Edward O. Wilson has been hailed as one of America’s most distinguished scientists. The author of major works on The Insect Societies (1971), Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), On Human Nature (1978), Biophilia (1984), The Ants (1991) with Bert Hölldobler, The Diversity of Life (1992), and Naturalist (1994), Wilson has been an articulate proponent for his innovative theories of sociobiology and biophilia. Beginning with his authoritative study of ants, Wilson has emerged as a major theoretical ecologist and advocate for the diversity of life. His concept of biophilia offers an ethical and spiritual foundation for the preservation of all living forms.
In Search of Nature presents a selection of twelve of Wilson’s essays, written between 1975 and 1993, that explore his major ideas of biophilia, sociobiology, and biodiversity. The first section, “Animal Nature, Human Nature,” examines the concept of biophilia, or humanity’s innate tendency to affiliate with nature, through an exploration of human attitudes toward snakes, sharks, and ants. The second section, “The Patterns of Nature,” examines the foundations of sociobiology, exploring the underlying genetic basis of social behavior and its implications for humanity’s future. The third section, “Nature’s Abundance,” studies biodiversity and explains why it is essential to human survival. Each section is beautifully illustrated with sketches by noted artist Laura Southworth.
Perhaps none of Wilson’s ideas is more far-reaching in its implications than his concept of biophilia. Our tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes, he argues, might express a biologically based need, integral to our development as individuals and as a species. Biophilia and its opposite, biophobia, are linked reactions expressing a biological predisposition for strong positive or negative orientations toward living things, a kind of prepared or genetically conditioned learning. Psychological, cultural, symbolic-linguistic, and aesthetic implications follow from Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis.
Some examples Wilson cites to support his thesis are that people fear objects in nature—storms, snakes, sharks, or spiders—more than they do manufactured weapons or technological objects that may pose a much greater threat to us today than does nature. People are preconditioned to fear poisonous snakes or spiders because of the survival benefit such behavior conferred during our evolutionary history, but we have not yet had time to evolve a comparable fear of guns or weapons. Given their choice of a landscape, people would rather look at grass, water, trees, or flowers, Wilson observes, than steel or concrete. He speculates that this may be an innate preference related to our evolutionary past as savanna dwellers. Moreover, the development of language, myth, and thought appears to be largely dependent upon the use of natural symbols, particularly animals. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, if substantiated, provides a powerful argument for the preservation of biological diversity. What are the evolutionary and spiritual consequences for us of our wholesale dismantling, within a few decades, of the biological inheritance of the planet?
Wilson’s key conceptual essay is “Biophilia and the Environmental Ethic.” Here he attempts to apply sociobiological concepts to the environmental ethic. According to Wilson, biophilia is “not a single instinct but a complex of learning rules that can be teased apart and analyzed individually.” The emotions aroused by nature can range from awe and attraction to fear and aversion, and these emotions then become rooted in language and culture. For most of our evolutionary history, humans have lived in small hunter-gatherer bands in close contact with the natural world. Human survival depended upon an intimate knowledge of nature. As humans gradually acquired language and culture, living organisms became sources of metaphor and myth. The human brain evolved in a biocentric world, not an urban- industrial society of the past two hundred years. As human culture has become increasingly alienated from the natural world, we have become divorced from our cultural roots, and our emotional and spiritual lives have atrophied from the lack of stimulation and reinforcement in nature. The potential significance of biophilia for human well-being invites us to take a pragmatic view of environmental ethics. Protecting biodiversity may well prove to be in our long-term self-interest.
If biophilia is so significant to humans, how could it have evolved? Wilson thinks that gene-culture coevolution offers a plausible explanation. He uses the human-snake relationship as an illustration of his hypothesis. Why has the serpent been so significant as a universal human cultural symbol? As Wilson argues in “The Serpent,” snake and serpent, reptile and dream image, reveal the complexity of our relationship with nature. The serpent image appears in cultures...
(The entire section is 2047 words.)