Thursday, February 17, 2011

Loving Life

About 4:30 am this morning, amidst a coastal downpour, my wife Toni and I awoke to the sound of two young raccoons having a WWF-style wrestling smackdown in the gathering pool of water on the skylight overhead. Smiling at the rambunctious pair going head to head, trying to toss each other “out of the ring,” I paused to wonder whether or not I really cared about raccoons—or any other “wild” animals for that matter.

So how about it? Do you love life? I’m not talking here about the concept of living; rather I refer to your emotional bond with other, nonhuman forms of life. Nothing kinky here folks. The question is whether or not you, and people generally, feel some sort of deep-felt connection to the more-than-human world.

The term “biophilia”—literally, a love of life—was first used by psychologist Erich Fromm [1] in 1964 to describe a particular psychological orientation—a vital attraction to nature, both human and nonhuman. Use of this term became much more widespread two decades later following publication of a thin volume from biologist E. O. Wilson [2]. Wilson’s “biophilia hypothesis” proposed that humans possess an instinctive tendency to affiliate with other life forms. According to this idea, biophilia is no less than a genetically mediated need resulting from numerous millennia of human evolution living in direct contact with the nonhuman world.

A diverse range of evidence has been cited in support of the biophilia hypothesis. One group of studies examined the health benefits of interacting with nature. To give an example, a group of patients who had just had gall bladder surgery were placed either into a room with windows looking out onto a natural setting or a room lacking windows [4]. By several measures—for example, pain medication needed and length of hospital stay—individuals in the former group fared significantly better than those in the latter. Health benefits following exposure to natural settings have also been reported for dental patients, prison inmates, and individuals recovering from stress [e.g., 4,5,6]. Similarly, a summary of more than 100 studies [4] reported benefits for individuals who have spent time in a wilderness area. In short, exposure to natural settings—whether through direct experience, looking out a window, or observing a photograph or video—appears to have measurable positive effects on health, both physiological and psychological.

A second group of studies looked at habitat preferences. Ecologist Gordon Orians [7] proposed that

humans have an innate tendency to prefer an “ideal” habitat with a particular trio of characteristics: 1) a savannah or park-like landscape with a mixture of forest and grasslands; 2) a body of water such as ocean or a lake; and 3) a prominence, offering a view of the surrounding terrain. In proposing the biophilia hypothesis, E. O. Wilson grabbed onto on this concept, claiming that our inherited preference for savannah settings cascades from our lengthy evolutionary heritage on the African savannah. Plenty of subsequent research [e.g., 5] has supported the existence of an innate landscape bias, although the idea has also had its detractors. For example, Jared Diamond [8] noted that humans have occupied a diverse range of habitats in the tens of thousands of years since we departed the African savannah, allowing plenty of time for inherited preferences to evolve in other landscapes. It is feasible, then, that we do not necessarily possess a genetic bias for savannah settings, but rather an innate preference for landscapes that, for much of our history, provided key elements for survival (i.e., prospect, refuge, food, and water).

Yet another group of studies has addressed the human propensity to affiliate with some animals and avoid others. As in the case of natural landscapes, exposure to animals—from fish in aquariums to birds, cats, and dogs—tends to promote physiological health and a sense of well being [e.g., 6]. Much research into so-called “human-animal bonds” has documented the great health benefits in

particular of companion animals [9].

Without doubt, the biophilia hypothesis has struck a chord with a range of environmentally minded people, from activists, educators, and conservationists to psychologists, architects, and landscape designers [e.g., 10.11,12]. Adherents have particularly embraced the implication that abundant, direct experience outdoors is an innate need, essential for a healthy childhood [e.g., 13,14]. E. O. Wilson himself [2,3] has suggested that biophilia might serve as no less than the foundational concept of a new conservation ethic. Unsurprisingly, the biophilia hypothesis has also garnered widespread support from within ecopsychology [15]. An innate propensity to affiliate with life has been seen as a framework for investigating the troubled human-nature relationship, and even a vehicle to redefine this relationship.

