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Biophilia: A Birthright to Cultivate

An Interview with Stephen Kellert
by Jeremy Houser

Along with its originator E.O. Wilson, longtime Vineyarder Stephen Kellert has been a leading contributor to the development and articulation of the Biophilia Hypothesis. The field of biophilia – the study of human beings’ inherent affinity for nature – is a diverse collection of ideas drawing heavily on evolutionary biology and psychology, but also extending to sociology, cultural anthropology, spirituality, urban planning, and architecture. For a thorough accounting see the weighty Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by Kellert and Wilson.

In March of 2013, VCS hosted Professor Kellert for a screening of Biophilic Design, his documentary exploration of the connections between biophilia and architecture. While speaking with Dr. Kellert in preparation for his visit to the island, our conversation about biophilia quickly turned to his new book.  

Birthright, Dr. Kellert's newest book, delves further into the ethics of biophilia. Chapter by chapter, the book first tackles eight biophilic values (defined here), presenting personal and scientific perspectives on their origins, present-day meanings, and importance to our future. The final chapter then synthesizes these values into a “transformative environmental ethic” that – for the longterm well-being of our species – must emerge from a radical reappraisal of our own self-interest:

The restoration of a healthy relationship with the natural world must originate not in our desire to ‘save’ the planet but in a profound realization of our own self-interest. We will ultimately sustain only those things – whether species, buildings, or communities – that our values and ethics tell us contribute to our fitness and fulfillment.

In forming this new ethic, humanity must embrace all eight biophilic values, with a “realization that we can achieve lives of meaning and satisfaction only by living in right relation to the world beyond ourselves.”

If this sounds fascinating, but at least a little confusing, you’re not alone! I’ve selected some highlights from our conversation in which I tried to clarify for myself some aspects of the biophilia hypothesis:

[JH] I’m having difficulty seeing the connections and distinctions between two aspects of the biophilia hypothesis: 1) that certain attractions and fears come more easily for us because of our evolutionary history, and 2) the sense in which nature, broadly defined, is actively good for us. Are these different concepts?

[SK] Biophilia is a simple concept really: we have this inherent inclination to affiliate with nature that reflects the fact that we evolved in a natural world for more than 99% of our time on Earth. . . . Obviously, we’re a very complex animal, and most of our innate tendencies are highly contingent on learning and experience and social support, and also our geographic connections. All of these things conspire to affect the development of these biological tendencies. . . And my argument for biophilia is that these inherent tendencies not only reflect evolutionary biology, but they continue to be instrumental in our health, fitness, and well-being, even in modern society.

To the question of phobias, there’s two parts here. One is that because of our evolution, there’s certain aspects of the natural environment which were highly threatening, everything from big storms, stagnant water, and certain species like spiders, sharks, large predators, etc. And the reverse, there are species that – because of their positive association with human well-being – we’ve developed a tendency to favor. . . . Certain animals, Panda bears for example, have these neotenous (note: infant-like) qualities that remind us of our need to nurture the young, which is in humans twice as long as any other creature . . .

Any of these tendencies – to be attracted or avoid or fear – can be manifest in adaptive and maladaptive ways; that’s the two edged sword of humanity: we can create all sorts of extraordinary relationships to the natural world, exploit it in ways that are quite positive, everything from invention and curiosity to art and so forth. But we also have the capacity for a lot of self destructive or self defeating behavior. And you could call a phobic tendency a self destructive behavior.

Today, we may not be a vulnerable primate running around barefoot on the savannah, where stepping on a snake was not a great thing, but we still carry around that genetic baggage. You can show people subliminal pictures – this is a study that’s been done – of snakes and spiders, as well as handguns and frayed wires, and they’ll react aversively to the snakes and spiders but not the wires and guns. So things can become vestigial – they were adaptive in the context in which they evolved but they’re no longer relevant in today’s world. They’re still adaptive though. If we didn’t fear snakes and spiders and stuff like that (we could be deprived of) a lot of what we do in communication, art, symbolism, and design that draws on these highly emotional responses. But they can also be maladaptive in the extreme. If you look at the top ten phobias, you’ll find that at least eight of them are associated with the natural world.

