the airships and, in turn, feed the airship with biohydrogen. It’s the new “gas station”, you reflect with a smile.

After your meeting with staff, you and three others of your team board the airship and settle in one of the skyview chambers. The journey is relaxing, like the BC Ferry used to be, but without the pungent smell and pollution of conventional motorized sea vessels. It’s a quiet and relaxing trip with a spectacular view of the Gulf Islands. Your team strategizes your presentation over a light lunch and Matcha lattes. 

Vincent Callebaut’s Hydrogenase

The PA system sounds and a woman’s voice informs you that the ship will be making an emergency landing on Saturna Island to rescue two hikers injured at East Point. This will only add twenty minutes to the trip, the woman assures you. You don’t mind and recall the disclaimer at the bottom of the ticket. Given the ability of this airship to take off and accurately land virtually anywhere, all Hydrogenases are by law mandated to be on standby for rescue missions in rough terrain.

You pull out the ticket and read again: The Hydrogenase is affiliated with the International Red Cross and BC Coastguard. The Hydrogenase must by law respond to any distress call at sea or rough terrain associated with coastal waters. Because of this service, we cannot guarantee a timely schedule.  

You recall how Hydrogenases were deployed in the last hurricane disaster off the coast of Florida last year, saving countless people trapped in the flooding that accompanied the storm. The International Red Cross uses them as flying hospitals.

Bernard frets over the time delay. He is concerned about the lack of preparation and set up time once you get into Victoria. You assuage him gently. The best preparation is sincerity, you tell him. The landscape architect Thomas Woltz, whose work you highly respect, saw himself as someone who embraces the complexity of modern life while seeking meaning and narrative in both natural and human-made environments.

“We’re storytellers,” you tell Andre. Invoking metaphor through design. “They know we’re coming and they know we’re helping someone; they’ll wait for our story. And it’s all about harmony.”

The lines of Henry David Thoreau come to you: Man’s life must be of equal simplicity and sincerity with nature, and his actions harmonize with her grandeur and beauty.

Then you point your PAL at the ServiceBot and order three more lattes. You lean back in your bamboo fabric chair and cross your legs over the leg rest. 

It’s a brave new world. 

Pine forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

 

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.

Nina Munteanu Talks about more than Water on the Douglas Coleman Show

Nina Munteanu was recently on The Douglas Coleman Show where she and Douglas talked about writing, being scared of water, the sub-genre of eco-fiction and what Canada might have been like if the white settlers hadn’t come.

Here’s the show:

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.

“A Diary in the Age of Water” Reviewed by Kirkus Reviews, The Winnipeg Free Press and The Miramichi Reader

Nina Munteanu’s cli-fi eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” just released in summer of 2020 received several favourable reviews from Kirkus ReviewsThe Winnipeg Free Press, and The Miramichi Reader. The speculative novel about four generations of woman and their unique relationship with water was recently awarded the Literary Titan Award for a book that “expertly delivers complex characters, intricate worlds, and thought provoking themes. The ease with which the story is told is a reflection of the author’s talent in exercising fluent, powerful, and appropriate language.”

“While bringing attention to the current politicization of climate change, the story maintains important underlying themes like family, love, forgiveness, and the complexity of the human soul. The author has gone to great lengths to show that there are different layers to each character, none fully evil nor fully good. A Diary in the Age of Water is an exceptional and thought-provoking dystopian fiction.”
—LITERARY TITAN (4-star)

“In Canadian ecologist Munteanu’s novel, a child in a world of climate disaster discovers hidden truths about the past in a mysterious journal. In a story set centuries in the future, a young girl with four arms named Kyo lives on the last vestige of a planet damaged by climate crisis, water scarcity, and a cataclysm brought on by semi-divine figures called the Water Twins. Kyo comes across the 21st-century journal of a limnologist named Lynna; over two decades, the journal’s author details Earth’s fate with scientific observations on the harm wrought by corporate greed, as well as her own personal struggles raising a child in a world of catastrophe and authoritarianism. She’s a deeply relatable and tragically flawed character who’s wracked by doubt, fear, and cynicism—a stark contrast to her fierce environmentalist mother, Una, and her spiritual, idealistic daughter, Hildegard. What unites them all is the study of water: its intrinsic properties, its mysteries, and ultimately its necessity to the planet. In poetic prose (“We’re going down in a kind of slow violence”) with sober factual basis, Munteanu transmutes a harrowing dystopia into a transcendentalist origin myth…the author asks uncomfortable questions and explores the effects of one generation’s actions upon the next as they ripple outward like a stone dropped in a pond. A sobering and original cautionary tale that combines a family drama with an environmental treatise.”
—KIRKUS REVIEWS

Futuristic novel awash with water warnings

“An engaging epistolary novel. An ecologist and environmental activist herself, Munteanu has no difficulty voicing a fully formed literary character who is both scientifically literate enough to understand how quickly human society is entering its final ebb, and humane enough to mourn the fullness of this tragedy.

