There is an assumption in the scientific, sociological and philosophic realms that humans have some form of a connection with nature. Where this apparent connection has come from, or why there is one, has been debated since the publication of Edward O. Wilson’s 1984 book ‘Biophilia’. I think the biophilia hypothesis is fascinating, and what follows is a summary in blog form.

The general idea of biophilia, is that because humans evolved in natural landscapes and settings until very recently in evolutionary terms, humans have an innate need to affiliate with other forms of life (Wilson, 1984; Kellert & Wilson, 1993). Over the past few years, I believe that recent calls for humans to reconnect with nature is based on the ‘realization’ that human evolution has been intertwined with nature. In particular given that throughout human history, humans have formed a strong bond with nature around them as it was heavily depended on for food, shelter, recreation, etc. The basis of biophilia, could be understood as a form of ‘prepared learning theory’, in that evolution has predisposed humans to easily learn and retain certain associations or responses. Therefore, perhaps, deep in our unconscious, humans have a reservoir of images or ‘memories’ which relate to ancestral experiences and may have bearing on the way individuals in modern day societies behave.  As well as this, there are a group of scientists who have demonstrated that humans are linked to nature and that the nervous system resonates with the natural world – perhaps why we see such benefits on mental health when being exposed to natural settings.

A good way to understand the general principles of biophilia is the comparison between that, and biophobia. Kellert & Wilson (1993) all discussed the ‘strangeness’ about how humans are fearful of a number of threats which are not considered a threat in modern day times. For example snakes, spiders and darkness. These fears, in comparison with little to no fear of actual modern day threats such as knives and guns, reflects that humans are biologically prepared to acquire and not ‘forget’ biophobic responses to certain natural stimuli and situations that were presumed to have threatened survival of our ancient ancestors. This might be the same with the more positive, or pleasant responses associated to aspects of nature.

Another example that may support this whole notion of biophilia is the savannah hypothesis. There have been researchers who propose that humans prefer open, savannah like landscapes as they would have favoured survival by our early ancestors. For example, I have read studies which have shown that young children tend to prefer savannah landscapes as opposed to bush landscapes. Savannahs were said to be ideal environments for ancient humans as they had less spatial enclosure meaning that humans were able to scope out food sources, predators and shelter and there was less risk of illness and disease. As generally agreed upon by anthropologists, savannah type environments are the environments in which ancient humans first made their home, and therefore this attraction toward savannah landscapes which initially drew ancient humans may not be eliminated from our genetic make-up. 

In general, regardless of what type of natural setting it is, it has been promoted by key researchers in the field of the aesthetic preferences of humans, that individuals prefer natural settings in comparison to urban views (for example see Kaplan, Kaplan & Wendt (1972) and Kaplan & Kaplan (1989)).  People are said to usually favour unspectacular or even mediocre nature scenes, and that once artificial elements are placed in a natural settings (i.e. billboards) it can have negative impacts on individuals. However, if we apply the argument that biophilia is valid,  this implies that the connection is so ‘deeply rooted’ that it is transferable between contexts – even when the context is less favourable, for example this connection should be resilient to changes in spatial scales or other external stressors.

Assuming humans still retain a genetic imprint from our pre-technological ancestors, it is argued that newer technological threats are yet to be incorporated into our DNA. The time between the industrial revolution and now is such a short timeframe on the evolutionary timescale, and humans have spent 99% of their lives as hunter-gatherers, so the human brain has evolved in a full bio-centric world, and not a machine regulated world. Therefore surely, biophilic tendencies or learning cannot have already been entirely erased. Assuming that there are underlying biophilic tendencies within each individual but they are ‘masked’ by modern day technology and ‘ways of life’, there must still be subtle clues that humans feel a connection to nature. This evidence could lie in the popularity of outdoor wilderness activities such as hiking or camping, zoos, gardening, or our relationship with animals. The biophilic tendencies may also explain why some people are more interested in conservation and ethical treatment of species and certain environments than others. As well as this, people are spending more money on vacations to take us back to settings of our beginnings, to nature, to seek ‘refuge’ from city life. Interestingly as part of my PhD research, I’ve noticed how often people reference nature as being ‘a place to escape’. Sad, but true. Are our lives in the city that bad?  These are small pieces of evidence that may reflect that in modern-day life how biophilic tendencies are coming through subtly. Perhaps we should be fostering them more.

Whether or not humans really do have an innate affinity with the natural world, you have to ask yourself why a flower, a sunset, the smell of the ocean, affects us so differently to a broken beer bottle, a road or a building. Therefore, as Wilson (1984) puts it and I agree, to destroy the natural world in which the brain evolved over millions of years is a risky step. Actually, it’s just plain stupid.

Lissy Fehnker is a PhD Candidate at Massey University. This blog was an entry in the 2019 SAANZ Student Blog Writing Competition. 

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kaplan, S., Kaplan, R., & Wendt, J. (1972). Rated preference and complexity for natural and urban visual material. Perception & Psychophysics, 12(4), 354-356.

Kellert, S., & Wilson, E. (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington DC: Island Press

Wilson, E. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.