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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Need for Nature

Air Date: Week of December 23, 1994

Host Steve Curwood explores the “biophilia hypothesis” — a new scientific theory which says people depend on the variety of life . . . other animal and plant species . . . for their well-being. Edward O. Wilson of Harvard, a chief proponent of the theory, says that, if he’s right, preserving biological diversity could be the key to future human survival. (Encore)


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Running water, bird song)

CURWOOD: The pleasure of flowers. The fear of the dark. These are such universal human responses that it's hard to think that science would need to explain them. But there is growing scientific interest in the idea that responses to nature have been passed down through human evolution. That they are embedded in our genes. Edward O. Wilson:

WILSON: Sure, everybody likes nature. They will travel hundreds of miles just to stand on a seashore and see a sunset. They will crowd into national parks after traveling other hundreds of miles and so on. They have this powerful attraction. If not that, then they must go fishing; they must go hunting, or its equivalent, bird-watching and the like. This is an extremely important part of human life. And I believe then the specificity of this tells us a great deal about who we are as a species, and what we really need from the world around us.

CURWOOD: Edward O. Wilson is a Harvard biologist and a 2-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Fifteen years ago he coined the term biophilia to describe his theory that we as humans, in fact, all life forms, have a natural need to respond to other life forms. We all share the same basic system of genetic codes, whether we're lowly bacteria, majestic oak trees, or brilliant mathematicians. And we evolve together in ecosystems. So, Professor Wilson says, it's only natural that we should have a built-in relationship to other parts of the living world. Attractions and fears which are far stronger than those evoked by our own creations.

(Orchestral music)

CURWOOD: You scan your local front page as you hustle to get ready for work. A fiery car crash has killed a married couple and left their 2 children clinging to life in a hospital. How horrible, you think, as you rush out the door and into your own car. You don't have a second thought about getting in and heading out onto the freeway. There's no impulsive fear at the sight of the potentially deadly machine, or the sound of its revving engine, though more than 100 people are killed in car crashes in the US every day. But as you turn to back out of your driveway and glance at the back shelf, you gasp in horror and freeze at the sight of a giant spider. After composing yourself for a second or two, you look more closely and notice that it's not moving. Still closer inspection makes you feel quite stupid; it's made of plastic. A joke left by your kids.

WILSON: It's a remarkable fact that we have the propensity to develop phobias, meaning deep, autonomic, averse response. Cold sweats. Panic. The inability to shed them with therapy. For the ancient naturally, natural enemies of humankind, for example, people readily develop phobias, deep, aversive responses to snakes, to running water, to closed spaces, to heights, to spiders, and to dogs, but not to the dangers that actually surround us in modern, urban civilization. Not the knives, not the guns, and not to electric sockets or speeding automobiles.

CURWOOD: Professor Wilson says primitive responses are logical, because the human brain evolved in a world of plants and animals. Not a world of machines and asphalt. And compared to the hundreds of thousands of years humans have forged on Earth, it's been just a blink of an eye since agriculture and industry began to separate us from the rest of the natural world. Still, he says, it's a tough idea to embrace. Especially tough, perhaps, for scientists.

(Human ululation; sounds spooky and meditative at once)

WILSON: Biophilia is very much related to emotions, and furthermore, to emotions that are very ancient and not easily expressed because they fall outside this sphere of social intercourse. And therefore very difficult to put into words.

CURWOOD: For Professor Wilson, the question gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Are we a part of nature? Or do our intellectual, cultural, and technical capabilities place us beyond nature? He says the question is crucial today because so many plants, animals, and natural places are disappearing, never to return.

WILSON: There are 2 fundamentally different, even polar views of humanity's place in the world. One of them has us as being completely freed from nature, and therefore any world that we make that could be moderately comfortable and interesting in, then that might be free of nature, is humanity's destiny. We make our own destiny. The other very different view is that we are part of nature, that our mind has evolved, so as to be affiliated closely with the remainder of life and dependent upon certain configurations of it and an abundance of it and a great variety of it. That, that type of response to nature was of great survival value through the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, and it cannot be erased by concrete buildings and high tech. So that is the question before us today. Which of those 2 human species are we?

(Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring)

CURWOOD: The spring breeze rustles the new leaves and fills the air with a sweet, unmistakable scent. A group of early humans scans the area, committing the location of the flowering trees to memory. They know that where there are flowers now, there are likely to be fruits or nuts in another few months. This is a place to remember. Another group of modern humans is also eager to capture a memory of such a place. They spill off a tour bus. Cameras are clicking; it's just the right time to get pictures of the famous cherry blossoms along the tidal basin in their nation's capitol. Professor Wilson says it just makes sense, really. We call it instinct when a dog chases a cat. But the very qualities which we like to think separate us from other animals - reason and enlightenment - often cause us not to recognize our own instincts. Steven Kellert is a professor of environmental studies at Yale University, who recently edited a book of essays on biophilia with Professor Wilson.

