Biophilia, a Defining Post-Modern Aesthetic

We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth
Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies
And the cool green hills of Earth

Robert Heinlein penned these words in 1947, they comprise a verse of a song sung by a protagonist adrift in the cosmos. They connote a profoundly provocative yearning for a lost sense of place. Place,  home, kinship and belonging are perhaps our most compelling human desires. History and prehistory indicate that we are capable of tremendous effort and creativity in defence or in search of this fundamental driving force.

In the mid 1980’s the accomplished American natural scientist E.O. Wilson published a book entitled Biophilia, within which he sought to explain his belief that a “love” of nature was perhaps the dominant behavioral characteristic of our species. He posited that the environment of our evolutionary adaptation had imprinted on our genome an innate love of living things and systems. This hypothesis, and the work that followed, have launched a debate that seeks as its end point a definition of our most fundamental ethics as a means of charting a course towards our increasingly uncertain future.

Wilson was not the first to use this term; before him, the German born psychoanalyst, social theorist, and Talmudic scholar Erich Fromm had put forth a very similar premise in his book The Heart of Man. He was the first scholar to use the term Biophilia. Like Wilson, he believed this to be a function of our biological evolution and that embracing the premise would lead to Human fulfilment and the abnegation of necrophilia ( destruction), born of the loss of a sense of place and ensuing sense of alienation. Fromm believed in the “possible realization of a world in which man can be much, even if he has little; a world in which the dominant motivation of existence is not consumption”.

Fromm was heavily influenced by Spinoza and his thoughts related to Pantheism. For Spinoza, everything that exists constitutes a divine unity, God is everything and everything is God-God is life. Morality, by extension, is defined in terms of whatever promotes life.  The insight Fromm sought was nothing less than the answer to the question: do we perceive life as what one has or what one is?

Pre-Socratic philosophers often dealt with the concept of nature (physis) as an underlying constant in human existence. Later, Plato skirted the question in his work on pantheism. His student, Aristotle, continued the exploration in his work on ethics, virtue, reciprocal friendship and the meaning of happiness, he included non-human creatures in his treatment.

Each of the theorists discussed above have met with criticism for lacking empirical data to support ideas. Pre-historic archaeology has recently provided us with evidence that our Paleolithic ancestors certainly envisioned some sort of affinity with the non-human world, in much more than a mere subsistence manner. Goebkli tepe is the oldest yet discovered monumental architectural ruin, established approximately 14 thousand years ago-prior to the domestication of plants and therefore agriculture. The features of the site are adorned with non-violent (hunting etc) relief and in the round sculptures of animals and people. The existence of this site has turned archeology and anthropology theories on their heads. Previously it was thought that agriculture predated large scale architecture. These artifacts clearly demonstrate a perceived relationship. Many thousands of examples of this relationship have been created since.

Some of the most convincing evidence to date can be found in the work of the public health researcher Howard Frumpkin, the first to document health outcomes related to exposure to Biophilic elements. Subjects provided access to views or immersion in natural environments recovered more quickly than subjects who were not. Since this work a great deal more evidence has been developed; Terrapin Bright Green produced a paper entitled 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design that reviewed and synthesized these findings. Health and wellness are definitely enhanced by exposure to natural elements. Enhanced public health has significant potential to alleviate many of the most pressing issues related to contemporary urban existence:, most notably: stress, violence, illness, national and regional budgetary and planning constraints related to health care and prison costs, employee absenteeism and economic productivity.

Biophilia displays significant potential to contribute to the development of a new urban paradigm where creative capacity is enhanced. Whether or not it will find its way into the larger global decision making apparatus and assist with pressing issues like declining biodiversity and loss of ecosystem integrity is another matter entirely.

Worster’s 1990 exchange with Cronon and others of the new breed of anthropocentric environmental historians apparently has had some effect in modifying their more extreme postmodernist positions. In the spirit of Leopold’s ecocentric suggestion that humans learn to “think like a mountain,” Worster concluded his “Seeing Beyond Culture” paper by claiming that:

The foremost philosophical challenge of this age, in my view, is to escape the state of nihilism, relativism, and confusion that modernistic history, and modernistic everything else, have left us in. That requires an ability to step outside ourselves, our dreams, artifacts, and domineering drives, to discover and acknowledge another, objective reality that we have not created nor ever fully controlled . . . One of humankind’s oldest intuitions is that the realm of nature has an objective, independent order and coherence; that we are to some extent a part of that order . . . that, in any case, we ought to respect it (p. 1146).


Featured image courtesy of Office Snapshots

Chris is a plant biologist and forester who has dedicated over two decades to plant ecology research in addition to acquiring almost 20 years of experience in the garden center and florist sector. He graduated from Trent University with an Honours degree in plant biology and from Sir Sandford Flemming College with a diploma in Forestry. As an ecologist, Chris has been involved in many projects, large and small, from government directed natural resource management audits and climate change research with carbon sequestration in permafrost peatlands to natural vegetation restoration following disturbance. As an garden center and florist business owner in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, he has born witness to the tremendous change that has occurred in the horticulture industry over the past twenty years.

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