As a species, we humans evolved our unusually long childhood so that we would have enough time to prepare for living with the complexities of human culture. In fact, the social world of modern life is so all-encompassing that it is in danger of blinding us to any other reality. It seems to envelope everything. Look around and you will see that for most people human culture is pretty well all they know and think about – non-stop stimulation of their senses by human-made images, ideas and information: internet, phones, music, sport, television, traffic, buildings, other people, language, kitchens, cars, shops, schools, and so on. The News, conflict, pain, and suffering. Not to mention the intensity and/or loneliness of our relational lives. All of it has mental and emotional consequences.
Walk down a busy city street and it is likely to be mentally stressful, not just because of the noise of the traffic but because our brains have an incessant need to process, or ignore, whatever they perceive through the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. An exhausting amount of mind-brain information processing is going on all the time, but it mostly goes on in the unconscious background, without us being aware of it. And it seems that human society is destined to become ever more complex, all-embracing, digitally enhanced, and stressful. The long journey since the dawn of behavioural modernity has led us modern humans to feel almost entirely detached from our biological past.
Almost, but not quite.
We only have to remind ourselves that we humans are no more than one very interesting and unusual bit of Nature, a species perspective that I have tried to emphasise throughout this book. We are from Nature, and as members of an evolved species, we humans are drawn to Nature. We find Her psychologically appealing, calming, and even healing. Think about all the things we do to satisfy this need for a connection with Nature.
For example, it is not only small children who are fascinated by animals (animal names are some of the first words they learn). Adults too are besotted with their pets. Everywhere you look you find humans captivated by the beauty and majesty of other animals, and people often feel a powerful connection with them too. Dogs, ‘man’s best friend’, can always be relied upon to be happy to see you, which may be more than can be said for other relationships in one’s life. The evidence indicates that dogs not only recognise the implications of some spoken words, they also recognise the emotional intonation of the owner’s voice. So this really does qualify as an affectional bond or attachment. Cats seem to love and need us, when in fact they are more likely just enjoying the warmth of our lap and the food we give them, but we don’t care because we are ready to go on giving that affection right back. Horse-lovers really do seem to have a weirdly intimate relationship with their horses.
At any rate, having a pet appears to be good for us. The evidence suggests that people who own a pet live longer. One study found that people who own a cat are 30% less likely to have a heart attack, a finding that may be down to repetitive stroking which is potentially stress-reducing, but equally it may be due to the feeling of having ‘someone’ to love and ‘be loved’ by. Inter-species affection is strangely moving and wonderful.
Biophilia, this love of Nature, is not just about other animals of course. People bring flowers into their homes because they are beautiful and because they manage to soften and warm the atmosphere at the same time. People enjoy tending their gardens if they are lucky enough to have one (though even a pot on a windowsill will do). Gardeners revel in cultivating and shaping the lives of plants within their earthy jurisdiction. They enjoy understanding how different species manage within different ecosystems, and what they as gardeners can do to make their garden flourish. Just deadhead some Marigolds and enjoy the reek of their woodsy scent.
You don’t have to be a naturalist to appreciate the complexity of life within a small plot of earth, the persistence of weeds, the loosening of the earth by worms, and the voracious appetites of slugs, snails, weevils and larvae. Weevils, incidentally, are small beetles and there are 97,000 species of them. Some gardeners even have the pleasure of eating food they have grown themselves. In fact, the very act of eating reflects both a biological drive and a source of exquisite sensory pleasure. Eating is probably the most pervasive and simple pleasure known to humankind.
You may not wish to plunge your hands into soil, but there are few more relaxing and restorative pastimes than walking in the countryside. Fifty-five per cent of humanity now live in cities, and somehow millions of minds manage to negotiate that complexity every day. However, most people prefer there to be trees on city streets and to be able to enjoy the temporary respite of a park if one is available. Cities clearly work best when they enable citizens to feel safe and comfortable, and when citizens are able to connect with Nature by having access to trees and parks for relaxation and reflection. As if to demonstrate this general idea, Japanese landscape researchers found that people were measurably more relaxed (less stressed) when staring at a hedge or a vase of flowers, than when they were asked to stare at a concrete wall (yes, they did an experiment).
Time spent in Nature, surrounded by Life, provides far more than just having the time to think. People experience joy in their relationship with nature’s intricacy, its constancy and its unpredictability. We humans get to listen to the calming sound of birdsong, feel the Sun on our face, or the rain and the wind. We get to enjoy the grand view of white billowing clouds and eternal blue skies, vast landscapes of rolling hills and lush forests, mountain air and lakeside pastures. When the sights, smells and sounds of Nature are all around us, the brash intensity of our daily struggles recede and diminish. Nature opens up space, distance, time. It helps us gain perspective. As such, ‘wilderness therapy’ is increasingly used to help troubled urban teenagers explore and reconnect to the natural world and discover their own resources without any need of a digital screen.
Stare across a seascape, smell the salty air, and listen to the ever-crashing shoreline. Watch the setting sun. Peer into a fire and watch the embers crackle and glow, just as millions of our hominid ancestors did for hundreds of thousands of years before us. Enjoy the smell of that burning wood or the fragrance of wet grass. Eat a meal with your hands. Relish the joy of sex when you can. Dance till you drop. We are all allowed to enjoy our senses while we are alive, for it will not go on forever; the party will end.
Because we are biological creatures our brains simply feel more at ease when we are surrounded by Mother Nature, or connected to Her in some way, for She is truly the ultimate attachment figure. Nature has an enduring constancy and a power beyond imagination. Hurricanes, plagues and droughts remind us of her potential for wrath, violence, and the abandonment of our needs, yet it is Nature that also nurtures us with her abundance of Life. Weeds soon grow up through the cracks of neglected paths, and, given enough time, a tree may eventually emerge. Nature, unlike human lives, is endless.
Notice the simple pleasure of walking around naked. There is certainly no harm giving it a try, though perhaps it is best if confined to your own home. You may also prefer to be alone when you do this, and it is generally not as much fun if it is cold (though you do then get to discover what that feels like). After all, naturists take off their clothes mainly because it feels good. We can enjoy our bodies in so many ways. Getting naked reminds us that we are our bodies just as much as we are our minds, and that we should look after them while we are alive, such as getting enough exercise and eating wisely. Human bodies evolved to be agile athletic machines and able to walk long distances. We are naturally nourished by a diet of vegetables, fruit and nuts, and only occasionally meat (chimps and bonobos, our closest cousins in the wild, eat very little meat, perhaps because they know instinctively it is not good for them).
Biophilia is this sensibility to Nature, and a perspective on our lives. It reconnects us with the simple beauties of the natural world around us, like the quality of the air we breathe and the atmosphere that shrouds our planet. Nature is the one sanctuary that all people share. Biophilia makes sense because, in an unconscious and visceral way, being in Nature feels…well, natural.
These days most people on the planet spend more time interacting with human culture than they do with the natural world around them. Simply living within human culture is intrinsically stressful because, like automatic face recognition, our brains cannot help but process all the complex information it is bombarded with. And in response to all that information, our minds cannot avoid activating all the taken-for-granted assumptions and emotional associations that we have developed over our lifetime. But the mental and physiological arousal that this entails is often exhausting. By contrast, our connection with the natural world is relaxing and restorative because our brains are already ‘wired up’ to expect the sensory experiences they/we encounter. Accordingly, Nature gives us a feeling of pleasure, place, peace and perspective and of course beauty.
Nature restores us, gives us joy, and uniquely bestows upon our species the most quintessentially human aspect of our nature: our minds. Meaning-making minds are unique within Nature (other than relatively trivial exceptions). Making sense of being alive has no end point, there is no final understanding; it is simply what we do. Our minds evolved to make sense of our changing lives and the changing world around us.
We live out our lives as biological creatures, living on a planet with gnats, llamas, and trees, and many other wonderful lifeforms, under the thin atmosphere above our heads that keeps our lonely planet warm, moist and fertile. On a clear night, when the Moon is out, we can stare up at it and contemplate the majesty of Nature that is all around us. This too is a simple pleasure. Consider the beauty of the Moon, our planet’s only satellite, with its huge influence over life on our planet, the tides of the great oceans and the climate itself. No wonder there have been so many superstitions and beliefs about its power over us.
Mother Nature is as close to a universal god as there is. She is really all we have, our life-blood. We of course need to nourish and protect Nature, yet we greedily exploit and deplete Her. However, biophilia is that resonance or echo of our ancient natural origins, reminding us to love and care for our planetary home, and perhaps consider what other life forms are having to give up in order to satisfy our drives and appetites as a species. Like all other species, we come from Nature, we depend on Nature, we are part of Nature, and we will return to Nature.
Brennan J. (2020) Making Sense of Being Alive: A Natural History of the Mind.
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Wilson EO. (1984) Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
Wilson EO. (1998) Consilience. London: Abacus, Little Brown and Co