Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern Worldby Stephen R. Kellert
Human health and well-being are inextricably linked to nature; our connection to the natural world is part of our biological inheritance. In this engaging book, a pioneer in the field of biophilia—the study of human beings' inherent affinity for nature—sets forth the first full account of nature's powerful influence on the quality of our
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Human health and well-being are inextricably linked to nature; our connection to the natural world is part of our biological inheritance. In this engaging book, a pioneer in the field of biophilia—the study of human beings' inherent affinity for nature—sets forth the first full account of nature's powerful influence on the quality of our lives. Stephen Kellert asserts that our capacities to think, feel, communicate, create, and find meaning in life all depend upon our relationship to nature. And yet our increasing disconnection and alienation from the natural world reflect how seriously we have undervalued its important role in our lives.
Weaving scientific findings together with personal experiences and perspectives, Kellert explores how our humanity in the most fundamental sense—including our physical health, and capacities for affection, aversion, intellect, control, aesthetics, exploitation, spirituality, and communication are deeply contingent on the quality of our connections to the natural world. Because of this dependency, the human species has developed over the course of its evolution an inherent need to affiliate with nature. But, like much of what it means to be human, this inborn tendency must be learned to become fully functional. In other words, it is a birthright that must be earned. He discusses how we can restore this balance to nature by means of changes in how we raise children, educate ourselves, use land and resources, develop building and community design, practice our ethics, and conduct our everyday lives. Kellert's moving book provides exactly what is needed now: a fresh understanding of how much our essential humanity relies on being a part of the natural world.
"Weaving a trove of learning together with engaging story and reflection, Kellert artfully explores how the deeply engrained human aptitude for kinship with all life is an adaptive strategy we need to get us through these uncertain times. The future depends on catalyzing 'long-tern human self-interest,' and this book shows how even the darker sides of our biophilia can serve this end. Here is a welcome tonic for toxic times, moving past polarized argument to the mindful persuasion of one who has found a sustaining connection with the natural world. This is a must-read for anyone who cares about the world and how to enrich our connection with the forces that sustain us."—Alison Hawthorne Deming, University of Arizona
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birthrightPeople and Nature in the Modern World
By Stephen R. Kellert
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Stephen R. Kellert
All right reserved.
Who among us finds cockroaches appealing? I suspect only the most saintly and forgiving. Most of us regard these creatures with a mixture of disgust and disdain, tending to see them as repulsive. Our aversion to these insects is so deep and enduring few hesitate to destroy one, and with little hesitation or guilt, especially if it suddenly appears in a sink or a drawer. Nor are these aversive reactions confined to insects and spiders; most of us react similarly to such vertebrates as rats and snakes commonly perceived as vermin.
But cockroaches, those targets of our revulsion, are closely related to beetles, some species of which are viewed as attractive and sometimes beautiful: ladybugs, for example, and many scarabs, especially the brightly colored metallic beetles that have inspired aesthetic adornment in jewelry and other decorative forms. Beetles are also the most numerous of all animals, numbering some 400,000 scientifically described species and an estimated 1 to 2 million or more awaiting formal classification, accounting for a remarkable one-quarter of all animal species. Their extraordinary numbers purportedly prompted the nineteenth-century British entomologist J. B. S. Haldane to reply, when asked by a prominent cleric what all his scientific studies had told him about the existence of God: "It appears the Creator has an inordinate fondness for beetles."
Despite the Creator's beneficence and our aspirations to be in His likeness and please Him, most people view as aesthetically unappealing the great majority of beetles, as well as many other "bugs," as we imprecisely lump together insects, spiders, and other many-legged crawlers. The reason for this aversion to invertebrates is complicated, and we shall return to this subject again in chapter 3. For now, their limited appeal can be said to derive in part from their strange, alien, and fundamentally different ways, and their related lack of characteristics we hold most dear such as feeling, intellect, individuality, free will, caring, and the exercise of moral choice. These creatures seem nothing like ourselves, pursuing existences that strike us as somewhere between something fixed and lifeless and a sentient creature. This perception of invertebrates predisposes most of us to view these animals as unappealing and unattractive, apart from those exceptions we make for the likes of ladybugs, scarabs, or butterflies. In somewhat analogous fashion, most regard vertebrates like rats and rattlesnakes as repugnant and repulsive, despite our tendency to view some of their cousinsthink of beavers and iguanasas cute and sometimes cuddly.
So what, if anything, can we deduce from these few illustrations? Are there any consistent conclusions to be drawn other than that most people's aesthetic judgments about the natural world appear to be fickle, biased, and somewhat irrational? It is worth noting that most of our aesthetic likes and dislikes regarding cockroaches, rats, butterflies, beavers, and many other creatures are highly predictable and consistent across culture and history. Moreover, similarly consistent and widespread aesthetic judgments can be cited toward many inanimate environmental features: rainbows, waterfalls, flowers, conical mountains, sunrises, sunsets, or savannah landscapes.
