The Making of a New Biophilia:Evolutionary Governance and the Modern Creation Myth
More than a half-century has passed since Julian Huxley proposed that humanity take a conscious—and, he added, unavoidable—role in guiding evolution on Earth.1 Now, with advances in biotechnology that increase human ability to manipulate life processes, with increasing energy consumption that alters global climate and virtually all ecosystems, with the planet encircled by satellites that monitor the movements of migrating wildlife and the health of ecosystems, with public lands managers undertaking large-scale restoration projects that are actually the creation of new ecosystems—we know what he was talking about. We move ever more deeply into de facto evolutionary governance.
With the possible exception of a few isolated life systems—such as the marvelous biological communities that blossom around undersea hydrothermal vents—every ecosystem, every species, everything that happens in the air or the water or on the land is affected by what people do or have done. It is extremely difficult to find any place on Earth—certainly not on an Earth whose climate has been altered by industry, agriculture, mining, deforestation and the toxic fumes from millions of cars—that is truly untouched by human hands. Wherever you go, there we are. And there we have been, through many more millennia than anyone suspected until quite recently. Scientists are getting better at tracing the past—even the distant prehistoric past—and finding ample evidence that our remote ancestors had their own ever-growing toolkit of ways to alter the evolutionary fates of other forms of life. They did it on a far more modest scale than we do now, of course. But they did it: sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally, always in happy ignorance of any long-range effects of their actions. They hunted some species to extinction, domesticated others, burned forests to make grazing land, and later—with the invention of agriculture—plowed fields and dug irrigation canals. In the past two centuries, after several thousand years of ignorance—or, if you prefer, innocence—we have begun to recognize the extent of human impacts on the planet’s life systems. The present age is defined by two exponential curves: increasing impacts, and increasing ability to detect those impacts, both of which are certain to continue well into the future.
Since we lack any idea of how not to govern evolution, we need to think hard about how to do it in the most responsible and effective fashion. Some basic principles:
- Governance is not the same as control; it is not possible to control the behavior of complex systems. It is possible to influence them: there are many points of entrance to a complex system, many interventions that may be tried in response to complex issues such as climate change, but surprises are inevitable—not always failures of planning or execution.
- Governance is not, and never has been, an exclusive monopoly of governments. This is generally understood by contemporary political scientists, but is less likely to be grasped by those who assume—either with hope or apprehension—that all talk of evolutionary governance is about giving new powers and responsibilities to formally constituted institutions.
- Evolutionary governance is richly and unavoidably participatory. It is not even restricted to human activities—predators govern the growth of populations they prey on—but humans, with their ability to make and use tools, organize societies to hunt and gather, burn forests to create pasture, domesticate and breed animals, intervened in countless new ways. And even today, although the inequities in human power are enormous, even the humblest peasant farmer manipulates the lives of the plants and animals in his or her domain; that is what agriculture is.
As human power to impact Earth’s living systems grows—and it is growing, despite our newfound concern for the welfare of the planet’s living systems—it becomes increasingly important that we develop, and consistently apply, effective principles for how we exercise our enormous, yet limited, power in the world. This is in itself a tall order, but I want to propose something more: we need a deeply and solidly grounded concept of humanity’s place not only on Earth but in the universe; an ethic not only understood but felt. Many events of the modern age have been giving us one, piece by piece: among the pieces are the concept of biophilia itself; the trend among leading psychologists and neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio2 toward a deeper understanding of the essential role of emotions in human cognition; the increasingly serious threat of global environmental catastrophe that gives a new poignancy to the slogan “save the Earth;” the work of modern-day cosmologists like Eric Chaisson, Paul Davies, and Carl Sagan; the “big history” movement; and several other developments that I will mention below. These are elements of a new worldview in the making, a new biophilia. I present it here partly as a scenario of something that might conceivably come to pass and be embraced by global civilization, and partly as a statement of what I believe will come to pass—not only because we need it in order to guide and moderate our actions in relation to the rest of the biosphere, but also because it is what we have within us, what we need to be in order to become fully human, and is therefore a response to Nietzsche’s famous challenge: “Become who you are.”3
The word “biophilia” was invented by Erich Fromm, who defined it simply as the love of life and living systems. Fromm was a humanistic psychologist and psychoanalyst, preoccupied with the development of mentally healthy and socially responsible people. He described biophilia as a mark of the sane and healthy person and identified its psychological opposite as necrophilia—citing Adolf Hitler as a prime example of such a personality, a man who “was fascinated by destruction, and the smell of death was sweet to him.”4 Fromm had nothing to say about concrete present-day environmental concerns such as pollution and climate change, but, in his analysis of the story of Adam and Eve, he did touch on the psychology of humanity and nature: he describes the expulsion from Paradise not as punishment for a sin, but rather as a positive experience, somewhat similar to a fledgling bird’s expulsion from the nest, making humankind “able to make his own history, to develop his human powers, and to attain a new harmony with nature.”5 This is very relevant to humanity’s present situation, in which there is a widespread sense of our being outside the garden, when arguably we are not only still in it but have become the gardeners—the only species that is linked to all other life on Earth. All life.
