views updated


The term biophilia was coined by the Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson (born 1929) and used in the title of his book Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species (1984). It comes from the Greek Βıos, "life," and ˚ıλıα, "love or affection," and means literally "love of life" or "life-loving."

Biophilia and Biodiversity

Wilson's thesis is that human beings have a deep, inbred psychological need for physical contact with a broad variety of other life forms. The concept of biophilia thus is closely linked with that of biodiversity (biological diversity). Although Wilson did not coin the term biodiversity—Walter G. Rosen did in the mid-1980s—he helped give it wide currency as editor of the 1988 book Biodiversity, the proceedings of the National Forum on Biodiversity held in Washington, DC, in 1986, sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution. According to Wilson, biodiversity represents much more than a material resource for such things as medicines and genes; it represents a vital human aesthetic and psychological resource as well.

In Biophilia Wilson points out that Homo sapiens evolved in a biologically diverse matrix. That which most distinguishes humans from other species and that in which humanists take the most pride—intellect and cognitive skills—are, Wilson argues, an evolutionary adaptation to a natural environment replete with both opportunity and danger. Therefore, not only do people have as deep a psychological need for a biologically diverse environment as they do for such basic things as human companionship and conversation, the very identity of humans as a species was sculpted by interaction with other species.

The human bond with other species mentioned in Wilson's subtitle thus goes beyond a desire for aesthetic satisfaction and psychological well-being to the core characteristic of the human species, to the very essence of humanity. On the basis of this claim Wilson proposes a "deep conservation ethic" that remains nevertheless anthropocentric. If people bequeath an impoverished natural environment to future generations, they risk the intellectual degeneration—the devolution—of the human species. "Preparing for future generations," Wilson writes, "is an expression of the highest morality. It follows that the destruction of the natural world in which the brain was assembled over a million years is a risky step" (Wilson 1984, p. 121).

The Evolutionary Basis

Wilson's claim that the complexity of human intelligence reflects the complexity of the natural environment in which the human brain evolved was anticipated by the conservation biologist Paul Shepard (1925–1996). In Thinking Animals: Animals and the Development of Human Intelligence (1978) Shepard argued that as the progenitors of modern Homo sapiens were driven by climate change and competition from their ancestral arboreal habitat out onto the African savanna, they began first to scavenge and then to hunt animals as well as to forage for fruits, tubers, leaves, and seeds. They themselves were subject to predation by large carnivores. The ability to sort the animals encountered into general categories—prey of this kind or predator of that kind—Shepard suggests, was crucial to the survival and reproductive success of those "savanna waifs." Mentally classifying animals and plants into kinds was the origin of conceptualization, and the linking of those bioconcepts into webs of relationship was the origin of intellection.

Once early humans developed the ability to categorize—to conceptualize—that cognitive skill could be extended to other areas, such as meteorological and geological phenomena; kinship and other social relations; and gods, ghosts, and spirits. Shepard's title is a double entendre: Human beings became thinking animals (animals that think) by thinking animals (thinking about animals).

Wilson's claim that human beings require physical contact with a variety of other species for psychological health and well-being also was anticipated by Shepard. The early departure from the way of life (hunting and gathering) and the conditions of life (a diverse biological environment rich in other species) has produced, Shepard argues in Nature and Madness (1982), a kind of collective insanity that currently manifests itself in the form of a global environmental crisis. The shift first to an agricultural and then to an industrial relationship with nature has impoverished the range of human contact with nature. Moreover, the shift in social organization from small bands of peers making decisions by consensus to large hierarchical societies with leaders and followers inherent in the shift to an agricultural and then to an industrial mode of relationship with nature led, in Shepard's analysis, to an infantile demand for instant gratification of desire, ultimately at the expense of the natural environment and its other species.

Because the concept of biophilia is embedded in the theory of evolution—indeed, it is an element of evolutionary psychology—it could not have been anticipated before the advent of the Darwinian worldview. Before Shepard one finds notable intimations of biophilia in the marine works of Rachel Carson such as Under the Sea Wind (1941) and The Sea Around Us (1951) and in the montane works of John Muir such as The Mountains of California (1894) and My First Summer in the Sierra (1911).

