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The Biophilia Hypothesis

The Biophilia Hypothesis

by Stephen R. Kellert (Editor), Edward O. Wilson (Editor), Scott McVay (Contribution by), Aaron Katcher (Contribution by), Cecilia McCarthy (Contribution by)
<p>"Biophilia" is the term coined by Edward O. Wilson to describe what he believes is our innate affinity for the natural world. In his landmark book Biophilia, he examined how our tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes might be a biologically based need, integral to our development as individuals and as a species. That idea has caught the imagination of


<p>"Biophilia" is the term coined by Edward O. Wilson to describe what he believes is our innate affinity for the natural world. In his landmark book Biophilia, he examined how our tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes might be a biologically based need, integral to our development as individuals and as a species. That idea has caught the imagination of diverse thinkers.<p>The Biophilia Hypothesis brings together the views of some of the most creative scientists of our time, each attempting to amplify and refine the concept of biophilia. The variety of perspectives - psychological, biological, cultural, symbolic, and aesthetic - frame the theoretical issues by presenting empirical evidence that supports or refutes the hypothesis. Numerous examples illustrate the idea that biophilia and its converse, biophobia, have a genetic component: <ul> <li>fear, and even full-blown phobias of snakes and spiders are quick to develop with very little negative reinforcement, while more threatening modern artifacts - knives, guns, automobiles - rarely elicit such a response <li>people find trees that are climbable and have a broad, umbrella-like canopy more attractive than trees without these characteristics <li>people would rather look at water, green vegetation, or flowers than built structures of glass and concrete </ul> The biophilia hypothesis, if substantiated, provides a powerful argument for the conservation of biological diversity. More important, it implies serious consequences for our well-being as society becomes further estranged from the natural world. Relentless environmental destruction could have a significant impact on our quality of life, not just materially but psychologically and even spiritually.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The editors draw together a collection of scholarly essays both supporting and refuting the biophilia concept, a term coined by Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson to describe humankind's innate affiliation with nature. (June)
Library Journal
This timely collection of essays represents a first attempt to substantiate the biophilia hypothesis--the theory that humans have an innate affiliation with other living organisms--introduced by Wilson in his earlier book Biophilia (Harvard Univ. Pr., 1984) and further considered in his recent The Diversity of Life ( LJ 3/1/93). In the opening section, the editors categorize the different aspects of human behavior through which biophilia may be expressed. In the following chapters scientists from various disciplines review the relevant research, including scenic preference studies, evidence of therapeutic benefits from contact with animals and natural settings, and studies of cognitive functioning and language development in children and in hunter-gatherer cultures. Most of the contributors are committed conservationists concerned that our species will in its headlong rush for technological affluence discover too late how dependent the human personality is on biodiversity for emotional and spiritual health. Recommended for academic science collections and public libraries with a high interest in environmental studies.-- Joan S. Elbers, formerly with Montgomery Coll., Rockville, Md.
A collection of invited papers exploring Edward O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis, which declares humanity's innate affinity for the natural world to be a biological need, integral to our development as individuals and as a species. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Island Press
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The Biophilia Hypothesis

By Stephen R. Kellert, Edward O. Wilson


Copyright © 1993 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-906-3


Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic

Edward O. Wilson

BIOPHILIA, IF IT exists, and I believe it exists, is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature. Biophilia, like other patterns of complex behavior, is likely to be mediated by rules of prepared and counterprepared learning—the tendency to learn or to resist learning certain responses as opposed to others. From the scant evidence concerning its nature, biophilia is not a single instinct but a complex of learning rules that can be teased apart and analyzed individually. The feelings molded by the learning rules fall along several emotional spectra: from attraction to aversion, from awe to indifference, from peacefulness to fear-driven anxiety.

The biophilia hypothesis goes on to hold that the multiple strands of emotional response are woven into symbols composing a large part of culture. It suggests that when human beings remove themselves from the natural environment, the biophilic learning rules are not replaced by modern versions equally well adapted to artifacts. Instead, they persist from generation to generation, atrophied and fitfully manifested in the artificial new environments into which technology has catapulted humanity. For the indefinite future more children and adults will continue, as they do now, to visit zoos than attend all major professional sports combined (at least this is so in the United States and Canada), the wealthy will continue to seek dwellings on prominences above water amidst parkland, and urban dwellers will go on dreaming of snakes for reasons they cannot explain.

