Beauty of Nature Biophilia and Ethics

There are three basic reasons why we should value biodiversity—and be concerned that it is being lost at such a rapid rate (see Sixth Extinction). Two reasons lie in the direct benefits humans receive from living species: humans rely on at least 40,000 species of plants, animals, fungi, and microbes in their daily lives—especially for food, shelter, clothing, fuel, and medicinal purposes. In addition, "ecosystem services," including the ongoing production of essentials such as nitrogen and oxygen, the water cycle, replenishment of fisheries and so forth—all essential to the quality of human life as well—depend on the health of the world's ecosystems. These two aspects of "why we should care" about biodiversity are thus utilitarian, in the sense that human life depends upon biodiversity. This entry concerns the third category of reasons why biodiversity is important to human life: a combination of esthetic and ethical concerns that have convinced a growing number of people that it is morally wrong to destroy the world in which we live—that is, that there are moral as well as utilitarian values at stake.

Nearly all of the six billion people alive at the start of the new millennium live in complex societies in which most of their food is produced by agriculture and fishing. Moreover, many people live in cities—and often have little or no contact with the natural world: cities basically grow by destroying the physical and biological environment, and even the parks that preserve a bit of open space and greenery are often filled with formal gar-dens—with many of their plants (and even animals) not native to that region. Agriculture has enabled the human population to explode over the past 10,000 years—and that is the root cause for the rampant destruction of ecosystems over the globe. But at the same time, agriculture, in removing people from life in local ecosystems, has caused many of us to think that we are above and beyond nature. In a sense, we feel that way for good reason, as humanity has almost entirely stopped living inside local ecosystems. It is difficult for a city-dweller to see the connections we still have with the natural world: our continued dependence on the species and ecosystems of the natural world.

At the same time, however, nearly everyone responds to the bright clear air on a sunny day. And though few studies have been performed, there are many stories about inner-city children taken on field trips to the country-side—and their delight in such simple things as rolling in a pile of leaves, walking through a woodland, or even running around in a grassy field. It is as if all humans still have within them a sense of familiarity with—even a love for—the natural world, no matter where they live their daily lives. The great national parks of the United States—places of scenic wonder such as the Adirondacks, the Blue Ridge and Smokey Mountains of the East, Yellowstone and Yosemite in the West—had their beginnings in the nineteenth century. These lands were set aside, it is true, in part because their remoteness and often rugged terrain precluded early settlement and farming. In addition, the emerging railroad business of the nineteenth century enthusiastically backed the creation of national parks simply as destinations for tourists. But clearly there was something else as well, for if people did not respond to the beauty of such places, and also to the solitude, away from the hustle and bustle of city life, they would not have visited them. Indeed, one of the major complaints in modern American life is that destinations such as Yellowstone National Park have become so popular that traffic jams occur whenever bear and elk

Tourists watching the eruption of the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park. (Gunter Marx Photography/Corbis)

are spotted, and campsites are so crowded with people watching portable television sets that the original allure of such places is threatened.

The sense of pleasure and well-being—the sense of being at home—in wild surroundings has struck some observers as evidence that, though we humans essentially forsook life in the natural world with the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, and though culturally we have become divorced from the natural world, we nevertheless retain deep within us a true bond with the natural world. Indeed, famed evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson—the man who coined the term biodiversity, and someone who cares deeply about the fate of the ecosystems and species of the world—believes that we actually retain a love of nature in our genetic makeup. Wilson calls this "biophilia." Along with many modern evolutionary biologists, Wilson believes that much of human behavior is rooted in our genes—and that aspect of his work remains controversial. Biophilia, its proponents contend, is a retention from our earlier evolutionary history—from the days when proto-humans, as well as early members of our own species, Homo sapiens, were living on the African savannas and later elsewhere around the world. And whether or not there are genes in the human genome that govern a delight in the living world, virtually everyone agrees that children as a rule do not have to be taught to love nature.

As evidence for his position, Wilson also points to the negative feelings people seem to have instinctively toward certain components of nature. Fear of snakes ranks high here, as does fear of fire. Our sense of fascination— largely based on dread—while watching television films about large carnivorous mammals (lions, tigers, leopards, wolves, and bears, for the most part), birds of prey (hawks, eagles, and vultures), crocodiles, sharks, and, of course, snakes reflects this underlying unease. These are dangerous animals today—and obviously were to our ancestors in our deep evolutionary past. Monkeys, for example, instinctively fear birds of prey, leopards, snakes, and fire— and it seems almost certain that we share pretty much the same basic fears.