Yet biophilia has attracted its share of critics as well [e.g., 8,16,167], and, to be frank, has received minimal attention within scientific circles. Most telling of all is that biophilia—an evolutionary hypothesis pertaining to the human mind—has been all but ignored by the rapidly growing field of evolutionary psychology. A pair of recent books reviewing the latter discipline [18,19] lacks so much as an index listing for biophilia (although, to be fair, there are discussions of certain elements, such as habitat preferences).

Among the problems with Wilson’s hypothesis is the fact biophilia is continually defined as the human affinity for other organisms, despite the fact that people also affiliate and bond with nonliving aspects of nature. Indeed one of Wilson’s key examples of biophilia, the putative “ideal” savannah habitat, is based largely on physical elements of environment (e.g., topographic relief, water). Perhaps the most intractable problem for biophilia is its apparent lack of testability. Biophilia is generally regarded as an umbrella term designated to cover a diverse range of inherited behaviors involving our interactions with the nonhuman world. So it is difficult, if not impossible, to test the concept as a whole. One thing is clear. If we do possess an innate proclivity to affiliate with other life forms (and with nature more generally), cultural overprinting can prevent the development (or at least the persistence) of a bond with the living world. Evidence for this fact can be found in the rapidly increasing numbers of “biophobics” [10].

This debate over biophilia is not merely an intellectual exercise. Make no mistake; the stakes are high. As evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould [20] claimed, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional

bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.” In my view, the theoretical underpinnings of biophilia are not sufficiently robust to serve as the foundation for understanding the human bond with nature. In coming posts, I will propose an alternative hypothesis that addresses many of the key criticisms of biophilia and outlines a pathway for fostering emotional bonds with the more-than-human world.

Lying there in bed unable to get back to sleep after the big event, I decided that I really do care about raccoons, and the myriad other creatures with whom I share this place in northern California. Now if only I could figure out a way to stop those masked wrestlers from using their best moves on our garbage can!


1) Fromm, E. 1964. The Heart of Man. Harper & Row, New York.

2) Wilson, E. O. 1984. Biophilia: The Human Bond with other Species. Harvard University Press, Boston.

3) Wilson, E. O. 1993. Biophilia and the conservation ethic. Pp. 31-41 in S. R. Kellert, S. R. and E. O. Wilson (eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

4) Ulrich, R. S. 1993. Biophilia, biophobia, and natural landscapes. Pp. 73-137 in S. R. Kellert, S. R. and E. O. Wilson (eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

5) Heerwagen, J. H. and Orians, G. H. 1993. Pp. 138-172 in S. R. Kellert, S. R. and E. O. Wilson (eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

6) Kahn, P. H., Jr. 1999. The Human Relationship with Nature: Development and Culture. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

7) Orians, G. H. 1980. Habitat selection: General theory and applications to human behavior. In J. S. Lockard (ed.), The Evolution of Human Social Behavior. Elsevier, New York.

8) Diamond, J. 1993. New Guineans and their natural world. Pp. 251-271 in S. R. Kellert, S. R. and E. O. Wilson (eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

9) Walsh, F. 2009. Human-animal bonds I: The relational significance of companion animals. Family Process, 48:462-480.

10) Kellert, S. R. 1997. Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

11) Orr, D. W. 1994. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

12) Suzuki, D. 1997. The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature. Greystone Books, Vancouver.

13) Nabhan, G. P. and Trimble, S. A. 1995. The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places. Beacon Press, Boston.

14) Louv, R. 2006. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC.

15) Roszak, T., Gomes, M.E. Kanner, A.D. 1995. (eds.). Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.

16} Sagan, D. and Margulis, L. 1993. God, Gaia, and biophilia. Pp. 345-364 in S. R. Kellert, S. R. and E. O. Wilson (eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

17) Fischer, C. S. 1994. Widespread likings: Review of The Biophilia Hypothesis. Science, 263:1161–1162.

18) Buss, D. M. (ed.). 2006. The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Wiley, New York.

19) Buss, D. M. 2008. Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, Third Edition. Pearson, New York.

20) Gould, S. J. 1993. Unenchanted evening. Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History. Norton, New York. Quotation from p. 40.

All images derived from National Geographic: