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Commentary on Biophilia by E.O. Wilson

Schmeltz's picture

Biophilia, by E.O. Wilson, is a brilliantly constructed novel exploring the human connection to the natural environment.  The term biophilia, coined by Wilson, describes the human affinity for life, which according to Wilson, engenders both a human-to-human connection and a human connection to all other living species.  Providing a commentary of this book presents me with a challenge because I immensely revere Wilson's poetic and inspiring response to nature and his beautiful statement of the conservation ethic.  Prior to reading of Biophilia, I had expressed a profound bond with nature, but I was without explanation for the deep sense of completion and spirituality I often experience in the natural environment.  Biophilia provided me with a meaningful explanation for my personal connection to the natural environment.  Additionally, it provided me with increased desire to deepen this connection and demonstrate to others the significance of conserving and strengthening this bond.  In Biophilia, Wilson develops a convincing story suggesting that our felt connection to nature must be conserved not only for the benefit of future generations and other organisms, but for the benefit of each individual human experience.  Wilson, by discussing the conversation ethic from an egocentric human perspective, demonstrates why it is in our personal interest to preserve the human connection to nature.  By presenting its potential to positively influence our present human condition, I believe that Wilson thought he could transform and revolutionize the conservation ethic.  There is no measurable way to determine if Biophilia did in fact achieve this revolution.  Nevertheless, I think Biophilia, if revisited by my generation, has great potential to generate heightened interest in safeguarding the human connection to the natural world.

In the chapter entitled The Time Machine, Wilson considers different ways individuals have viewed and approached science.  Wilson claims that there have always been two lines of scientific thinking: “The first look upon the Creator, or at least the ineffability of the human spirit, as the ultimate first choice.  The second follow the venerable dictum attributed to Polybius that whenever it is possible to find out the cause of what is happening, one should not turn to the gods” (46).  The two disparate camps of thinking are labeled as restrictionists and expansionists.  Restrictionists believe that science has limitations, while expansionists believe that science has no limits.  The idea of natural selection proposed by Darwin combined with the idea that organisms are completely obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry has provided a “less wrong” story that has dispelled many ideas of an inexplicable mystic life force.  Thus, expansionism has prevailed escaping the boundaries of physics and chemistry and entering the realm of life and the mind. 

Prior to Neurobiology and Behavior 202, I probably would have subscribed to restrictionism because I strongly believed in the existence of a soul.  I still do.  Now, however, I have decided that the origin of a soul is not some mystic life force, but rather a brain creation.  When I first read Biophilia I did not like the term restrictionist because I felt that the idea of a spirit and/or soul was not restricting.  Earlier in the semester, I would have been uncomfortable labeling Descartes as a restrictionist and Emily Dickinson as an expansionist.  My perspective, now, has been transformed.  I have decided that a soul does exist, but it exists to the extent that our brain creates the idea.  I have grown to view the scientific approach as expansive.  Further, I now identify myself as being in the realm of expansionism because I have decided that an expansionist may very well be a spiritualist.  I no longer conceive of science as being limiting in any way.  I do fear that science will destroy beauty and spiritual thinking.  Before, I would have agreed with Tennyson that “Science grows and beauty dwindles” (48).  Now, I think science grows and beauty expands. Science does not reduce and oversimplify.  It does not forget the spirit or cage the artist.  Instead, science creates new stories, allows for multiple ideas of a soul and/or spirit, and allows the artist to create.  The divide between science and the humanities, Wilson argues, must be alleviated.  I agree.  I think this course and Wilson's complimentary ideas, allowed me to integrate two seemingly disparate lines of thinking into a cohesive story that I will continue to mold and modify in my life. 

