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Biophilia I

On Mankind’s Relationship to the Natural World (Or: Why We Think Bonsai are so Freakin’ Cool)

The Biophilia Hypothesis

Biophilia, the term first introduced in 1973 by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, was defined by him as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive”. (1)  E. O. Wilson, the late Professor of Entomology at Harvard University defined biophilia (in his book of the same name) as “the innate tendency [of humans] to focus on life and lifelike processes, and in some instances to affiliate with them emotionally” (2, 3) Wilson suggests that the human desire to “affiliate” with nature and with other life forms exists because the human brain co-evolved with plants and animals in the natural environment over millions of years (more on this later). In the Biophilia Hypothesis, Stephen Kellert asserts that mankind’s relationship with Nature “extends far beyond the simple issues of material and physical sustenance to encompass as well the human craving for aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction”. (4) If we assume that the biophilia hypothesis is true, it could help to explain our interest in viewing and creating bonsai. 

Kokufu-ten 2023 Exhibit, photo: William Valavanis

Evolution of Mankind

The biological evolution of our species occurred in the wilderness. Throughout its existence, humanity had to face many hostile forces of nature so it is reasonable to think that the “natural selection process should have favored individuals who were motivated to explore and settle in environments likely to afford the necessities of life but to avoid environments with poorer resources or posing higher risks”. (5) Fromm listed safe and resource-rich environments as one of the pre-conditions for the development of biophilia, noting that such environments reduce the stress response and promote cognitive functioning. (1). It may be that our ancestors’ environmental preferences were a result of adaptations that improved their survival and therefore some level of biophilia became intrinsic to human nature.

Aside from the technical aspects of bonsai, and the satisfaction that one gets with increasing mastery of these techniques and from seeing them successfully applied, there is no denying that we aesthetically appreciate bonsai. Explanations as to why we should feel this way range from the satisfaction we feel may when seeing a well-developed form (line, shape, balance, asymmetry, etc.) to being reminded of a wonderful natural setting in the mountains, a beautiful maple forest or a seashore with wind-blown trees. It would seem that these images of natural places, brought to mind by viewing bonsai, elicit positive feelings because our brains evolved to seek out these types of regions (because we could find shelter, food, fuel for fire, water). However, human behavior is not affected by instinct as is true for many animals. There are different levels of “biophilia” among humans (as a result of different environmental conditions, level of exposure to nature, cultural characteristics, emotional disposition, and personalities). Although bonsai originated in Asia, it has spread throughout the world and has been adopted as an art form by people living in many different cultural settings. Therefore “bonsai-philia” is similar to other “human universal traits” described by anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists. (6)

Separation from the Wild

For about 95% of our evolutionary history (from the Middle Paleolithic to the Upper Paleolithic Eras), humans have survived as hunter-gatherers. (5) Living on the savannah, they survived by recognizing areas of shelter and foraging for food. The human relationship with nature changed beginning in the Neolithic period, which represents 5% of our evolutionary history. During this period agriculture and animal breeding were developed. According to Barbiero and Berto, this is when humans began to distinguish “domestic nature (good) from wild nature (bad)”. (7)  In the second half of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution began, and humans created urban environments. This period corresponds to less than 0.1% of human history (7). Currently, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas which are characterized by increased population density and decreased green spaces (8,9).  Although the type of nature that most people are exposed to is different qualitatively and quantitatively from what early humans experienced, naturalists speculate that mankind’s long exposure to wild nature continues to fuel our desire to connect with nature. (10) However, there is evidence that sporadic encounters with nature may sometimes not be enough to stimulate our biophilia, allowing it to atrophy. (10,11)

Kokufu-ten 2023 photo: William Valavanis

Exposure to Nature

Increased exposure to nature has been shown to have many benefits. The concept of Shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) originated in Japan. (12) The term was invented in 1982 by the then Director general of the Agency of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan, Tomohide Akiyama who believed that the people of Japan needed healing through nature. (12) Subsequent studies conducted by Dr. Quing Li and his team documented decreases in stress (lower cortisol levels, reductions in blood pressure) and improved scores on tests of emotional and psychological well-being after spending time in a forest or park. (12) A large western study published recently in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet reviewed nine published, well-designed studies on the effect of green spaces on all-cause mortality in humans (human death from any cause). (13) Using satellite imaging to quantify the amount of greenness and comparing that to the health of the local populations, the authors found that increasing increments of residential greenness were statistically significantly associated with decreases in all-cause mortality.

The relationship between exposure to nature and its effect on children has been studied extensively (7). For children, decreased connection with nature has a negative impact on their health and wellbeing and is associated with increased rates of obesity, decreased problem solving ability, and loss of motivation to protect nature. Wilson suspected that our society’s dependence on technology has led to a decrease in our drive to connect with nature. This decline in biophilic behavior could remove meaning from nature and result in a “decrease in respect for the natural world.” (10) Loss of desire to interact with the natural world has been cited as a potential contributor to environmental destruction and the rapid rate of species extinction. If true, reestablishing the human connection with nature has become an important theme in conservation (and in discussions of climate change mediation).

Bonsai, Plant – People Interactions and Climate Change

In 2007, urban population numbers exceeded rural population numbers for the first time in human history. The World Bank forecasts that by 2050, 75% of the world’s population will live in cities. (8) Without some type of intervention, there will likely be even fewer opportunities for humans to interact with nature and biophilia could be further decreased, making it harder for humans to reverse species loss and prevent the worst aspects of climate change. Bonsai may be one part of the solution. [See Biophila Part II].

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  1. Fromm, E. (1964). The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. New York 
  2. Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 
  3. Wilson, E. O. (2002). The Future of Life. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 
  4. Kellert, S. R. (1993). “Introduction,” in The Biophilia Hypothesis. eds. S. R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson (Washington, DC: Island Press), 20–27. 
  5. Orians, G. H., and Heerwagen, J. H. (1992). “Evolved responses to landscapes” in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. eds. J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides and J. Tooby (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 555–579.
  6. Brown, D. E. (2004). Human universals, human nature, and human culture. Daedalus 133, 47–54. doi: 10.1162/0011526042365645 
  7. Barbiero,G and Berta,R. (2021). Biophilia as evolutionary Adaptation: An Onto- and Phylogenetic Framework for Biophilic Design. Frontiers in Psychology 12, Article 700709.
  8. Worldbank, 2019
  9. Beatley, T. (2011). Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning. Washington, DC: Island Press. 
  10. Wilson, E. O. (1993). “Biophilia and the conservation ethic,” in The Biophilia Hypothesis. eds. S. R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson (Washington, DC: Island Press), 31–41.
  11. Barbiero, G. (2011). Biophilia and Gaia. Two hypotheses for an affective ecology. J. Biourbanism 1, 11–27.
  12. Li, Quing (2018). Forest Bathing. New York, NY: Random House.
  13. Lancet Planet Health. 2019 Nov; 3(11): e469–e477. Published online 2019 PMID: 31777338

Copyright 2023, Walter J. Scott

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