Have you ever wondered why your Facebook wall is full of GIFs of cute puppies and kittens? Why both your little sister and your moustached white-collar neighbour have a shared interest in pictures of red pandas and raccoons? Why people spend considerable amounts of time and money travelling to distant places only to admire certain species of fauna and flora? Well, scholars interested in addressing this mysterious need for nature have come up with a very interesting hypothesis.
Text: Miśka Marczak
Savannah in our genes
The most influential theory about the human relationship with nature came from the renowned socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson. In a little book called “Biophilia”, written in 1984, Wilson presented a hypothesis which assumed that humans have a genetically determined deep need and propensity to affiliate with different forms of life. He focused on the evolutionary basis of this biophilic disposition. Since humans came of age as a species on the savannahs of East Africa, a process that took nearly two million years, Wilson argued that enshrined in our brains is the idea that certain aspects of the natural environment offer greater chance for survival. Individuals engaging in smarter interaction with nature around them would be promoted in the process of evolution and their genes would spread. For example, ponds and lakes were not only a necessary source of drinking water but could also serve as natural protection from enemies. In addition, they attracted various animals which people could hunt, and offered plants on which humans depended. Individuals who were able to acknowledge and utilise this knowledge were more prone to survival. This is how biophilic dispositions were “programmed” into human brains. Hence, nowadays, people are ready to pay a lot to travel to or live by savannah-like landscapes dotted with bodies of water – even if it seems impractical at first glance.
Biophilia extends further than the seemingly cross-cultural, universal preference for savannah-like landscapes. It can be observed through the symbolic meaning associated with various plants and animals: for example when we give a bouquet of red roses to someone, indicating that we love them. The popularity of outdoor activities serves as another example, and of special interest here are activities in the wilderness, including hiking, climbing or backcountry skiing. Through these activities, humans seem to seek the feelings that accompanied our hunter-gatherer ancestors: the attraction of the unknown and the excitement and fear of entering the non-human kingdom of the wild. The appreciation of the flora around us might be another sign of the biophilic need for contact with nature. Most people that I know keep plants at home or spend time arranging their gardens, whereas children engage spontaneously in climbing trees or gathering flowers. Similarly, I could count on one hand the people that I know who do not like animals. Most of us feel like smiling at a new puppy in the neighbourhood, if not attempting to stroke it. Little kittens are a cause of overwhelming amiability similarly to a plethora of other cute furry animals, from specimens as small as a squirrel to as big as a tiger. Indeed, the phenomenon of showing strong feelings of admiration for often very dangerous animals is not a straight-forward mechanism based on automatic behavioural responses. Wilson certainly had a smart idea when he claimed the genetic basis of biophilia, but the explanation doesn’t seem to be quite that simple.
Nature in culture
Constraining the mechanisms working behind biophilia to solely genetic factors does not leave much space for what distinguishes us as humans – free will, cognition and culture. It was argued therefore, following the critique of the “selfish gene” paradigm, that biophilia stems rather from the biocultural evolutionary processes such as prepared learning. What does this mean? Humans (along with other species) have a tendency to learn fast and permanently remember the reactions and associations that promote survival. Such reactions do need conditioning but once learned, they remain and are difficult to eradicate. This might have been the case with biophilic reactions, which might have been mediated by culture, in addition. For instance, the analysis of language shows that metaphors concerning nature are extremely common. Proverbs and myths often refer to the natural world and ascribe certain features to it, especially to animals. As anthropologist Elizabeth Lawrence – who researched the role that animals play in cultures of societies from virtually all continents – concluded: “The more vehement their feelings, the more surely do people articulate them in animal terms, demonstrating the strong propensity that may be described as cognitive biophilia”.
To sum up, we humans might possess a certain biophilic disposition in our genetic code, but it might need to be enhanced by culture in order to be expressed. This approach would also explain, to some extent, why some people don’t seem to like nature at all and prefer artificial environments over natural ones – their biophilic genes simply haven’t been activated during socialisation.
Loving nature (and ourselves)
Research shows that close bonds with the natural world have a strong positive influence on people’s perceived happiness and their mental health. For instance, it was found that connectedness with nature was significantly related to psychological well-being, meaningfulness, vitality and mindfulness. For example, interaction with animals in so-called “animal therapy” is used to reduce stress levels and develop the social skills of patients, among other things. Merely looking at the natural landscapes, whether real or artificial, also reduced stress and increased productivity in the workplace – however real nature, seen through a window, had a much stronger effect than looking at pictures or even at high quality real-time nature footage on a screen. Following this line of thought, some researchers have suggested that a commonly experienced “separation” from nature might be the cause of many diseases and anxiety disorders so characteristic of the modern world. Indeed, according to several studies, both our mental and physical health are interconnected with the condition of the natural environment. What is more, limited contact with nature is associated with impaired functioning. This is why it has been argued that in order to thrive and develop as a species, people need to reunite with nature and activate their biophilic dispositions. Emotional connectedness to nature is believed to be a prerequisite for environmentally protective behaviours. Thus once activated, biophilia might guide us to save the planet and at the same time get closer to happiness, the pursuit of which is pushing the environment and humans into severe crisis. The amount of cute furry content on our Facebook walls should tell how much we need it.