In his chapter The Poetic Species, Wilson explores the idea of viewing science as art or art as science.  Both, he proclaims, are “enterprises of discovery” (63).  The binding force linking the two realms lies in our biology and in our relationship to other organisms.  Wilson writes, “In art, the workings of the mind are explored, whereas in science, the domain is the world at large and now, increasingly, the workings of the mind as well” (63).  This adds very nicely to conversation generated in class and in the forum.  In this quote, I interpret mind as being synonymous to I-function.  I believe that Wilson recognizes art and science as being constructions and explorations of the mind or the I-function.  Wilson highlights the similarities:  “Both rely on forms of metaphor and analogy, because they share the brain's strict and peculiar limitations in the processing of information” (64).  I do not like his use of the word strict to describe the processing of information by the brain because I do not think there is any strict processing pathway underlying a particular human behavior and thought.  However, I think I recognize what he was trying to achieve by this statement.  As discussed in class, each human nervous system shares commonalities due to similar anatomical architecture and brain activities.  As for peculiar limitations, I am not quite sure what he means.  I think it is a bit limiting to suggest that the brain has “peculiar limitations”.  It is difficult for me to buy into that idea when we do not have an accurate method of measuring and determining each human experience.  Perhaps though, I am reading too much into a sentence and despite its potential inaccuracy, I still get a sense for the point he is attempting to paint: the origin of science and art is the human brain. 

Wilson claims that in order to innovate, original comparisons, supported by argument, explanation, and experiment, must be created.  Wilson suggests that both the poet and the scientist build analogies that provide the foundation for exploring under-examined terrain.  A key difference, is that an artist, “at the moment the spark ignites...does not press on toward natural law and self-dissolution within the big picture.  All his skills are aimed at the instant transference of images and the control of emotions in others…he carefully avoids exact definitions or the display of inner logic” (74).  The poetic mind is not satisfied with a concrete description, but seeks to amplify passions and exaggerate thoughts.  In other words, the I-function constructs an animated and magnified story.  Wilson claims that the “mind is biologically prone to discursive communication that expands thought” (74).  This drives the question: are we all biologically programmed to be poets?  To be artists?  I think we are.  I like viewing us as a poetic species because I think that we are inherently creators.  The I-function, I believe, yields this poetic quality and allows for us to construct stories of the world and ourselves to determine the meaning(s) of life.  The storyteller constructs and executes differently by different brains.  Some take a stereotypically more artful path and some take a stereotypically more scientific path.  Yet, both share a biological origin.

The next part of Biophilia that I found immensely interesting was the chapter entitled The Serpent.  The “phenomenon of the serpent” (83) is one that I have experienced in the past, but I had never really given the phenomenon much consideration.  I never realized why the image of a snake engendered such a powerful human response and why the serpent has comprised one of my most vivid and bizarre dreams. 

Swimming in the middle of a river, I am at a place where I can stand.  The water is at the level of my waste.  Two of my best friends are downstream.  Physically we are together, but mentally, I feel we are disconnected.  We each appear to be in our own heads.  My hands are paddling the water surface.  I am looking at my friends standing downstream, not wondering what they are doing, but just realizing they are there.  All of a sudden, I have this feeling – a feeling analogous to nausea, but substantially more discomforting.  I feel like I am on the brink of something explosive.  Suddenly, I look down between my legs and a red-orange snake is exiting my body.  I become frantic. I look at my friends, still calmly standing, unchanged, and in their own heads.  I do not ask for help.  It did not occur to me to ask help as it does now.  Instead, I plunge my hands into the water and begin pulling the snake out of me, but there is seemingly no end to it.  I frantically continue to pull this disgusting out of me.  Suddenly, I become aware that there is not only one snake.  Snakes of various bright, ugly, and deadly shades begin to envelop me, weaving between my legs and circling my waste.  I am not concerned about a poisonous bite, but overwhelmed and fixated on the snake that seems to be originating from me.  I am crying.  Katie calmly says to me, “Don’t worry, Tessa. It happens to everyone.”  Kristen nods in agreement. 

