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The Biophilia Hypothesis.

Inuit children were not always near-sighted. But as first-hand experience in their arctic landscape gave way to classroom learning and television, their horizons shrunk to the borders of a video screen. The change in visual stimuli apparently triggered a previously suppressed genetic predisposition, and many of the children became myopic.

This story, related by contributors Gary Paul Nabhan and Sara St. Antoine in The Biophilia Hypothesis, encapsulates the book's theme: through loss of contact with the natural world and destruction of its biological diversity, human beings risk losing their senses. Among the Inuit, and perhaps others as well, the loss is literal. Inuit children cannot see what their grandparents saw. The rest of us, some of the authors suggest, face a subtle but troubling erosion of the essence of our humanity.

Edited by Stephen R. Kellert of Yale University and Diversity of Life author Edward O. Wilson of Harvard, the new volume offers multidisciplinary exploration of the "biophilia" concept proposed a decade ago in a book of that title (Harvard University Press, 1984) in which Wilson suggested that human beings possess "an innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes." If biophilia is hereditary, written in our genes, then the extinction of plant and animal species threatens not only our material survival but the very foundations of the human spirit. On a biotically impoverished planet, suggest Wilson and others, we cannot be fully human.

Wilson is widely and justifiably considered the world's foremost authority on biological diversity. Along with Kellert, an authority on human attitudes toward wildlife and wild nature, Wilson is here to define the terms and then sit back as colleagues from a variety of disciplines examine biophilia with the tools and insights of their trades.

Of the book's 20 contributors, 14 work within traditional academic institutions, only four are women, and only one resides outside the United States. In such a group certain biases are inescapable. But the range of disciplines represented is broad, from zoology to philosophy by way of landscape architecture, and the individual contributors are more interdisciplinary than most academic scholars.

One of the book's more interesting themes is biophobia, the apparently innate revulsion or fear aroused by snakes, spiders, and some other species. Wilson considers the pervasiveness of biophobia in many societies to be evidence for a gene-based fascination with living things likely to have positive, as well as negative, expressions. Behavioral psychologist Roger Ulrich offers scientific support: studies on identical twins suggest a genetic basis for biophobia. Biologist Jared Diamond contends that such fears are products of culture alone; in 30 years of field work among native peoples in Papua New Guinea, he claims to have seen no evidence for innate fear of any species. But educator David Orr suggests that these scientists are missing the forest for the trees. Biophobia's contemporary form, Orr argues, is the now-pervasive alienation from the living world that leaves people in industrial societies not fearful of, but indifferent to, living species.

Where Orr blames skillful marketing and corporate media manipulation for the attraction of young people to artificial technologies in lieu of plants and animals, Indian biologist Madhav Gadgil suggests that it is not an affiliation to life that is innate, but one to complexity. Citing the case of his own son, a budding naturalist seduced from nature study by his father's personal computer, Gadgil proposes that artifacts can arouse our attraction to complexity even more powerfully than living plants and animals. In Gadgil's view, the burgeoning world of artifacts and the diminishing world of species represent two diversities competing for human attention. He wonders how natural diversity can be nurtured as techno-diversity continues its exponential expansion.

Several essays explore varied cultural manifestations of biophilia, particularly the view that native peoples share an intimacy with the living world that has been sundered in industrial societies. In a beautifully written chapter, anthropologist Richard Nelson offers the idealized view in his account of work with native peoples of the subarctic and arctic. In this harsh landscape, Nelson describes hunting practices guided by feelings of respect, courtesy, and reciprocity, a "worldview that strongly opposes unrestrained exploitation of an environment that is not only finite and changeable but also aware." The indigenous peoples of New Guinea that Jared Diamond describes are as far from Nelson's ideals as their tropical rain forest environment is from the arctic tundra. Diamond recounts incidents of needless and deliberate cruelty toward birds and bats, and disputes evidence of a conservation ethic among indigenous tribes of tropical Asia.

Writing of the O'odham and Yaqui peoples of the Sonoran desert region, Gary Nabhan and Sara St. Antoine examine the intergenerational transfer of knowledge about wild species in these traditional cultures in transition. Their research paints a troubling picture in which the extinction of desert plants and animals, the reduction of first-hand experience in the desert, and the cultural erosion of traditional stories and folk knowledge have conspired to produce a generation of young people ill-equipped to understand either their desert home or their cultural roots. This work suggests that the learning environment of children is the critical determinant of biophilia, and other writers concur. Medical researchers Aaron Katcher and Gregory Wilkins summarize studies showing that animals can focus the attention of children with attention deficit, autism, and conduct disorders; they argue that science teaching based on the ability of living things to hold children's attention could promote an ethic based in biophilia.

Some of the most provocative writing in this book deals with ethics. Philosopher Holmes Rolston III attempts a synthesis of Wilson's work in sociobiology and biodiversity, asking "can we get biophilia from selfish genes?" His remarkable essay expands the boundaries of "selfishness" to encompass planetary survival. David Orr brings the ethical question back to human scale by suggesting that even if biophilia is innate, it now clearly competes with other powerful drives. No longer a given, affinity for life has become a choice: "Love it or lose it."

The book's emphasis on the aesthetic, emotional, and moral dimensions of human contact with nature is a welcome departure from a nearly ubiquitous focus on the instrumental value of other species in the biodiversity literature, a genre heavy with volumes exploring the economic valuation of wild species or calculating the costs of impaired ecosystem services. This thoughtful collection offers a persuasive reminder that the less tangible dimensions of our experience of the world are no less crucial to the human prospect.

The salient question, posed by foundation officer Scott McVay in the book's opening pages, receives no answer: "To what extent can an affinity for life urge moderation in our behavior?" Despite its failure to resolve that pressing challenge, the volume leaves little doubt about the importance of contact with the living world for human fulfillment. Only those who find a complete explanation for human experience in the discipline of economics can be untroubled by the implications.

Ted Wolf writes on conservation and development issues. He was author of Worldwatch Paper 60, Soil Erosion: Quiet Crisis in the World Economy, and Paper 78, On the Brink of Extinction: Conserving the Diversity of Life. He has also written for Conservation International and Diversity magazine.
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Author:Wolf, Edward C.
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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