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Coined by Edward O. Wilson, the biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans have an “innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes.” With “innate” meaning “hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature,” Wilson claims a biological basis for humans’ attraction to living things and to nature at large, and argues that such an affinity was selected evolutionarily; not only does being “biophilic” confer a competitive advantage, it also provides the key to our achieving meaningful and fulfilling existences. The biophilia hypothesis is rooted in sociobiology, a discipline popularized by Wilson and Richard Dawkins in the 1970s to examine the genetic bases of social behavior within different species. Sociobiology has been critiqued, perhaps most notably by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, for being biologically deterministic, undervaluing the effects of culture and learning and, significantly, drawing the majority of its claims from research conducted on insects and other nonhuman animals. Sociobiology has been somewhat reworked through evolutionary psychology and human behavioral ecology, and it has enjoyed resurgence in light of the Human Genome Project.
Wilson and other proponents describe biophilia not as a single instinct, but rather as a “complex of learning rules that can be teased apart and analyzed individually.” The learning rules mold feelings, or types of emotional response, that can range from attraction to aversion and from serenity to fear. These “multiple strands of emotional response” together form symbols that constitute a large part of culture. Spread by natural selection within a cultural context, genes prescribe the learning propensities that influenced cultural elaborations. This process is called biocultural evolution: According to Wilson, “a certain genotype makes a behavioral response more likely, the response enhances survival and reproductive fitness, the genotype consequently spreads through the population, and the behavioral response grows more frequent.” Human tendencies to make meaning from these feelings to explain, depict, and dream have led to our cultural elaborations of art, worldview, and more.
A classic example would be what has been called the “maternal instinct,” but should accordingly be described as a complexity of behaviors within many species that arguably confers advantages to the protected offspring, who would then survive to reproduce additional individuals as well as protective behaviors. Another example would be the readily observed behaviors supporting the claim that many species have evolved to be genetically averse to snakes. Such a tendency to aversion, called biophobia, fulfills the premises of the biophilia hypothesis.
Proponents of the biophilia hypothesis argue that the natural environment that which defined much of our evolutionary experience has been increasingly degraded. What happens to the human psyche as we become further separated from nature? In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv tracks what he calls “nature deficit disorder” among American children. Louv defines nature deficit disorder as the cumulative effect of withdrawing nature from people’s experiences, which leads to increased stress, decreased attentiveness, and feelings of “not being rooted in the world.” Nature deficit disorder is not biophobia; rather, it is the kind of disengagement from the natural environment that alarms supporters of the biophilia hypothesis and its attendant biophobic manifestations. Nature deficit disorder has become a societal disorder, Louv suggests. Children are victimized by it through the mutually reinforcing patterns of being increasingly confined to rigid, artificial environments; labeled ADHD; and not encouraged to exercise via unstructured play, such as the emphasis on team sports and fixed schedules.
The biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans benefit from exploring and trying to understand other life forms and processes. Wilson, a self-identifying conservationist, actively promotes the protection of biodiversity for its vast material wealth, ecosystem services, information value (including ecological and evolutionary processes), and spiritual value. He argues that our emotional bonds with the natural world can lead to a meaningful environmental ethic that overcomes the constraints of resource economics (where plants, animals, and other so-called natural resources are assigned prices and thus exchange values), as well as the aprioristic species-rights approach. Wilson argues it is best to state that we need biodiversity in order to remain human-an anthropocentric agenda that, by extension, protects other species and accords them value without necessarily being reductionist.
- Lee Cronk, “Human Behavioral Ecology,” Annual Review of Anthropology (v.20, 2005);
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976);
- Stephen Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, eds., The Biophilia Hypothesis (Island Press, 1993);
- Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2005);
- Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species (Harvard University Press, 1984).