Edward O. Wilson reinvented the word later, with a different meaning and emphasis, in his book Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. He writes in loving detail about creatures he has studied in his expeditions, and when he touches on ecological crisis he emphasizes the need to preserve nonhuman life forms and the wealth of genetic information they embody: “The one process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats,” he writes. “This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us. “6 His focus, like Fromm’s, is somewhat narrow, but in a different way: he has little to say about the many other forms of affection for life and living systems—such as the love of regions, ecosystems and cultures; the compassion for all living things that is taught in spiritual practice; even love of concepts such as truth, beauty, and justice—that are familiar parts of human experience.
In its simpler forms, biophilia is everywhere: people walking their dogs and stroking their cats, kneeling in their gardens. The love of homeland that is celebrated in so much of our art and literature. Children’s love of animals, their affection even for reasonable replicas of living things—teddy bears and rubber ducks. The furry seal-eyed robots used to comfort elderly people in Japanese nursing homes. Biophilia enters human hearts and minds in many ways. Wilson believes it has genetic origins. This is probably correct, but the drive is plastic and non-specific, subject to change in response to cultural conditioning and personal choice. Culture is not only given, but made. Indeed, creativity is central to the evolutionary process, as Henri Bergson pointed out a century ago7 and psychiatrist Charles Johnson has explored more recently in The Creative Imperative.8
Love is a famously many-splendored thing and also a most imprecise word: there is always, the big question raised in the title of Nicholas Monsarrat’s book Depends What You Mean by Love.9 So here are four things that I mean by it, that I see as always present in the passages of our lives that we call love: one, a sense of identification or connection with the objects of love; two, an acceptance of some responsibility for their well-being; three, an appreciation of their beauty; and, four, an ongoing act of will—a decision to love, to be connected to, to be responsible for, to find beauty in, the object of love.
Using these criteria as our guides, what evidence do we find, in the chaotic torrents of thought and feeling that swirl though the 21st century world, of any change in the direction or capacity of our inherent tendency to love?
Are people, for example, beginning to develop a love for Earth? I frequently see cars with bumper stickers bearing the slogan “Love Your Mother” accompanied by the familiar Apollo astronauts’ photograph of the planet, to make sure we know what mother is being referred to. That photograph is ubiquitous, as are challenges to “Save the Earth.” Browsing through the web I find not only information about organizations such as the Save the Earth Foundation, but also a veritable library of instructions on how to do the saving: 10 Things You Can Do To Save the Earth. 101 Ways to Save the Earth. 1001 Ways to Save the Earth. 50 Single Things Kids Can Do To Save the Earth. Seven Technologies for Saving the Earth. Eating to Save the Earth. Godzilla Save the Earth PS2 Cheats. Please Save My Earth. And so forth. I imagine there is probably some useful advice in this; probably some not so useful. But it all has its function—which is culture-construction, hammering out a new worldview, teaching us to love the Earth or, at the very least, preaching that we should.
To love Earth is, if you accept the basic concept of biophilia—which I do, however nebulous the definitions of it—is to accept that Earth is alive, or, to put it more conservatively, a living system. Is it? Well, to paraphrase Monsarrat, depends what you mean by life. The distinction between life and nonlife has never been starkly clear. Primitive people have generally recognized a complementarity between the two—or, rather, recognized that they are not really two—and scientists have a hard time trying to define life in some indisputable way. Even Aristotle, biologist and master logician, noted that “Nature proceeds little by little from things lifeless to animal life in such a way that it is impossible to determine the exact line of demarcation.” The institutions of law, religion and medical science have had colossal difficulty agreeing on the exact line of demarcation in, say, a young accident victim’s journey from life to death, the moment when it is permissible to begin harvesting—wonderful word—the organs and tissues that can then give new life to another person. And we face the problem another way as we expand our mental maps into the solar system and the universe: Is Earth, as a giver of life and consciousness, to be regarded as somehow alive and conscious? Then what about the cosmos itself, which brings forth a planet that in turn creates life and consciousness?
We imply biophilia when we speak of love of nature—somewhat ambiguously, since there has always been an enormous range of ideas about what the word nature (or its equivalent, where one exists, in other languages) means. For the pre-Socratics, it included the totality of what people experienced. That “all is one” perspective walks among us in many forms : you find it in evolutionary thinking that sees everything since (or before) the Big Bang as a single process; in the Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, Taoism and Advaita Vedanta that speak of the undivided nature of the universe; in 20th-century existentialism with its emphasis on Being itself (with a capital B); in the branches of science and philosophy that puzzle over the “laws of nature” and the question of how they came to be; and of course in organizations such as Metanexus that spread a tent over all such endeavors. This idea of nature , whether it wears a saffron robe or a lab jacket, is inclusive. Most importantly, it includes us: in the universe described by modern science, our bodies and brains are held to be material processes, subject to the laws that govern everything else in the cosmos.