When ancestral species of our human lineage evolved the capacity to walk upright, and adopted life on the open savannas (though there is some thought that members of these early species, 3 to 4 million years ago, in all likelihood still spent the night in trees, for safety's sake), they began a relationship with the other animals of the African ecosystem that still echoes today. For the most part, human beings—whether armed or not—can, if they exercise the proper caution, walk about unmolested in the African plains—but only in daylight. Certainly there are dangers, but herds of zebra and antelope melt away at the sight of humans walking single-file across the savanna; even lions rarely attack humans in daylight. At night it is a totally different story—and people are instantly transformed from being one of the most feared, to one of the most fearful, of species. Indeed, Mark Twain once observed that the human species seems to have a collective propensity for irrational fears (even downright madness) at night; that state of affairs also probably comes down to us from the early days in our evolutionary history on the African plains.

If such fears are retentions from our evolutionary past, reason biologists like Wilson, why can't the positive side, the love of nature and a feeling of being safely at home within it, also be retentions of our evolutionary past? Thus Wilson feels that, given the chance, a natural human love for the natural world will blossom—and help us stem the tide of the Sixth Extinction. What needs to be done, in this view, is simply to rekindle the flame that has been dampened by so much human existence in cities and other nonlocal-ecosystem environments since the invention of agriculture.

But there are other, parallel arguments about what people ought to do. Much of the teachings of the world's religions are codifications of how people ought to behave, generally referred to as morality. In addition, there is a rich history in nonreligious philosophy that seeks to derive, on general principles, how people should behave—the general area of ethics. In other words, apart from selfish motivations (that is, the first two reasons why people should care about biodiversity), and regardless of how "innate" our desire to maintain the living world may be (despite the fact that we are relentlessly destroying it), are there moral or ethical reasons why people should care about the fate of the world's natural environment? Scholars and thinkers in philosophy and religion are increasingly answering "yes!"

As an example, consider the Judaeo-Chris-tian tradition. When conservation emerged as a serious concern in the 1950s and 1960s, some scholars pointed a finger of blame at religions such as Christianity. They said that the concept of dominion over "every creeping thing"—lines from Genesis, the first book of the Bible—amounted to a license to exploit all resources (including biological resources) to the hilt, as everything on earth was said in the Bible to have been put there by God for the use of mankind. And this tendency to regard not only mineral resources but all living things as ours, to do with what we please, was patently getting out of control.

And there is no doubt that, whatever the reason, human beings have indeed acted as if everything else on earth (even indeed, other human beings—witness the pernicious practice of slavery, which, contrary to popular belief, is still practiced in some societies) was put there for our own use, profit, and pleasure. Human beings, at least in Western societies, are notorious for not caring much about what will happen in the future—beyond, say, a halfgeneration away (long enough for their own children to grow up). There is, many would say, a natural penchant in humans to reap the benefits in the short term and not care what lies in store for generations ahead.

But we are, clearly, living in a finite world. There is a finite amount of habitable space, and, though we have yet to reach it, surely a finite capacity for us, no matter how sophisticated our technologies, to produce food. Already there are far too many people on earth to be able to support them all at the average middle-class standards of a U.S. family. Right now there is a dire shortage of safe drinking water for perhaps as many as a third (maybe more) of the world's people.

Thus, whatever our line of thought—be it a selfish regard to preserve useful resources; be it a sense that we must, for our own sake, preserve the natural environment from which we so recently sprang; be it the purely ethical consideration that we ought, on simple ethical grounds, to pass the world along to future generations more or less in the condition we found it; or be it the religious position currently becoming popular on many college campuses around the United States, that the "dominion" passage of Genesis can easily be seen as a sense of stewardship, that humans have the duty to preserve and conserve God's creation—there is a surge of thinking that the earth and all its inhabitants are in peril and we must do something about it.

—Niles Eldredge

See also: Agriculture, Origin of; Economics; Ecosystems; Population Growth, Human; Sixth Extinction; Sustainable Development


Eldredge, Niles. 1995. Dominion: Can Nature and Culture Co-exist? New York: Henry Holt; Eldredge, Niles. 1998. Life in the Balance: Humanity and the Biodiversity Crisis. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Kellert, Steven R. 1996. The Value of Life: Biological Diversity and Human Society. Washington, DC: Island; Norton, Bryan G. 1987. Why Preserve Natural Variety? Princeton: Princeton University Press; Wilson, Edward O. 1993. The Diversity of Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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