Were there no evidence of biophilia at all, the hypothesis of its existence would still be compelled by pure evolutionary logic. The reason is that human history did not begin eight or ten thousand years ago with the invention of agriculture and villages. It began hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago with the origin of the genus Homo. For more than 99 percent of human history people have lived in hunter-gatherer bands totally and intimately involved with other organisms. During this period of deep history, and still farther back, into paleohominid times, they depended on an exact learned knowledge of crucial aspects of natural history. That much is true even of chimpanzees today, who use primitive tools and have a practical knowledge of plants and animals. As language and culture expanded, humans also used living organisms of diverse kinds as a principal source of metaphor and myth. In short, the brain evolved in a biocentric world, not a machine-regulated world. It would be therefore quite extraordinary to find that all learning rules related to that world have been erased in a few thousand years, even in the tiny minority of peoples who have existed for more than one or two generations in wholly urban environments.

The significance of biophilia in human biology is potentially profound, even if it exists solely as weak learning rules. It is relevant to our thinking about nature, about the landscape, the arts, and mythopoeia, and it invites us to take a new look at environmental ethics.

How could biophilia have evolved? The likely answer is biocultural evolution, during which culture was elaborated under the influence of hereditary learning propensities while the genes prescribing the propensities were spread by natural selection in a cultural context. The learning rules can be inaugurated and fine-tuned variously by an adjustment of sensory thresholds, by a quickening or blockage of learning, and by modification of emotional responses. Charles Lumsden and I (1981, 1983, 1985) have envisioned biocultural evolution to be of a particular kind, gene-culture coevolution, which traces a spiral trajectory through time: a certain genotype makes a behavioral response more likely, the response enhances survival and reproductive fitness, the genotype consequently spreads through the population, and the behavioral response grows more frequent. Add to this the strong general tendency of human beings to translate emotional feelings into myriad dreams and narratives, and the necessary conditions are in place to cut the historical channels of art and religious belief.

Gene-culture coevolution is a plausible explanation for the origin of biophilia. The hypothesis can be made explicit by the human relation to snakes. The sequence I envision, drawn principally from elements established by the art historian and biologist Balaji Mundkur, is this:

1. Poisonous snakes cause sickness and death in primates and other mammals throughout the world.

2. Old World monkeys and apes generally combine a strong natural fear of snakes with fascination for these animals and the use of vocal communication, the latter including specialized sounds in a few species, all drawing attention of the group to the presence of snakes in the near vicinity. Thus alerted, the group follows the intruders until they leave.

3. Human beings are genetically averse to snakes. They are quick to develop fear and even full-blown phobias with very little negative reinforcement. (Other phobic elements in the natural environment include dogs, spiders, closed spaces, running water, and heights. Few modern artifacts are as effective—even those most dangerous, such as guns, knives, automobiles, and electric wires.)

4. In a manner true to their status as Old World primates, human beings too are fascinated by snakes. They pay admission to see captive specimens in zoos. They employ snakes profusely as metaphors and weave them into stories, myth, and religious symbolism. The serpent gods of cultures they have conceived all around the world are furthermore typically ambivalent. Often semihuman in form, they are poised to inflict vengeful death but also to bestow knowledge and power.

5. People in diverse cultures dream more about serpents than any other kind of animal, conjuring as they do so a rich medley of dread and magical power. When shamans and religious prophets report such images, they invest them with mystery and symbolic authority. In what seems to be a logical consequence, serpents are also prominent agents in mythology and religion in a majority of cultures.

Here then is the ophidian version of the biophilia hypothesis expressed in briefest form: constant exposure through evolutionary time to the malign influence of snakes, the repeated experience encoded by natural selection as a hereditary aversion and fascination, which in turn is manifested in the dreams and stories of evolving cultures. I would expect that other biophilic responses have originated more or less independently by the same means but under different selection pressures and with the involvement of different gene ensembles and brain circuitry.