We imply it when we speak of the love of place, a universal emotion that involves a form of psychological bonding, akin to the process by which parents begin after childbirth to love their children, including adopted ones. This is frequently manipulated by political leaders, who promote a belief in an organic connection to place—as in the Blut und Boden ideology of Nazism and the famous passage in Plato’s Republic in which Socrates proposes teaching the rulers and soldiers of the city the “noble lie” that they were reared under the ground and then sent up to defend their homeland as their “mother and nurse,” and to regard its other citizens as brothers, born out of the same earth.10
The love of place is not only an organic connection but a cultural one, part of what psychologist Antonio Damasio calls the “extended self” which—unlike the core self—is constantly being expanded and revised: “It evolves across the lifetime of the organism.” 11 It also evolves across history, shaped by events such as those that occurred during the Age of Explorations and more recently with the beginning of the Space Age.
Since the middle of the 20th century, accelerating communications, travel and trade have made more and more people aware that they live on a planet. Science (and science fiction) have contributed to the project of bonding with it emotionally. I particularly remember a short story I read many years ago (1947, to be exact) in the Saturday Evening Post, then the queen of American middle-brow magazines.12 It was “The Green Hills of Earth,” by Robert Heinlein, and it was the first science-fiction story published in the Post or (as far as I know) any mainstream national magazine. That was noteworthy, but it wasn’t what interested me. What interested me was that it described a new kind of love of place—of patriotism—that I had never encountered before: a love of Earth. It was about a space-age minstrel, radiation-blinded, who traveled about the solar system creating and singing his songs. One of them went:
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
I thought nobody but me remembered that story, but since then I have learned that it has had a long and busy life—in radio and TV dramatizations, in a Paul Winter song album, in a dramatic narration recorded by Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy, in references in other books, even in a message to Earth from real-life space travelers aboard one of the Apollo expeditions. Still, its cultural impact has been small in comparison to the enormous response to the photograph of Earth taken by astronauts aboard the Apollo 8 mission. That became one of the most widely-seen visual images ever, as familiar an icon as the happy face in e-mail messages. And—in a way that a map could not—It invited people to see Earth as something they might choose to love.
Evolutionary biology has been another force for revision of self-concepts: Charles Darwin’s work provoked the famous debates about human descent from apes and even—to his principal antagonist, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce—“our unsuspected cousinship with the mushrooms.”13 More recently, Lynn Margulis showed that the mitochondria in the cells of eukaryotic organisms were once bacteria that came as invaders in the distant evolutionary past and stayed on as hard-working symbiotic subsystems. And current research continues to reveal astonishing similarities in the genomes of different species.
Today, scientists such as Eric Chaisson link several disciplines, creating a majestic picture that—it seems, almost effortlessly—connects the most recent discoveries of physicists and astronomers concerning the origins of the universe: the research of Darwin, the evolutionary synthesis biologists and contemporary genetics, and the inquiries into the future course of cultural change that you and I are pursuing at this moment. In one such passage, Chaisson writes :
Modern scientific research helps us realize that we are connected to distant space and time not only by our imaginations but also through a common, cosmic heritage. Most of the chemical elements comprising our bodies were created billions of years ago in the hot interiors of remote and long-vanished stars—a physical, stellar metabolism, no less. Their hydrogen and helium fuel finally spent, these giant stars met death in cataclysmic supernova explosions, scattering afar the atoms of heavy elements fused deep within their cores. Resembling a “galactic ecosystem,” whose interrelated components are as rich and diverse (though not as complex) as those of life in a tidepool or a tropical forest, this loose interstellar matter eventually collected into huge gas clouds which, in turn, slowly contracted to give birth to a new generation of stars, among them the Sun and its family of planets nearly five billion years ago. Drawing upon the matter gathered from the debris of its stellar ancestors, planet Earth then provided the conditions that eventually gave rise to life and intelligence, and ultimately to ourselves—a biological and cultural metabolism, no more. Like every object in our Solar System, every living creature on Earth embodies atoms from distant realms of our Galaxy, and from a past far more remote than the beginnings of human evolution.
The expansion of human consciousness into the cosmos has become a small literary movement, as writers and publishers choose book titles such as: At Home in the Universe, 15 Belonging to the Universe,16 Growing Up in the Universe,17 Our Cosmic Habitat,18 and Coming of Age in the Milky Way.19
These and other developments are coming together into what historian David Christian calls “the modern creation myth,” which encompasses the view of cosmic and biological evolution described by Chaisson.20 All of this is work in progress, but I believe it has the makings of an ethic for evolutionary governance that is not merely one of technocratic dominance, but a view of our enormous power in the world that recognizes also our membership in it. We move beyond the image of ourselves as passengers on “Spaceship Earth” to a sense of an organic connection that is not a noble lie but a noble truth.