The prose here is beautiful and purposeful in the tradition of environmentally and socially minded novelists such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood… It comes down to water: ice sheets, rain and drought, the loss of water tables and the collapse of marine ecologies in an acidifying ocean. The pulse and rhythm of life on this planet is water. Its death throes, too, can be read in the flow of water.

Munteanu has produced something which joins George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, Le Guin and Atwood, a warning of the direction we are heading that will be valuable even if we manage to avert disaster.”
—Joel Boyce, WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

“A Diary in the Age of Water commands reader interest on a number of levels…a chilling but believable portrayal of what might happen as fresh water becomes scarcer… Munteanu’s novel provides a cautionary note for what might happen if we fail to pay attention to this precious resource.”
—Lisa Timpf, MIRAMICHI READER

Short Synopsis

A Diary in the Age of Water follows the climate-induced journey of the Earth and humanity through four generations of women, each with a unique relationship to her world and to water. Water plays both metaphoric and literal roles in this allegorical tale of humanity’s final journey from home—where male sterility, heat-shock proteins, horizontal gene transfer, and virgin-births rule a changing world of water securitization through ambitious environmental manipulation (e.g., resurrecting the US Army Corps of Engineers 1960s NAWAPA/CeNAWP plan to create the 800 km long Rocky Mountain Trench reservoir and divert most of northern Canada’s water to the USA—drowning a fifth of BC). 

Told in far-future and near-future frames, the central part of the story is a diary by a limnologist, whose personal account creates a terrifying realism to the geo-political tension of water securitization, plague containment, and police oppression—the diary spans from 2045 to 2064 (when the diarist disappears herself). 

The cli-fi novel begins centuries from now in the dying northern boreal forest with young KYO, a blue water nymph with multiple arms who dreams of the past and of being a normal human. She is on her way to the library to memorize a textbook on the Age of Water and there discovers a piece of her past from that age when The Water Twins destroyed the world. Kyo discovers a diary by a limnologist (who happens to be the mother of one of the Twins). Intrigued, Kyo drops the textbook and reads the diary. The diary, by cynical limnologist LYNNA, describes a near-future Toronto in the grips of severe water scarcity. The gritty memoir describes Toronto in a time when China owns the USA and the USA owns Canada, and aggressively mines its water. While lamenting the greed and destructive nature of her race, Lynna self-servingly helps murder three people; she also gives birth to rebel daughter HILDA (one of the Water Twins) who destroys her world through water and gives virgin-birth to the next stage in human evolution: a mutant who becomes one of the Disappeared who returns centuries later in a dying world as the water keeper Kyo. 

“A Diary in the Age of Water” explores identity and our concept of what is “normal”—as a nation and an individual—in a world that is rapidly and incomprehensibly changing.

Poplar trees in northern Ontario in fall (photograph by Nina Munteanu

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.

How the Bdelloid Rotifer Lived for Millennia — Without Sex

As a child, I always wanted a microscope.

I would have collected slimy waters from the scum ponds and murky puddles near my house. I would have brought them home and exposed them to the light of my microscope. I would then have peered deep into a secret world, where shady characters and alien forms lurked and traded.

It would be many years, when I was in college, before I finally witnessed this world—so alien, it might have inspired the science fiction books I wrote later as an adult. As it turned out, I was led to pursue a Masters of Science degree, studying periphyton (microscopic aquatic communities attached and associated with surfaces like rocks and plants) in local streams in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.