If these widely held perspectives are universal across culture and history, they may be regarded as reflections of our biology and thus our evolution as a species. In other words, these aesthetic preferences may have become embedded in our genes, representing adaptive responses to the natural world that proved advantageous to our fitness and survival during the long course of human history. Moreover, unless we view these tendencies as vestigialonce adaptive, but no longer relevantthese aesthetic judgments may continue to render important contributions to our health, productivity, and well-being.
Skeptics argue that our aesthetic judgments toward nature are really quite subjective, easily manipulated and altered, given to fads and fashions, and greatly influenced by group pressure and bias. These critics view perceptions regarding what is attractive or unappealing in nature as fickle, superficial, and marginally important to human welfare. The conservation biologist Norman Myers, for example, argues: "The aesthetic argument for conservation is virtually a prerogative of affluent people with leisure to think about such questions." More tongue in cheek, but no less indicative of the presumed limited importance of our aesthetics of nature, a New Yorker cartoon depicted a father and son walking through a beautiful forest glade; arm draped about the boy, the father sagely offers this piece of advice: "It's good to know about trees. Just remember nobody ever made any big money knowing about trees."
Is there anything that we can conclude from these inconsistencies and doubts regarding the importance of our aesthetic judgments of nature? Is our attraction to the natural world a universal imperative or a highly malleable and marginally significant reflection of human subjectivity and bias? I will argue for the formerthat our commonly held assumptions about the aesthetic value of nature reflect evolutionary forces that we encountered during our long history as a species. Moreover, I will assert that these judgments continue to be relevant to our health, development, and fitness even in today's increasingly artificial, urban, and constructed world. Indeed, I will suggest that our aesthetic judgments contribute to such essential functions as our ability to reason, imagine, create, solve problems, recognize an ideal, organize complexity, manage stress, heal, and attain sustenance and security.
The universal importance of the aesthetic attraction to nature has been advanced by two eminent biologists, Edward O. Wilson and Aldo Leopold, and their insights are worth noting. Wilson, relating nature's beauty to human fitness and survival, suggested: "Beauty is our word for the perfection of those qualities of environment that have contributed the most to human survival." Leopold, reflecting on the perception of nature's beauty to an intuitive understanding of the health and integrity of natural systems, remarked: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." Both advanced a view that our aesthetic affinity for nature, particularly a sense of beauty, is central to human and ecological fitness, and just perhaps a consequence of their interrelationship.
How might this be so? The answers are complicated, and as Leopold observed: "The physics of beauty is one department of the natural sciences still in the dark ages." Yet evidence mounts that our aesthetic value of nature is integral to many critical human attributes.
We might start with intellectual development and cognitive capacity. After all, the aesthetic attraction to nature is fundamentally an act of curiosity. An object or phenomenon in nature captures our attention and provokes a response, even if only a fleeting one. The aesthetic reaction causes us to observe, perhaps to reflect and act, in a process of progressive intellectual involvement. Even if this curiosity is brief and superficial, it creates the potential for more refined levels of discovery, exploration, imagination, and creative engagement. In most circumstances, we experience only a casual attraction to something superficially appealing and picturesque. But if cultivated, an aesthetic attraction can inspire deeper understanding and involvement. Moreover, with perseverance, refinement, and perhaps the guiding hand of another, aesthetic curiosity can lead to creativity and inventiveness.
Even in today's world of accumulated knowledge and powerful electronic communication, the natural world remains the most sensory-stimulating and information-rich environment people ever encounter. Consequently, the aesthetic appeal of the natural world inevitably provokes some degree of interest, urges us to examine and explore, to investigate and discover, to problem-solve and invent, all critical tools in the development of human intellect. Moreover, the opportunity to engage and exercise our aesthetic response to nature is widely accessible, for the most part found nearly everywhere, even in our largest cities.
The aesthetic appeal of nature can also encourage the perception and pursuit of an ideal of harmony and perfection. In recognizing this ideal, we are drawn to an awareness of proportion, balance, and symmetry. We see in the rainbow, the waterfalls, the flowering rose, the stately tree, the snowcapped mountain, the spreading savannah, the colorful butterfly, the rising trout, the regal crane, the antlered elk, the fleet cheetaheven the well-designed park or building whose features reflect principles occurring in naturea sense of harmony, grace, and elegance in a world where imperfection is more the norm.
Our recognition of ideal beauty in nature often reflects prominent features of the natural world that have particularly contributed to our survival over time. Thus we encounter in the rainbow or waterfall rich sources of potable water, in lush flowerbeds the prospect of food and fruitfulness, in the sleek cheetah and powerful elk models of strength and prowess, in the stately tree or regal crane qualities of elegance and excellence.