This formulation is fair enough as a working hypothesis, of course, but we must also ask how such elements can be distinguished and how the general biophilia hypothesis might be tested. One mode of analysis, reported by Jared Diamond in this volume, is the correlative analysis of knowledge and attitude of peoples in diverse cultures, a research strategy designed to search for common denominators in the total human pattern of response. Another, advanced by Roger Ulrich and other psychologists, is also reported here: the precisely replicated measurement of human subjects to both attractive and aversive natural phenomena. This direct psychological approach can be made increasingly persuasive, whether for or against a biological bias, when two elements are added. The first is the measurement of heritability in the intensity of the responses to the psychological tests used. The second element is the tracing of cognitive development in children to identify key stimuli that evoke the responses, along with the ages of maximum sensitivity and learning propensity. The slithering motion of an elongate form appears to be the key stimulus producing snake aversion, for example, and preadolescence may be the most sensitive period for acquiring the aversion.

Given that humanity's relation to the natural environment is as much a part of deep history as social behavior itself, cognitive psychologists have been strangely slow to address its mental consequences. Our ignorance could be regarded as just one more blank space on the map of academic science, awaiting genius and initiative, except for one important circumstance: the natural environment is disappearing. Psychologists and other scholars are obligated to consider biophilia in more urgent terms. What, they should ask, will happen to the human psyche when such a defining part of the human evolutionary experience is diminished or erased?

There is no question in my mind that the most harmful part of ongoing environmental despoliation is the loss of biodiversity. The reason is that the variety of organisms, from alleles (differing gene forms) to species, once lost, cannot be regained. If diversity is sustained in wild ecosystems, the biosphere can be recovered and used by future generations to any degree desired and with benefits literally beyond measure. To the extent it is diminished, humanity will be poorer for all generations to come. How much poorer? The following estimates give a rough idea:

• Consider first the question of the amount of biodiversity. The number of species of organisms on earth is unknown to the nearest order of magnitude. About 1.4 million species have been given names to date, but the actual number is likely to lie somewhere between 10 and 100 million. Among the least-known groups are the fungi, with 69,000 known species but 1.6 million thought to exist. Also poorly explored are at least 8 million and possibly tens of millions of species of arthropods in the tropical rain forests, as well as millions of invertebrate species on the vast floor of the deep sea. The true black hole of systematics, however, may be bacteria. Although roughly 4,000 species have been formally recognized, recent studies in Norway indicate the presence of 4,000 to 5,000 species among the 10 billion individual organisms found on average in each gram of forest soil, almost all new to science, and another 4,000 to 5,000 species, different from the first set and also mostly new, in an average gram of nearby marine sediments.

• Fossil records of marine invertebrates, African ungulates, and flowering plants indicate that on average each clade—a species and its descendants—lasts half a million to 10 million years under natural conditions. The longevity is measured from the time the ancestral form splits off from its sister species to the time of the extinction of the last descendant. It varies according to the group of organisms. Mammals, for example, are shorter-lived than invertebrates.

• Bacteria contain on the order of a million nucleotide pairs in their genetic code, and more complex (eukaryotic) organisms from algae to flowering plants and mammals contain 1 to 10 billion nucleotide pairs. None has yet been completely decoded.

• Because of their great age and genetic complexity, species are exquisitely adapted to the ecosystems in which they live.

• The number of species on earth is being reduced by a rate 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than existed in prehuman times. The current removal rate of tropical rain forest, about 1.8 percent of cover each year, translates to approximately 0.5 percent of the species extirpated immediately or at least doomed to much earlier extinction than would otherwise have been the case. Most systematists with global experience believe that more than half the species of organisms on earth live in the tropical rain forests. If there are 10 million species in these habitats, a conservative estimate, the rate of loss may exceed 50,000 a year, 137 a day, 6 an hour. This rate, while horrendous, is actually the minimal estimate, based on the species/area relation alone. It does not take into account extinction due to pollution, disturbance short of clear-cutting, and the introduction of exotic species.

Other species-rich habitats, including coral reefs, river systems, lakes, and Mediterranean-type heathland, are under similar assault. When the final remnants of such habitats are destroyed in a region—the last of the ridges on a mountainside cleared, for example, or the last riffles flooded by a downstream dam—species are wiped out en masse. The first 90 percent reduction in area of a habitat lowers the species number by one-half. The final 10 percent eliminates the second half.