KELLERT: It's a type of predisposition, if you will, a genetic tendency which are greatly influenced by human experience, culture, and in effect learning, and in the absence of cultural and experiential support it can become atrophied and stunted.

CURWOOD: Isn't this something that people have known and written about for centuries?

KELLERT: I think so. I think that we've intuitively recognized it to a large degree, certainly poets and philosophers have been very articulate and persuasive and profound in extolling the way in which humans derive emotional and intellectual sustenance from their relationship to nature. But I think that we haven't demonstrated it, particularly in a scientific way. I think we also haven't identified the full range of ways in which we derive benefit from nature, from our aesthetic appreciation of nature, which we often think of as a cultured or cultivated trait rather than something that has a biological basis.

(Music with percussion, rattles, drums)

CURWOOD: A herd of gazelles grazes peacefully on an African plain. Some of the graceful, slender animals catch a break from the blazing tropical sun under a grove of trees. Others seem to be drinking from a small pond: a rare find if it's really there. Suddenly, almost as one, their heads snap up. Their ears twitch. Their noses tests the soft breeze. Another minute, and the herd is racing away, a cloud of horns, flanks and tails flying across the landscape.

(Birdsong, crickets)

CURWOOD: To tourists watching from afar through high-powered binoculars, it's a once in a lifetime experience: the natural world at its most glorious and untamed. To a small band of their ancestors crossing the plain 5,000 generations before, it's also a meaningful experience. If they can catch one of the gazelles they'll eat for a couple of days. Even if they don't, the herd provides crucial information about the environment. It says water is here, and their placid grazing at first indicated that the area was safe: no lions or other predators around. And then their sudden flight also warned the relatively unprotected humans to be on guard for a possible threat.

(Percussive music returns)

CURWOOD: So, not only did other animals and plants give humans food and materials, they also told us about resources and threats in our surroundings. The early humans that learn these lessons well were favored for survival. Professor Wilson says we carry these ancient lessons with us today, in our near-universal human desires to have contact with certain animals, foods, even landscapes.

WILSON: The reason why is very much a question of evolution. The prevailing idea is that humanity evolved in savannah, park land, along the edge of water, with bunches of trees available for retreat but with an open prospect all around to see potential food, game, and enemies. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that we have very strong residue of that type of preference alive within us today. And here we have something that does run across cultures from Babylon to MesoAmerica, back to the formal gardens of Europe and on to the exquisite gardens of old China and Japan, where we find people typically building small or sometimes large houses that serve as retreats, surrounded by vegetation, and looking out over swards with beautifully arranged trees and ponds, or lakes. And to, in many cases, animals, from peacocks to cattle and horses. And so this appears to be a configuration which arises many times.

CURWOOD: Some might say that these are just nice things that you described. Well of course, it's obvious that people like some water and some trees, but that doesn't mean it's biophilia or some scientific theory.

WILSON: Yes. What is pleasant to people, what they accept and what they have been drawn to all their lives seems perfectly obvious, so what's the need of an explanation? This is the same category of why is sugar sweet? And that might seem to be a trivial question, quite pointless. Until we come to related issues, such as why do people so like fat? Well, these are the very foods that were scarcest and highest in caloric value, so why do we like sweets and fat? There's a reason, very likely, in our evolutionary history.

(Meditative music)

CURWOOD: Okay, the biophilia hypothesis. What does it mean for us as humans?

WILSON: It's very important to us for several reasons. First of all, it tells us something about who we are as a human species. It is potentially a very important part of human history, what I call deep history. That is, genetic history. And then the question is of fundamental importance in conservation. If it is true that humanity makes itself completely, that we are capable of living happily and fully developed as human beings in a world of steel and stone, or out there in satellites colonizing space, if we're capable of that, of finding our fulfillment in other ways that has nothing to do with a living world, then the argument might be made for getting rid of most of the rest of life, at least most of the variety of life. Most of the natural ecosystems. On the other hand, if we do have this biophilic nature deep within us, which I believe is the case, then we are committing a tragic mistake from our own selfish point of view in disposing the rest of life and not paying more attention to the conservation of living forms. So as to give the maximum potential for aesthetic and psychological development and a healthy life for our descendants.

CURWOOD: Edward O. Wilson, University Professor at Harvard, and editor, along with Steven Kellert, of the new Island Press book of essays, The Biophilia Hypothesis.



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