EO Wilson center

The biophilia [bahy-oh-fil-ee-uhhypothesis suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. American biologist Edward O. Wilson introduced and popularized the hypothesis in his book, ‘Biophilia’ (1984). He defines ‘biophilia’ as ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.’

The term literally means ‘love of life or living systems.’ It was first used by German sociologist Erich Fromm to describe a psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital. Wilson uses the term in the same sense when he suggests that biophilia describes ‘the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.’ He proposed the possibility that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology. Unlike phobias, which are the aversions and fears that people have of things in the natural world, philias are the attractions and positive feelings that people have toward certain habitats, activities, and objects in their natural surroundings.

To many people, ‘nature’ means plants as in a park or forest, but the weather and animals are also closely involved. In the book ‘Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations,’ edited by psychologist Peter Kahn and social ecologist Stephen Kellert, the importance of animals, particularly for early and middle childhood, is emphasized. They argue there is a benefit to engaging in a nurturing relationship with an animal. Additionally, the book reports on the help that animals can provide to children with autistic-spectrum disorders.

Human preferences toward things in nature, while refined through experience and culture, are hypothetically the product of biological evolution. For example, adult mammals (especially humans) are generally attracted to baby mammal faces and find them appealing across species. The large eyes and small features of any young mammal face are far more appealing than those of the mature adults. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that the positive emotional response that adult mammals have toward baby mammals across species helps increase the survival rates of all mammals.

Similarly, the hypothesis helps explain why ordinary people care for and sometimes risk their lives to save domestic and wild animals, and keep plants and flowers in and around their homes. In other words, our natural love for life helps sustain life. Very often, flowers also indicate later potential for food. Most of the fruits start their development as flowers. For our ancestors, it has been crucial to spot, detect and remember the plants that later will provide nutrition. It is also well known, that people remember best the things that include some type of feelings. This seems to work both ways. The things that are crucial to survive, seems to have developed genetic bookmarks in the form of instincts.

The hypothesis has since been developed as part of theories of evolutionary psychology in the book The Biophilia Hypothesis edited by Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson and by biologist Lynn Margulis. Also, Stephen Kellert’s work seeks to determine common human responses to perceptions of, and ideas about, plants and animals, and to explain them in terms of the conditions of human evolution.

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