The commonness of arachnophobia has always puzzled me a bit in this context. Compared to poisonous snakes and large predators, or even a hive of angry bees, spiders just aren’t that dangerous, even to our primate ancestors.

Well, in your lifetime you’re never going to be more than five feet from a spider, and when people hear that they get pretty uncomfortable. They bite, they’re predators, they spread disease, they do damage. They’re very much a part of our lives and they’re indifferent to our presumption of superiority; they don’t flee like a deer at the sight of us.

I think, in general, aversion to insects and spiders is somewhat guilt by association: they’re associated with disease and property damage, and with the biting and stinging species. Also, their response to the challenge of survival is so different from ours. They defy all notions of the sanctity of the individual, of emotion, of mind, of all the things we hold dear as the essence of humanity, and that’s very threatening.

It sounds like the social insects (colonial insects where genetically similar workers forgo their own reproduction) should be our greatest phobic source – in a sense, these insects aren’t individuals at all. . . [SK] Yeah . . . So, given that these biophilic (and phobic) tendencies can lead to both adaptive and maladaptive ends, is the existence of biophilia primarily a blessing or a curse in the modern world? In many ways – say in architecture, it’s easier to build ugly buildings with no windows, they’re cheaper to heat – it would be simpler if this didn’t affect us.

Well, the point is it does exist, and we’ve tried to treat people like machines, to assume that the measure of progress for civilization is our ability to suppress and transform, if not transcend, nature. As a consequence, the majority of office workers in the United States work in a windowless environment, and we assume that we can treat them like machines with a computer and a desk and they’re just fine. But they’re not just fine. Their morale flags, all kinds of symptoms, itchy skin and scratchy eyes, there’s a higher rate of absenteeism. When you do expose office workers to everything from plants in the workplace, to, better yet, natural light, ventilation, and materials, we find that the productivity improves. It’s about creating good habitat for people. We spend 90% of the time indoors, that’s become the natural habitat of humans today, but it doesn’t eliminate the need to affiliate with nature. It’s there, and if we ignore it we do so at our own peril.

In the 19th century, human populations willingly migrated en masse from the relatively biotic world of agriculture to the gloomy, Dickensian cities of the industrial revolution, believing it improved their quality of life. Were they short-sighted? Or is indulging our love of nature something we can only afford when our material needs are satisfied first?

Well, we’ll never be free of the need for material exploitation, and if people are starving they’re obviously going to put certain priorities above others. . . people make choices, and we can make good choices or bad ones, and one of the virtues of this rapprochement with nature that biophilia promotes is that it actually can enhance material utilization of nature. The more we come to appreciate, respect, and understand nature, the more we’ll able to utilize it in ways that we can’t even imagine . . .So I don’t think it’s one or the other – all these values are important, and they need to exist in a balanced relationship to one another.

In watching the trailer for the film (Biophilic Design), I was struck that all of the scenes of nature are very pleasant, peaceful. Is it primarily these sorts of places that are the objects of people’s biophilia? We talked previously about how dangerous animals fit into biophilia, but what about the mundane, or the desolate, in nature?

I think our film is a very good one, in not trying to dumb down the issues. Film is what they call a “hot medium,” good at affecting emotion but not in conveying complexity. It’s very difficult to do that, and I think we’re pushing the envelope with what we’re asking people to absorb.

But yes, it’s a good point. We included a good bit in the film on the aversive and mundane, but not enough. It is a much more subtle and challenging relationship to convey, but it is an important part of biophilic design. Our inherent aversive tendencies are fundamental to our structures; they’re all about protecting us from the aversive elements in nature.

Birthright is available at Bunch of Grapes and many online retailers.