I awoke from this dream in horror.  Instinctively, I reached down between my legs anticipating a serpent coiling out of me.  This dream bothered me and it still does.  I cannot express the level of discomfort that I experienced in this reality.  I was embarrassed and hesitant to describe the experience.  Now, however, I can appreciate my snake dream as a demonstration of my human bond to living things.  I think it reveals the complexity of our relation to nature and the fascination humans have in other life forms.  The snake is special because, for many of us, it has a special impact on our mental development.  Wilson suggests that human beings have an innate propensity to affiliate with other forms of life – biophilia.  Additionally, humans have an innate propensity to learn fear.  Thus, my affiliation with snakes is a biophilic tendency that originates in my brain.  Further, the anxiety, hesitancy, and curiosity I experience in the presence of snakes are brain processes.  Wilson writes, “The mind is primed to react emotionally to the sight of snakes, not just to fear them but to be aroused and absorbed in their details, to weave stories about them” (86).  This suggests that there are unconscious brain processes that occur in the presence of a snake.  The instinctive response is to get away from it because for some reason the brain associates the snake with danger.  The brain translates this instinctive, unconscious response to the snake into a very memorable story of the serpent.  Therefore, we construct the serpent through our own story.  Why do we do this?  According to Wilson, “It plays in elementary survival to be interested in snakes and to respond emotionally to their generalized image, to go beyond ordinary caution and fear” (93). The response to the snake is a generalized response mechanism built into the nervous system.  The creation of the serpent is an I-function construction.  Thus, “life gathers human meaning to become a part of us” (100) through an I-function process.  The I-function transforms the literal reptile into a potent cultural symbol of the serpent. 

“Culture in turn is a product of the image-making machine that recreates the outside world through symbols arranged into maps and stories.  But the mind does not have an instant capacity to grasp reality in its full chaotic richness....consciousness races ahead to master certain kinds of information with enough efficiency to survive.  It submits to a few biases...the controlling devices are biological in nature, built in to the sensory apparatus and brain” (101). 

The composite biases are what Wilson calls human nature or the naturalist tendencies of human beings.  The tendencies are still alive in all of us because the brain evolved in a place where snakes mattered and impacted our survival. 

Today, we are clearly not in a hunter-gatherer situation, but these naturalist tendencies have remained.  In the chapter entitled The Right Place, Wilson explores the original habitat in which the human brain evolved arguing that certain elements of the past physical environment impact the preferred environment of modern human beings.  Based on archeological evidence, it seems evident that human beings, for the majority of their two million years on earth, occupied the savannas of Africa.  As a consequence, Wilson proclaims that the mind is predisposed to life on the savanna and that we continue to simulate a savanna-like environment.  For example, humans craft formal gardens, cemeteries, and suburban shopping malls striving to create an open, but not barren, landscape.  Second, Wilson points out that people desire high points (cliffs, hillocks, and ridges) because far back in our evolutionary past hilltops assisted distant surveillance.  Third, bodies of water appeal to modern humans because our predecessors realized that few natural enemies occupied the shorelines.  Wilson states, “Put these three elements together: it seems whenever people are given a free choice, they move to open tree-studded land on prominences over looking water” (110).  We no longer chose this situation due to a hunter-gatherer tendency, but rather because our brains have been wired to accommodate and prefer these conditions.  We continue to search for high places (skyscrapers, ocean cliffs, etc.), to take leisure moments along shores and rivers, to create courtyards, gardens, and pictures of savanna-like environments.  Our minds are predisposed to the savanna which leads to an interesting question: Do we have generalized central pattern generators embedded in the nervous system that have this memory of mankind's optimal, original environment?  It is certainly conceivable. 

Wilson suggests that all human responses to the environment may be attributed to events that occurred in the distant genetic past.  Among them, is this desire to replicate the natural environment and the predisposition for biophilia.  When human beings respond to the physical world, what do they find most attractive?  Cyril Smith, a metallurgist, wrote in his A Search for Structure, that people react more suddenly to organisms than to machines.  People prefer things that are complex, growing, and sufficiently unpredictable.  Further, “they are inclined to treat their most formidable contraptions as living things or at least to adorn them with eagles, floral friezes and other emblems representative of the peculiar human perception of true life” (116).  We are innately attracted to naturalistic entities not only because of their aesthetic qualities, but because our minds have been programmed to prefer them.  Why, then, do we not take more interest in preserving the natural?  

