We enter the world by gasping for air, almost as if we are being saved from drowning. During gestation, we are flooded by amniotic fluid in our mother’s womb. At birth, the same fluid turns from nourishment to danger, with about 1% of all newborns developing a condition informally known as “wet lung”, which occurs when babies are unable to expel the fluid from their lungs. At the same time, infants younger than six months instinctively demonstrate the diving reflex, which is a set of physiological changes including decreased heart rate and redistribution of blood to the brain when their face is cooled. This reflex works even when their face is being blown at and does not require submergence in water. This seems to suggest that the ability to survive underwater is innately wired in our brains but this ability weakens as babies mature beyond six months. In adults, the reflex is only triggered when we hold our breaths while being submerged in water.
Many artists feature the imagery of deluge in their work. Wassily Kandinsky was an abstract art pioneer whose work discusses spiritual experiences. In Composition VI, he was interested in evoking deluge to represent rebirth, while at the same time, ushering a new approach to art that is removed from realism. The motif of inundation is also central to many of Bill Viola’s work. In his 2002 video artwork, “The Deluge”, people can be seen escaping as a white building that they were in becomes destroyed by a torrential flood. In another work, “The Martyrs”, four individuals are shown as they are tortured by the four classical elements — earth, air, fire, and water. The work is presented in a cathedral, where water is imbued with religious symbology. The word deluge comes from the Latin word “diluere”, which means to “wash away”. In the Christian tradition, baptism is a significant religious ceremony that marks an individual’s beginning as a member of the Christian faith. It usually involves submergence into water, with the subsequent re-emergence symbolizing spiritual birth.
The motif of deluge occurs regularly in history. In the Abrahamic religions, the story of Noah’s ark comes to mind. In it, God was angry at human’s misdeeds and decided to send a flood to reset the world to its state at the creation. In the process, Noah and his family were spared and promised by God that such an act will never be committed again. The aforementioned baptism is a reminder of this promise and a representation of the flood. In Chinese culture, the Great Flood of Gun-Yu showed the power of human ingenuity and how societal developments led to the first Chinese state, the Xia dynasty. Deluge myths are so common in human history that historians, geologists, and paleontologists often try to piece together the puzzle presented by these legends to separate fact from fiction. Some researchers try to identify planetary events that may be the common source for such stories.
While the search for such an event had mostly led to dead ends, new research suggests that there was a time when the Earth was completely covered in water. Scientists hypothesize that our home planet used to be an ocean world with no continents about three billion years ago; this was a time when the only organisms inhabiting the planet were bacteria. By comparison, biological humans showed up much later to the party — about 2,999,700,000 years late, by current estimates. A more likely candidate may not have been a planetary deluge, but a period of sea-level rise caused by glacial melting known as the Early Holocene Sea Level Rise (EHSLR), which occurred between 12,000 to 7000 years ago. This coincides with the Neolithic (New Stone Age), during which humans began farming. Farming generally necessitated access to water, which meant that societies congregated near bodies of water. These areas tend to be more affected by changes in precipitation and/or sea-level rise, which may explain our universal fear of flooding.
The term “antediluvian” literally means “belonging to the time before the biblical Flood”. Early attempts at understanding the history of our planet, at least for the West, came from the Bible. With increasing scientific evidence showing the improbability of a literal reading of the Old Testament, it became irrelevant in the scientific domain. Nowadays, the term describes things or ideas that are “ridiculously old-fashioned”. Over time, ideas that were considered the “gospel truth” (maybe this term itself may eventually become old-fashioned) are now debunked misunderstandings of the world. The beauty of history in preserving our follies, and not just the great ideas that have stood the test of time, is a good reminder that we as a species have often got things wrong — sometimes very wrong. Therefore, while we can marvel at the cultural progress that we have made, we should equally be humbled by our mistakes.
When I was a teenager, I stumbled upon a TV show titled “Mermaids: The Body Found”, which purported that aquatic humanoid creatures exist in the sea. It featured interviews of named experts and camera shots that resemble a nature documentary. As a younger person fascinated by scientific discovery, I was excited that this may be a possibility. However, I later realized that it was a work of docufiction, which is fiction presented in the form of a documentary. The film capitalized on cultural artifacts like mermaids and sought to popularise the aquatic ape hypothesis. The theory suggests that humans got various biological attributes, like hairlessness, bipedalism, and our superior diving reflex, due to a period of aquatic adaptation. The theory is widely debunked by experts and is currently considered pseudoscience. However, it somehow managed to draw record viewership, with its sequel netting 3.6 million viewers, the largest ever for the nature TV channel, Animal Planet. Discovery Inc, which owns Animal Planet, goes on to create more pseudoscientific docufictions that broke new viewership records. For a brand that prides itself in delivering factual content, these programs seem to betray its mission and audience. This experience personally foreshadowed today’s post-truth and fake news era.
We are living in a time of informational deluge. Nowadays, facts are less important than engagement and the result of that seems to be perpetual cycles of outrage with no resolution in sight. In his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, writer Neil Postman stated that the world we live in resembles Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” more than George Orwell’s “1984”, in that we are inundated with so much information that “we would be reduced to passivity and egoism”. We are currently trying to keep ourselves afloat in this flood, but one cannot help but wonder what will be left in its wake or whether it will be a permanently flooded world. Either way, we will need to evolve new capacities to adapt to these new circumstances.
At the same time, we are also in a climate crisis that would likely lead to a physically flooded world if we continue to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By current projections, even if global warming is capped at 2°C, at least 570 cities and 800 million lives will be affected by increased flooding by 2050. Many coastal cities are at risk of becoming completely inundated by 2050, forcing the displacement of about 150 million people. This upcoming reality will not only permanently change geography, but will also have profound impacts on culture, society, economy, and politics.
As we get rag-dolled by these double deluges, will we sink or swim?