Cultivating Biophilia:
our love for the family of life

Strong evidence suggests a deep link between humans and the natural Lisa Y. Lefferts, reprinted from The Green Guide, #12, with permission
ave you ever felt a sense of contentment as you watched your cat sleep? Or noticed your stresses melting away after sitting under an old tree? Then you may have experienced biophilia.
Biophilia, which literally means "life loving," is defined by Harvard biologist, two-time Pulitzer prize-winner and the man considered the world's leading authority on biodiversity, Edward 0. Wilson, as "the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes," the "innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms."
In other words, we humans have an affinity for the natural world that has evolved over millennia and is part of our genes, just like our tendency to be territorial or to protect our young; it's hard-wired into our brains. Our need for nature, according to the concept of biophilia, goes beyond simple survival needs to encompass "the human craving for aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction," explains Stephen Kellert of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Wilson first coined the term in his book, Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species (Harvard University Press, 1984). The idea has captured the imaginations of many scientists, philosophers and writers whose essays appear in The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by Wilson and Kellert (Island Press, 1993).
Some observations put forth in support of biophilia include: The fostering of biophilia and acknowledging its role in our emotional, psychological and even spiritual health may be the antidote needed to stop the "hemorrhaging" rate of species extinction, currently numbering 50,000 a year, 137 a day, six an hour. And that's a low estimate, based only on the current rate (1.8 percent per year) of removal in the tropical rainforest, where about half the species or organisms on earth live.
Wilson believes that if the current rate of habitat alteration continues unchecked, 20 percent or more of the earth's species will disappear or be doomed to early extinction during the next 30 years. "What humanity is doing now in a single lifetime will impoverish our descendants for all time to come," warns Wilson.
"We have walked on enough concrete, smelled enough air pollution, eaten enough processed food to realize that the sort of comfort afforded us by technology in the long run differs from, and is less sustainable than, the green fruit tree paradise of our simian ancestors," writes Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis, contributors to The Biophilia Hypothesis.
Of course, not everyone has a positive view of nature. An aversion to nature, or biophobia, "is increasingly common among people raised with television, Walkman radios attached to their heads, video games, living amidst shopping malls, freeways, and dense urban or suburban settings where nature is permitted tastefully, as decoration," notes David Orr, chair of environmental studies at Oberlin College. To those who prefer technology to nature, Sagan and Margulis note, "Despite great technological accomplishments, we are not yet close to recreating photosynthesis in the laboratory; let alone miniaturizing it as cellular life does." (Without photosynthesis, life on earth would disappear.) And technology has a long way to go to catch up to nature's complexity. According to Wilson, "more organization and complexity exist in a handful of soil than on the surfaces of all the other planets combined." (Ten billion individual organisms from about 4,000 species are present in one gram of forest soil.)
In fact, Orr believes that, whatever is in our genes, the affinity for life is a choice we must make. We don't just love life, we need it - for our own physical, mental and spiritual health. Wilson asks, "is it possible that humanity will love life enough to save it?" One might also ask, is it possible that humanity will love life enough to save itself?

What You Can Do

Life saving life

ne-quarter of the prescriptions distributed in the U.S. are based on substances derived from nature - including the heart medicine digitalis (from foxglove) and a treatment for childhood leukemia (from rosy periwinkle). That's the point of the Medicine Bottle Campaign: to make the link between safeguarding endangered species and safeguarding the health of ourselves and our children, and to counter the attack on the Endangered Species Act. Here's how it works: you order preprinted stickers free of charge, directly from the Endangered Species Coalition (666 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Washington, DC 20003, 202/547-9009), then affix the stickers to empty medicine bottles, mail them to your senators and representatives, and mail one to the Coalition for them to give to President Clinton (they will present them to him all at once).

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