Wilson wrote this book in 1984 and I really wonder if it gained the attention he had hoped it would achieve.  I believe it was his hope that philosophers and scientists would begin to consider the relationships between human beings and organisms with the same rigor that they explore other endeavors.  To understand this relation, Wilson encourages that we being to investigate our motivation.  We need to recognize the ultimate reason why some people care about the environment and why we all should care.   The goal, he writes, “is to join emotion with the rational analysis of emotion in order to create a deeper and more enduring conservation ethic” (119).  I am not sure that there is such a thing as “the rational analysis of emotion”, but I believe he is suggesting that if we further explore the human nervous system and the idea of mind, we can create new human perceptions of life.  Wilson writes, “The brain is prone to weave the mind from the evidences of life, not merely the minimal contact required to exist, but a luxuriance and excess spilling into virtually everything we do” (118).  Everything around us has been created by us and in turn creates us.  Everything we know of and everything we perceive around us becomes a part of our idea of us.  We attach meanings and symbols to these entities and this creates connection, community, and culture.  So, if we create these things, and if we attach the meaning to them, can we not just choose to push them aside for new ideas of power plants, landfills, and all other human constructs that continue to replace the forests and the savanna-like environment? What do we owe these things?  What do we, in our physiological time on Earth, owe the natural environment?     

Yesterday, I decided to take pictures of some trees, flowers, and the sky – images that appealed to my brain.  What do I owe these things?  It seems a heartless question.  Growing up near a national park, being surrounded by naturalists, , hiking mountains, and climbing rocks, I had never really questioned why my brain treasures certain images.  I had never questioned what it is I owe these things because my natural response was that it was simply right to preserve and maintain the seemingly untouched and undamaged natural state.  Now, I am on the verge of realizing why I owe these things everything.  A part of being human is affiliation with other living organisms because the human mind originated in an environment that possessed a naturalist perspective.  The mind attached meaning to biological phenomena in order to promote the survival of the human species.  So, the mind has, in part, arisen from our idea of that tree, or that flower, or that sky.  We draw on our surroundings to construct an idea of where it is we are and how we connect to that personal perception of reality.  In turn, we add to our sense of self and how this self interacts with the outside world.  With pieces of the world removed, we lose pieces of ourselves and ways of understanding both our sense of self and the world.  We lose pieces of our humanness. 

Wilson beautifully admits, “The truth is that we never conquered the world, never understood it; we only think we have control.  We do not even know why we respond a certain way to other organisms, and need them in diverse ways, so deeply” (139).  I know, that for myself, I need that tree, that flower, and that sky because they compliment and comprise my human experience in ways of which I am both aware and unaware.  I like the story that Wilson creates.  I like the idea that these things create me as I create them.  The story is one that I believe may transform the ways by which we approach and think about our humanness, our environment, and our construction of the conservation ethic.  It personalizes the issue.  Biophilia suggests that protecting the environment is not only about protecting that tree, that flower, and that sky, but protecting ourselves and the essence of what, in part, makes us human.             


Paul Grobstein's picture

ecophilia: its significance and limitations

My guess is that the book didn't in fact produce the effect Wilson "had hoped it would achieve."  And its perhaps interested to speculate on why.  Part of it may have to do with "the brain's strict and peculiar limitations in the processing of information," a set of ideas and, even more, a way of expressing them that even you found a little hard to swallow.

Yes, Wilson's argument "personalizes" the conservation ethic.  But, like much of Wilson's writing on this and other topics, it does so in a way that many readers find depersonalizing and even authoritarian.  Wilson is very much an empiricist, a rationalist in the Enlightenment tradition.  There is poetry and humility in much of what he writes about but less of both in how he writes.  And, I suspect, in the man himself.  Maybe he is too much of an empiricist/rationalist for the task he has set himself? 

It is not inappropriate to talk of the "peculiar" limitations of the brain from an empiricist/rationalist perspective.  We do, because of our evolutionary history, tend to see things in distinctive and aribitrary ways.  And, from that perspective, its not entirely unreasonable to call the limitations "strict."  Most of us live most of our lives without noticing the limitations, much less questioning them.

Yes, an argument can be made that "protecting the environment" is about more than that, its about "protecting ourselves and the essence of what, in part, makes us human."  But perhaps such an argument needs a sympathetic reader to resonate with it, some one who already shares Wilson's engagement with non-human things?  Otherwise, its just a dry argument.  And even for those who resonate, its a little ... "strict"?  It would be an interesting challenge to present the argument in a little more expansive/engaging way, one that might be more appealing to a wide audience.