Ecological Philosophy: Biophilia

One of the most important philosophies underpinning ecology and conservation is ‘biophilia’, which broadly describes the innate connection humans have with other organisms. It’s an idea that’s been touched upon many times independently to varying degrees by different philosophers and groups, but really found its most distilled and defensible form with E. O. Wilson’s book Biophilia, published in 1984 (I know, I hark on about E. O. Wilson a bit too often – he’s a myrmecologist after all). Biophilia is essentially a theory in evolutionary psychology that attempts to describe how and why humans think the way they do towards other organisms. Importantly, it links many of the cognitive biases and generalisations we make as humans to our evolutionary past. This potentially has profound implications for conservation, ecological research, psychology, culture, and society.

Biophilia – Published by E. O. Wilson in 1984

As a thought experiment to better describe the theory, we should think about the ecological niches of Homo spp. over the course of evolution: we were social hunters-gatherers for most of our evolution and became avid farmers somewhat later on (about 23,000 years ago is the current estimate). We would be hunting in the savannah of East-Central Africa, making our way out of the dense jungle situated to the West. Generally, the savannah landscape is dominated by grasses and shrubs, with taller trees sporadically dotted over the landscape, providing an open-canopy and well-lit ground. Our upright stance improves our line of sight to find prey and rival groups, and our efficient mode of bipedal locomotion biomechanically and physiologically affords us the ability to outcompete animals of the savannah over long-distance tests of stamina. This environment is where we are anatomically at our best. In this dry area of the world, water is an especially important resource, and the sun at its zenith can be life-threateningly hot. Thus, if the idea of biophilia rings true, we should expect modern-day humans to preferentially select views with lakes and streams in a mixed grassland-woodland landscape, possibly with hills, cliffs, or caves in which to seek shelter during the midday sun and from predators at night. We find this to be overwhelmingly the case in psychological studies (e.g. the works of Russ Parsons and Roger Ulrich through the last half of the 80s and into the 90s), and historically in the way people select where to live and the way in which they modify the landscape. Geometrically and chromatically humans attempt to recreate savannah-like landscapes because of their aesthetic similarity and concomitant positive psychological effects. In evolutionary terms, the individuals that selected these environments preferentially were better able to survive and reproduce than those that didn’t, increasing the prevalence of that specific ‘biophilic’ trait in the population.

Note the chromatic and geometric similarity between these hastily selected images from Google. Top left: savannah; top right:  Welsh farmland; bottom left: country estate; bottom right: garden

The innate preference we have for natural scenes is so strong that, in 1984, Roger Ulrich showed patients recovering from heart surgery recover significantly faster when they simply have a window with a view of ‘nature’, with similar results being found many times since his pioneering study. This example is interesting because it works at the level of the landscape and higher taxonomic ranks (i.e. grasses – Poaceae); there is no particular species that has been singled out that must be a part of our environment. E. O. Wilson explains thus:

The practical-minded will argue that certain environments are just “nice” and there’s an end to it. So why dilate the obvious? The answer is that the obvious is usually profoundly significant. Some environments are indeed pleasant, for the same general reason that sugar is sweet, incest and cannibalism repulsive, and team sports exhilarating.

The human mind is able to adequately generalise sensory information, like the colours and shapes of a landscape that will likely support life, to increase fitness; each generalisation has its own evolutionary roots. This leads us (perhaps tangentially) to the broader psychological theory that the mind is “massively modular”; i.e. the mind is made of a huge number of modules, each module a psychological trait that is evolutionarily selected for that influences our behaviour in a discrete way. An example of a mental module may be the fear of the dark, wariness of disingenuous people, or, indeed, the preference for a savannah-like view. Though biophilia seeks to explain our innate bond with nature, it can actually be thought of as a collection of independent mental modules. Because of the importance of other organisms during our evolution, these are both numerous and can be very strong. Whilst the machinery of biological organisms can be dissected through science at various spatial scales, from the entire biosphere to the level of individual nucleotides, our biophilia remains: we did not evolve with the ideas of nucleotides and DNA polymerase enzymes and thus the organismal and landscape scales of life remain psychologically relevant.

The next thought experiment we experience is that of The Serpent. Imagine you are chasing down an antelope on the African savannah. Jogging through the grassland and ducking beneath hazardous branches, you track your quarry. Looking for the characteristic broken twigs, disturbed ground, and bent grass betraying the path the antelope took, you halt. A flash of movement a few feet away causes you to leap away reflexively. You glance down, seeing a large tan-coloured serpent moving quickly towards you, black mouth agape; you instinctively know to stay well clear of the striking fangs, strengthened by the tales your family have recounted of the many perils of this sort of beast. You quickly back away without taking your eye off the snake. Its advance slows and you give it a wide berth before once again picking up the antelope trail.