It is a guess, subjective but very defensible, that if the current rate of habitat alteration continues unchecked, 20 percent or more of the earth's species will disappear or be consigned to early extinction during the next thirty years. From prehistory to the present time humanity has probably already eliminated 10 or even 20 percent of the species. The number of bird species, for example, is down by an estimated 25 percent, from 12,000 to 9,000, with a disproportionate share of the losses occurring on islands. Most of the megafaunas—the largest mammals and birds—appear to have been destroyed in more remote parts of the world by the first wave of hunter-gatherers and agriculturists centuries ago. The diminution of plants and invertebrates is likely to have been much less, but studies of archaeological and other subfossil deposits are too few to make even a crude estimate. The human impact, from prehistory to the present time and projected into the next several decades, threatens to be the greatest extinction spasm since the end of the Mesozoic era 65 million years ago.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that 10 percent of the world's species that existed just before the advent of humanity are already gone and that another 20 percent are destined to vanish quickly unless drastic action is taken. The fraction lost—and it will be a great deal no matter what action is taken—cannot be replaced by evolution in any period that has meaning for the human mind. The five previous major spasms of the past 550 million years, including the end-Mesozoic, each required about 10 million years of natural evolution to restore. What humanity is doing now in a single lifetime will impoverish our descendants for all time to come. Yet critics often respond, "So what? If only half the species survive, that is still a lot of biodiversity—is it not?"

The answer most frequently urged right now by conservationists, I among them, is that the vast material wealth offered by biodiversity is at risk. Wild species are an untapped source of new pharmaceuticals, crops, fibers, pulp, petroleum substitutes, and agents for the restoration of soil and water. This argument is demonstrably true—and it certainly tends to stop anticonservation libertarians in their tracks—but it contains a dangerous practical flaw when relied upon exclusively. If species are to be judged by their potential material value, they can be priced, traded off against other sources of wealth, and—when the price is right—discarded. Yet who can judge the ultimate value of any particular species to humanity? Whether the species offers immediate advantage or not, no means exist to measure what benefits it will offer during future centuries of study, what scientific knowledge, or what service to the human spirit.

At last I have come to the word so hard to express: spirit. With reference to the spirit we arrive at the connection between biophilia and the environmental ethic. The great philosophical divide in moral reasoning about the remainder of life is whether or not other species have an innate right to exist. That decision rests in turn on the most fundamental question of all: whether moral values exist apart from humanity, in the same manner as mathematical laws, or whether they are idiosyncratic constructs that evolved in the human mind through natural selection. Had a species other than humans attained high intelligence and culture, it would likely have fashioned different moral values. Civilized termites, for example, would support cannibalism of the sick and injured, eschew personal reproduction, and make a sacrament of the exchange and consumption of feces. The termite spirit, in short, would have been immensely different from the human spirit—horrifying to us in fact. The constructs of moral reasoning, in this evolutionary view, are the learning rules, the propensities to acquire or to resist certain emotions and kinds of knowledge. They have evolved genetically because they confer survival and reproduction on human beings.

The first of the two alternative propositions—that species have universal and independent rights regardless of how else human beings feel about the matter—may be true. To the extent the proposition is accepted, it will certainly steel the determination of environmentalists to preserve the remainder of life. But the species-right argument alone, like the materialistic argument alone, is a dangerous play of the cards on which to risk biodiversity. The independent-rights argument, for all its directness and power, remains intuitive, aprioristic, and lacking in objective evidence. Who but humanity, it can be immediately asked, gives such rights? Where is the enabling canon written? And such rights, even if granted, are always subject to rank-ordering and relaxation. A simplistic adjuration for the right of a species to live can be answered by a simplistic call for the right of people to live. If a last section of forest needs to be cut to continue the survival of a local economy, the rights of the myriad species in the forest may be cheerfully recognized but given a lower and fatal priority.


Excerpted from The Biophilia Hypothesis by Stephen R. Kellert, Edward O. Wilson. Copyright © 1993 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Stephen R. Kellert was the Tweedy/Ordway Professor of Social Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and author of numerous books including, The Biophilia Hypothesis (coedited with E. O. Wilson, 1993), The Value of Life: Biological Diversity and Human Society (1996), Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development (1997), The Good in Nature and Humanity: Connecting Science, Religion, and Spirituality with the Natural World (coedited with T. Farnham, 2002), and Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations (coedited with P. H. Kahn, 2002).

Before his death in 1996, Paul Shepard was Avery Professor of Human Ecology and Natural Philosophy at Pitzer College and the Claremont Graduate School. Among his books are The Others: How Animals Make Us Human (Island Press/ Shearwater Books, 1995) and Encounters with Nature, (Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1999).

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