Strong evidence suggests a deep link between humans and the natural world.by
Lisa Y. Lefferts, reprinted from The Green Guide, #12, with permission
our love for the family of life
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
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
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
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.
- More children and adults visit zoos than attend all major professional
sports combined (at least in the U.S. and Canada).
- Scientific studies support the notion that prolonged exposure to window
views of nature can have important health-related influences. For example,
one study compared pairs of patients recovering from gall bladder surgery.
The patients were matched by age, sex, and a number of variables that could
influence recovery. Patients with a natural window view had shorter postoperative
hospital stays, made fewer complaints to nurses, tended to have lower scores
for minor postsurgical complications, and required much weaker painkillers
than patients whose window looked out on a brick wall.
- A large body of research indicates that people from diverse backgrounds,
cultures and environments consistently prefer open, grassy environments
with water and scattered trees, like the savanna habitat that was home to
ancient human ancestors for millennia.
- In evolutionary terms, other species are our kin. "All higher
. . . organisms, from flowering plants to insects to humanity itself, are
thought to have descended from a single ancestral population that lived
about 1.8 billion years ago," observes Wilson.
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
What You Can Do
- Slow down. Put your charge card aside, give the TV a break, and make
room for the real stress-buster: renew and reinvigorate yourself by spending
some time in natural environments.
- Support the Endangered Species Act by joining the Medicine Bottle
Campaign. Call or write President Clinton and urge him to save the Endangered
Species Act, currently on the congressional chopping block (see sidebar).
- Learn more about the non-human "kin" that share your environment.
An easy way to start is to install a bird feeder near your window; plant
a garden, or join a local hiking or nature club.
- Spend some time with children in the great outdoors to rekindle your
own sense of wonder of the natural world, and to guide, validate and applaud
- Help establish more natural places in your area - urban parks, greenways,
farms, river trails- "places of mystery where children can roam, explore,
and imagine" and where wildlife can find a home.
- Practice "bioregionalism": support local family farms, urban
neighborhoods, rural villages - whatever is in your community, as a part
of what Orr would call "reweaving the local ecology into the fabric
of the economy and life patterns."
- Spend time on porches, and in backyards and parks.
- Take action to limit your exposure - and particularly your children's
exposure to advertising. Advertising promotes biophobia by its cultivation
of dissatisfaction, which fuels the mass consumption currently threatening
the planet. For more information, contact the Center for Study of Commercialism
(1875 Connecticut Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20009, 202/332-9110).
- Challenge so-called "objective" and "neutral"
views of nature which only consider its benefits in measurable terms - yield,
board feet, barrels, or cash. Life ought to excite our passion, not our
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).
Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, Inc. is dedicated to translating
environmental concerns to everyday life by providing people in all homes
and communities with practical, solutions-oriented information. For a full
membership contribution of $20, you will receive a year's subscription to
The Green Guide, legislative updates, and advance notice of special events
in your area. 20 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011, (212) 242-0010.