As an image, the serpent bridges humanities, biology, and culture; it is readily identifiable by anyone as a symbol, “surrounded by a mist of fear and wonderment”. The reason for this is obvious: that the identification and avoidance of snakes, whose venom is often adapted to attack the neurological system of mammals, was beneficial enough for our ancestors to have been selected for over the individuals without these behavioural responses. A wide-range of animals, and especially primates, have strong negative responses to the image of a snake, and thus the mental module may be quite old in evolutionary terms. Humans have an innate propensity to develop the fear of snakes after the age of 5; that is to say, the ability to acquire the fear of snakes becomes greatly increased after children commonly begin exploring further from their parents. The generalised form of serpents conjures a mental state of fascination and terror, as Wilson elaborates

Images they build out of this peculiar mental set are both powerful and ambivalent, ranging from terror-stricken flight to the experience of power and male sexuality

The same is true of several other examples we could examine; spiders, scorpions, wasps, and almost any large carnivoran are a few examples that conjure similarly powerful but ambivalent responses in people e.g. whilst most who wish to remain amongst the living don’t want to be within striking distance of a tiger, the power they represent as a mental image can be used as a symbol in itself positively or negatively. These behavioural responses are universal and cascade into repetitive patterns of culture across most or all societies. Wilson states that these responses

 …are marked by the quickness and decisiveness with which we learn particular things about certain kinds of plants and animals.

The human brain is primed to react strongly to the generalised images of the serpent, spider, scorpion etc. because these reactions incur a strong selective advantage. To improve on this trait further, the brain generalises chromatically and geometrically so as to categorise organisms rapidly, which allows an emotional response to be enacted faster and evasive action taken.

With the above phenomena so widely evinced historically and in daily life, it is hard to imagine a world where biophilia is not a strong factor governing human psychology; Wilson states:

Life of any kind is infinitely more interesting than almost any conceivable variety of inanimate matter.

Though it’s simply his opinion, I find it hard to refute on a personal-level. Whether non-biologists differ widely from this opinion would be an interesting question to answer. Human nature, however, is essentially a collection of psychological generalisations and biases towards other species, the behaviour of other humans, and knowledge of the abiotic environment that forms the wellspring of culture i.e. the serpent is evolutionarily significant and elicits strong enough emotions in people to be embedded in our society as an image. These generalised organisms provide some of the strongest scientific support of the biophilia hypothesis because of repeated experimental validation.

The ability to quickly identify certain organisms with associated positive and/or negative psychological responses has clearly conferred a selective advantage. Some of these generalisations take the form of “beauty”. Beauty itself as a concept is a generalisation the human mind makes to categorise other organisms (including people I suppose?) to get through life more easily – these are more products of the human mind than any external reality. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, in an evolutionary sense, it seems. But this leads us to how the biophilia hypothesis may be incorporated into conservation philosophy and possibly action.

The biophilia hypothesis fundamentally espouses the idea that “life gathers human meaning to become part of us”. The way we think is inextricable from nature, and without it, insanity creeps closer. Though most people agree that the environment should be “healthy” in a general sense, and often view nature with much nostalgia, scratch away at the surface and “people-problems” will almost always come first for most people. I have little evidence for the next statement, but I don’t think too many people on the street would change their behaviour if told an obscure insect species has gone extinct. Wilson describes this as “the surface ethic” and calls for a more considerate modern ethic towards biology that thinks of every species extinction as a calamitous, irreversible blight on our collective record. Because of the lack of ecological understanding of the overwhelming majority of species, we are unsure of the potential consequences of these events. Not only does this threaten us as a species if biological systems begin to function less effectively, but why are we more valued than the rest of the organisms we co-evolved alongside, are related to, or descend from? If all human problems are put before ecological ones “…the wrong question was asked”, Wilson states. Solving human problems is not the purpose, but a means to human happiness, and a healthy and functioning biological world is essential to this. Wilson continues:

Let us imagine that we can avert nuclear war, feed a stabilized population, and generate a permanent supply of energy – what then? The answer is the same all around the world: individuals will strive towards personal fulfilment and at last realize their potential.

This suggests that we should avoid species extinction at all costs, strive for ecological stewardship, but continue to grow as people. Though human-scale issues must be solved, this cannot be at the expense of irreversible species extinctions or the isolation of people from nature. Our society does not currently adhere to this ethic, but instead strives primarily for economic growth and social stability (though this latter point is somewhat questionable), despite the pervasive imagery and themes originating from nature adopted across societies. Individuals, however, likely have a far greater personal requirement to be connected to a healthy biosphere than most people currently are. As mental health issues become increasingly common, we should remember that immersing oneself in nature regularly is one of the best ways to mitigate symptoms – but this becomes impossible without natural spaces set aside to do so.

By contextualising the way people think about other organisms evolutionarily, the biophilia hypothesis lends a sympathetic view to nature that’s absent from current political decision-making. Applying, or at least considering, the same innate connection we have to nature as individuals, to the constitution of our societies and the “moral rulebook” may go a long way to preventing the degradation of the natural world.

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