The Biophilia Hypothesis

In the 1990s the concept of biophilia was expanded and transformed into the biophilia hypothesis, which states that "human dependence on nature extends far beyond the simple issues of material and physical sustenance to encompass as well the human craving for aesthetic, cognitive, and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction" (Kellert 1993, p. 20). Stated in the form of a hypothesis, biophilia becomes testable through standard scientific research procedures. As Wilson originally conceived it, biophilia was a largely positive "affiliation" with nature in all its biotic variety and splendor. Wilson also conceived biophilia as having in part a genetic basis. Obviously, the human need for things such as companionship and sexual intimacy is genetic: Companionship is necessary because the human species survives and reproduces most efficiently in cooperation with others, and only those who desire sexual intimacy pass their genes on to the next generation.

Wilson argues that the human need for contact with a diverse biota is also genetic, although less obviously, because that is the natural matrix in which the human species evolved. If this is true, the general biophilia hypothesis should have a qualifying aspect: biophobias of dangerous organisms. Research indicating universal biophobias—fears of certain life-forms that may be found in people irrespective of cultural differences—confirms the biophilia/phobia hypothesis. Narrowing that hypothesis down to specifics, for instance, the universal fear among humans of snakes and spiders, has been confirmed experimentally.

Biophilia is meaningful as a scientific hypothesis in the field of evolutionary psychology only if it is narrowed down to specifics. As Judith Heerwagen and Gordon Orians note, "There are fear and loathing as well as pleasure and joy in our experiences with the natural world. Thus the real issue is not whether biophilia exists, but rather the particular form it takes" (p. 139). Their research focuses on landscape aesthetics. Although the results of their testing of the biophilia hypothesis are nuanced, Heerwagen and Orians found through analysis of things as diverse as landscape painting, landscape architecture, and the selection of home sites by people who can afford to live wherever they choose that people prefer high, open ground with a wide vista overlooking water and not too far from trees. Such sites provided early humans with the ability to see from a safe distance predators and competitors approaching; the gravitational advantage of elevation for combat, if necessary; and the availability of animal and plant resources for eating and water for drinking and bathing.

Tendencies toward dichotomous thinking incline people to assume that if biophilia is inbred and genetic in origin, it is not a learned, culturally transmitted, socially constructed, and reconstructible response to nature. However, nature and nurture are more complementary than opposed. Most distinctively human traits that have a genetic basis—things that belong indisputably to human nature—are also strongly shaped by cultural context, idiosyncratic experience, education, and social conditioning. The uniquely human capacity to speak a language, for example, is genetically based, but which one of the world's thousands of languages a person learns to speak, how well, to whom to say what, and so forth, depends on history, cultural context, idiosyncratic experience, education, and social conditioning.


Biophilia is not a human given but a human potential. Just as rhetoricians and poets maximally realize the human potential for language, natural historians such as Wilson and Carson maximally realize the human potential for biophilia. That potential can be generally fostered and nurtured or can be discouraged and stifled. The cost to a human being if the human potential to learn a language goes unfulfilled when an infant is raised in isolation from a linguistic environment is well known. What will be the cost to the human species as a whole if the biophilial potential of future generations is stanched by mass extinction and biological impoverishment? That is the millennial ethical question Wilson poses and ponders.


SEE ALSO Biodiversity;Environmental Ethics;Evolutionary Ethics.


Carson, Rachel. (1941). Under the Sea Wind: A Naturalist's Picture of Ocean Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Carson, Rachel. (1951). The Sea Around Us. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kellert, Stephen R., and Edward O. Wilson, eds. (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Muir, John. (1894). The Mountains of California. New York: Century.

Muir, John. (1911). My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Shepard, Paul. (1978). Thinking Animals: Animals and the Development of Human Intelligence. New York: Viking.

Shepard, Paul. (1982). Nature and Madness. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia: The Human Bond with Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Edward O., ed. (1988). Biodiversity. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1988.