Back in 1984, the acclaimed Harvard ecologist E. O. Wilson introduced us to the term "biophilia" by virtue of his book published under the same name. Wilson was recently interview by NOVA in which he reprised the case that humans have an innate tendency to focus on living things, as opposed to the inanimate.
Wilson basically argues that we have a genetic proclivity towards loving nature, a trait that evolved when we adapted to life on the African savanna. "It's too universal, and the cultural outcomes of it in different parts of the world are too convergent to simply call it an accident of culture," he told NOVA. "There's probably a complex of propensities that form convergent results in different cultures, but it also produces the ensemble of whatever these propensities are."
NOVA asked Wilson what would happen to people and society if we continue to distance ourselves from nature and "let our biophilia atrophy." He responded:
I don't know. There's now a lot of concern, even consternation, among not just naturalists and poets and outdoors professionals but spreading through I think a better part of the educated public, that we've cut ourselves off from something vital to full human psychological and emotional development. I think that the author of Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv, hit on something, because it became such a popular theme to talk about that book [which posits that children today suffer from what Louv calls "nature-deficit disorder"] that people woke up and said, "Yeah, something's wrong."
Just last week I was at the first Aspen Environment Forum in Colorado, and I gave a keynote. I made a remark there: "Soccer moms are the enemy of natural history and the full development of a child." That got applause. [laughs] And many responded afterward agreeing with me. Someone said, "We just over-program kids. We're so desperate to move them in a certain direction that we're leaving out a very important part of childhood." There's a strong feeling that that's the case, that there's something about a child's experience-many of them had it, others have just heard about it-that should be looked at.
I believe that probably a good focus point is biophilia. What is it that we want to cultivate? The dire comparison I make is between children brought up in a totally humanized, artifactual environment, urban or suburban, and cattle brought up in a feedlot. When you see cattle in a feedlot, they seem perfectly content, but they're not cattle. It's an exaggeration, of course, to compare those with children, but somehow children can be perfectly happy with computer screens and games and movies where they get to see not only African wildlife but, lo and behold, dinosaurs. But they're just not fully developing their psychic energy and their propensities to develop and seek on their own.
Much more at NOVA.
Image: Jim Harrison.