Filamentous algae collected in Lake Ontario, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

While my work focused on how diatoms (glass-walled algae) colonized surfaces, micro-invertebrates kept vying for my attention. Water fleas (cladocerans), copepods, rotifers, seed shrimps (ostracods) and water bears sang across my field of vision. They flitted, lumbered, wheeled and meandered their way like tourists lost in Paris. But this wasn’t Paris; I’d taken the blue pill and entered the rabbit hole into another world…

Sketch of common zooplankton and phytoplankton (illustration by Nina Munteanu)

The Secret—and Dangerous—World of Micro-Organisms

Small Freshwater habitats are home to a highly productive and diverse collection of micro-invertebrates—multicellular animals that can barely be seen with the naked eye. Many average from 0.5 to 1 mm in size and resemble little white blobs; however, a scholar can distinguish each invertebrate by its unique movement. For instance, when presented with a jar of pond water, I can usually distinguish among the wheel-like wandering of a gastrotrich, dirigible-like gliding of an ostracod (seed shrimp), the vertical goldfinch-style “hopping” of the cladoceran (water flea) as it beats its antennae, or the halting-jerking movements of copepods (oar-feet) as their antennae drive them along like a dingy propelled by an amateur oarsman.

Alas, puddles, ephemeral ponds and vernal pools pose sketchy habitats, given their tendency to appear and disappear in a wink. And like the thief in the night, they pose a harsh and uncertain home to many small organisms. These environments are ever-changing, unstable, chaotic and unpredictable. Yet, anyone who has studied these variable ecosystems understands that they team with life. 

When a puddle or ephemeral pond dries up then reappears with rain, how can these communities thrive? Or do they all die off and then somehow recruit when the pond reappears? Many of these invertebrates have evolved creative ways to survive in very unstable environments. Some form a resting stage—a spore, resting egg or ‘tun’—that goes dormant and rides out the bad weather.

Philodina, a bdelloid rotifer (microscope photo by Bob Blaylock)

Animalcules & the Bdelloid Rotifer

In 1701, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek observed that “animalcules” (likely the bdelloid rotifer Philodina roseaola) survived desiccation and were “resurrected” when water was added to them. He’d discovered a highly resistant dormant state of an aquatic invertebrate to desiccation.

Dormancy is a common strategy of organisms that live in harsh and unstable environments and has been documented in crustaceans, rotifers, tardigrades, phytoplankton and ciliates. “Dormant forms of some planktonic invertebrates are among the most highly resistant … stages in the whole animal kingdom,” writes Jacek Radzikowski in a 2013 review in the Journal of Plankton Research. Radzikowski describes two states of dormancy: diapause and quiescence. (on right: sketch of bdelloid rotifer by Nina Munteanu

Bdelloid rotifers can go into quiescent dormancy at practically any stage in their life cycle in response to unfavorable conditions. Early research noted that dormant animals could withstand freezing and thawing from −40°C to 100°C and storage under vacuum. They also tolerated high doses of UV and X radiation. Later work reported that some rotifers could survive extreme abiotic conditions, such as exposure to liquid nitrogen (−196°C) for several weeks or liquid helium (−269°C) for several hours. Desiccated adult bdelloid rotifers apparently survived minus 80°C conditions for more than 6 years. The dormant eggs of cladocerans and ostracods also survived below freezing temperatures for years.

Rotifers are cosmopolitan detrivores (they eat detritus) and contribute to the decomposition of organic matter. Rotifers create a vortex with ciliated tufts on their heads that resemble spinning wheels, sweeping food into their mouths. They often anchor to larger debris while they feed or inch, worm-like, along substrates. Some are sessile, living inside tubes or gelatinous holdfasts and may even be colonial. Rotifers reproduce by parthenogenesis (in the absence of mates), producing clones (like cladocerans). Resting eggs (sometimes called zygotes) survive when a pond dries up. Bdelloid rotifers don’t produce resting eggs; they survive desiccation through a process called anhydrobiosis, contracting into an inert form and losing most of their body water. Embryos, juveniles and adults can undergo this process. The bdelloid withdraws its head and food and contracts its body into a compact shape called a tun; a generally unprotected dormant state that remains permeable to gases and liquids. Like Tardigrades (see below), Bdelloid rotifers can resist ionizing radiation because they can repair DNA double-strand breaks.

The long-term survival and evolutionary success of bdelloid rotifers in the absence of sex arises from horizontal gene transfer via DNA repair.

In my eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water the limnologist Lynna visits her technician Daniel as he peers through a microscope and makes the observation of why the bdelloid rotifer is well-suited to climate change:

I bent to peer through the eyepiece at what turned out to be a pond sample in a Petri dish. Attached to a pile of detritus shivering in the current, several microscopic metazoans—rotifers—swung like trees in a gale; they were feeding. Their ciliated disk-like mouths twirled madly, capturing plankton to eat. Watching them reminded me of my early research days as an honours undergrad at Concordia University in Montreal. Probably Philodina, I thought; I had seen many during my stream research in Quebec.