The perception of an ideal in nature can further inspire and instruct us. Our awareness may start as a subjective impression, an intuitive sense of appealing proportion. With engagement, study, and understanding, however, we may gain a keener sense of what is outstanding, an insight into the source of this seeming perfection. At the least, the accomplishment satisfies us. At a more advanced level, we are inspired to mimic in our own lives the qualities we perceive. And if we are especially clever, we can adopt these attributes in the service of our own needs, subjecting them to the inventive hand of human creativity.
We often recognize in nature's beauty a quality of perfection that all life strives to achieve, including our own, even if it is rarely achieved. We discern in the struggle outstanding qualities to which all species aspire. This aesthetic awareness focuses our attention on notable features that have conferred a special evolutionary advantage in an organism's struggle to thrive and survivean elk's antlers, a cheetah's speed, an elephant's strength, the symmetry and color of a rose. We admire those attributes that over time have contributed most to a creature's or even a habitat's viability and perpetuation. We identify an impulse that all organisms share. As Edward. O. Wilson suggests, "It is interesting to inquire about ... the ideal toward which human beings unconsciously strive no less relentlessly than flycatchers and deer mice."
All life constitutes specialized solutions to the particular challenges of survival faced over unimaginable time and hammered into a species' genes through repeated trial and error. Each unique adaptation constitutes the special genius of a species, its intrinsic beauty, its elusive ideal. We are inclined to respond to those qualities in creatures and landscapes that reflect this distinctive evolutionary advantage. Moreover, when this aesthetic response contributes to human fitness, it becomes biologically embedded in our own genes and reveals itself independent of our effort. Even the worst among usfor example, a psychopathic killer confined to solitary confinement for the dangers he poses to societyis typically unable to resist the aesthetic attraction of a beautiful sunset, a colorful rainbow, a bouquet of flowers, even if his response is fitful and less robust than our own.
The continuum of aesthetic attraction ranges from simple gratification at the superficially pretty to more subtle levels of recognizing harmony and perfection. With engagement and cultivation, aesthetic sensitivity to an ideal in nature becomes sharpened. We may be initially attracted to particularly spectacular settings or creatures. As we gain sensitivity, however, ordinary objects of nature can inspire wonder and deep appreciation. Even the bramble beside the road may evoke a reverence for the beauty of nature, as the following prayer by the theologian Walter Rauschenbusch suggests:
We thank you for our senses by which we can see the splendor of the morning, hear the jubilant songs of love, and smell the breath of the springtime. Grant us ... a heart wide open to all this joy and beauty. Save our souls from being so steeped in care or so darkened by passion that we pass heedless and unseeing when even the thorn bush by the wayside is aflame with the glory of God.
Enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all the living things, our ... brothers, to whom you have given this earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the Earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for thee, and that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve thee in their place.
Recognition of an ideal in nature provokes, at minimum, pleasure. But it also can relieve stress, enhance the capacity to cope with adversity, and physically and mentally heal and restore. Recognition of an ideal in nature can lead to discerning the basis of excellence in another creature or landscape, an appreciation that inspires and instructs, generating insight and understanding. It can propel us along pathways that through mimicry and simulation allow us to adopt analogous solutions into our own lives.
An aesthetic response to nature can additionally assist in ordering and organizing the complexity that confronts us in the natural as well as the human-made world. Orchestrating complexity has been important during the long course of human evolution when we have faced the challenges of navigating often overwhelming detail and variability. This profusion of information and choices confronting us occurred in the form of diverse vegetation, landscapes, geological conditions, animals, possible pathways: visual and auditory cues that together presented uncertain choices regarding the safest and most advantageous course to follow. We often dealt with this complexity by finding a particular promontory, a unique vantage point, a prominent environmental feature, an especially salient plant or animal that helped us to structure this variability by making it coherent and legible. We organized the complexity that challenged us by simplifying and thus rendering it comprehensible.
Aesthetic attraction facilitated this movement toward order and organization. By being attracted to a particular plant, animal, geological form, or landscape feature, our attention could become focused, a sense of pattern emerging from what had previously been a multiplicity of disaggregated objects. Aesthetic appeal concentrated our awareness, encouraged us to organize parts into organized wholes. Emergent patterns became revealed as we focused on a prominent and stately tree, a striking ledge, a distinctive watercourse, the edge of a forest, a cluster of bright flowers, a church spire or building façade that simulated organic forms. These aesthetically salient natural or human-made objects that mimicked nature helped us to structure our context, lending meaning and coherence to what had been too detailed, or, at the other extreme, featureless.
Excerpted from birthright by Stephen R. Kellert Copyright © 2012 by Stephen R. Kellert. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Stephen R. Kellert is Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus and senior research scholar, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University.
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