“They’re the future,” Daniel said, looking up at me with a smirk as I straightened.

I raised my eyebrows, inviting him to elaborate, which he cheerfully did.

“They’re the future because of their incredible evolutionary success and their ecological attraction to environmental disaster.” He knew he’d piqued my interest. “These little creatures have existed for over forty million years, Lynna. Without sex! And they’re everywhere. In temporary ponds, moss, even tree bark. Bdelloid mothers that go through desiccation produce daughters with increased fitness and longevity. In fact, if desiccation doesn’t occur over several generations, the rotifers lose their fitness. They need the unpredictable environment to keep robust.” They incorporate genes from their environment: they acquire DNA transposons—mobile DNA—through HGT.”

—A DIARY IN THE AGE OF WATER

The bdelloid all-female populations have thrived for millions of years by maintaining a robust and diverse population through epigenetics and DNA repair during dormancy…The dormancy of all-female bdelloids is an elegant technique to ride out harsh conditions. The bdelloids can go dormant quickly in any stage of their life cycle, and they’re capable of remaining dormant for decades. They can recover from their dormancy state within hours when the right conditions return and go on reproducing without the need to find a mate.

Highly variable environments tend to support rare species: organisms that are uniquely equipped for change. These are the explorers, misfits, and revolutionaries who do their work to usher in a new paradigm. They carry change inside them, through phenotypic plasticity, physiological stress response mechanisms, or life history adaptations. Like bdelloid rotifers going dormant through anhydrobiosis. Or blue-green algae forming dormant akinete spores. In tune with the vacillations of Nature, epigenetics-induced adaptation is the only option for keeping up with rapid and catastrophic environmental change, not to mention something as gigantic as climate change. That’s why the bdelloid rotifers survived for millennia and will continue for many more. They adapt by counting on change.

Maple swamp forest in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Munteanu, Nina. 2020. “A Diary in the Age of Water.” Inanna Publications, Toronto. 300pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 586pp.

O’Leary, Denise. 2015. “Horizontal gene transfer: Sorry, Darwin, it’s not your evolution anymore.” Evolution News, August 13, 2015. Online: https://www.evolutionnews.org/201508/horizontal_gene/

Ricci, C. And D. Fontaneto. 2017. “The importance of being a bdelloid: Ecological and evolutionary consequences of dormancy.” Italian Journal ofZoology, 76:3, 240-249.

Robinson, Kelly and Julie Dunning. 2016. “Bacteria and humans have been swapping DNA for millennia”. The Scientist Magazine, October 1, 2016. Online: https://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/47125/title/Bacteria-and-Humans-Have-Been-Swapping-DNA-for-Millennia/

Weinhold, Bob. 2006. “Epigenetics: the science of change.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(3): A160-A167.

Williams, Sarah. 2015. “Humans may harbour more than 100 genes from other organisms”. Science, March 12, 2015. Online: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/03/humans-may-harbor-more-100-genes-other-organisms

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.

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.

W.O.W Interviews Nina Munteanu on “A Diary in the Age of Water”

Thompson Creek outlet, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I recently chatted with Darshaun McWay on W.O.W. Podcast about my recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water.

We talked about the story, its main characters–including water as a character–and why I write about water. We also covered why the book is written partly as a diary. Margaret Atwood’s name came up a few times…

Here is the W.O.W description of the interview:

Nina Munteanu chats with Darshaun McAway of W.O.W. Podcast about her new clifi novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”: a novel about the journeys of four generations of women and their unique relationship with water during a time of great environmental change. Darshaun and Nina talk about her use of water as a character, her choice of heroines and her use of a diary format to tell the story.  Nina shares that the book–set in the near future as a limnologist’s diary and the far future with an evolved human–explores the premise of a water-scarce Canada whose water now belongs to the USA, who, in turn, is owned by China. The events about which the diarist writes are based on real historic events and people. Nina brings her considerable scientific, limnological and research skills to bear in describing a future Canada both dystopic and harrowing–yet very familiar. One real event taken as premise in the book that Nina shared with Darshaun is the American NAWAPA plan of the 1960s that went to congress and was (and still is) seriously discussed for years following: the plan was to divert massive amounts of fresh water from Canada and store by inundating the Rocky Mountain Trench and piped south to hydrate dwindling aquifers in the USA.

W.O.W Interview with Nina Munteanu and Darshaun McAway

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.