Biophilia, Nature, and Humanity
Biophilia can easily be taken as a synonym for love of nature, but that raises serious questions for some and presents yet another reason for paraphrasing Monsarrat: depends what you mean by nature.
For most people, particularly city dwellers, it probably presents no problem: people talk about “getting out in nature” when they mean visiting a farm, talking a walk in the woods, going to the seashore, even relaxing in a park. But Western philosophers have quarreled for centuries over what should be included in the term “nature” (or its equivalents in Greek or Latin) and today that question is at the very center of a political-philosophical cleavage that shows every likelihood of becoming deeper and more vexatious in the decades ahead. The issue is whether we include humanity as a part of nature, and regions that have been modified by humans as “natural.”
As we all know, and as I mentioned earlier, many bodies of thought unquestioningly include us within their concept of nature—Eastern nondualistic philosophies and Western science among them. Yet I was somewhat surprised to find that the lead definition of nature in my hefty Oxford American dictionary is: “The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.”21 The italics, of course, are mine.
Environmental writer Bill McKibben gives a similar perspective when he defends his choice of the book title The End of Nature. He writes: “When I say that we have ended nature, I don’t mean, obviously, that natural processes have ceased—there is still sunshine and still wind, still growth, still decay. Photosynthesis continues, as does respiration. But we have ended the thing that has, at least in modern times, defined nature for us—its separation from human society.”22 This narrowing-down of the concept of nature is not entirely new; well before the birth of the modern environmental movement, people often expressed a yearning for a certain kind of nature, pristine, untouched by human hands. Henry David Thoreau wrote that even his peaceful Walden felt like “a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country” and did not fully satisfy his yearning for undefiled nature, “an entire heaven and an entire earth.” Ecologist Paul S. Martin, in quoting this, notes that the last “entire earth” of the sort Thoreau had in mind had disappeared from the North American continent some 13,000 years earlier, with the disappearance of native species such as mastodons and giant sloths. 23
The environmental movement comes in many different shades, of course. I expect and hope that it will be a major force in shaping the biophilia of the future. I also expect that it will grow and change. One needed change is suggested in Martin’s comment about Thoreau’s longing for “real” nature, is that environmentalists (and for that matter, people in general) tend to hold onto wildly inaccurate notions about unspoiled nature. This is revealed in the discussions that have been inspired in recent years by Paul Crutzen’s proposal to designate the present period in Earth’s history the Anthropocene epoch. Crutzen, a Nobel laureate for his work in discovering the causes of stratospheric ozone depletion, has argued that the time has come to bring down the curtain in the Holocene epoch—which began some 12,000 years ago with the end of the last Ice Age—and call this the Anthropocene, the epoch in which human activities have become a major force shaping evolutionary change. He says the Anthropocene began some two centuries ago, when the Industrial Revolution started releasing huge quantities of carbon into Earth’s atmosphere, setting off the process of climate change. Many scientists agree with this, and the formal machinery for renaming the epoch is in motion. Many non-scientists of course disagree, and continue to believe that the whole notion of anthropogenic climate change is merely an evil myth cooked up by Al Gore. But what’s particularly interesting here is that some scientists agree with Crutzen’s basic idea of climate change caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases, but disagree with the timing.
William Ruddiman, a paleoclimatologist—that is, a specialist in the study of ancient climates—accepts the basic proposition of greenhouse gases altering climate, but disagrees with the timing. He writes: “Before we built cities, before we invented writing, and before we founded the major religions, we were already altering climate. We were farming.”24 Ruddiman puts the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch back some 12,000 years, to the beginning of farming; and argues that the emissions of CO2 and methane caused by rice paddy irrigation in Asia were sufficient to head off a mini-Ice Age which would normally have occurred 5,000 years ago.
And there is yet another entry in the when-did-the-Anthropocene-begin conversation, coming from paleoecologists such as Paul Martin, well-known among the fraternity of scientists who are busy tracing the ecosystem-transforming impacts of humanity back even farther yet into shadowy reaches of prehistory, into times long before people made the revolutionary discovery of how to plant seeds and harvest plants. He studies the evidence of yet another human practice—hunting—and concludes that it was having major impacts on ecosystems around the world tens of thousands of years before the invention of agriculture: “Simply stated, as humans moved into different parts of the planet, many long-established huntable animals died out.”25 And, because the “huntable animals” that became extinct were often large mammals and other members of the so-called “climax species” that play particularly large roles in the ecosystems they inhabit—as prey or predator to other species, as consumers of vegetation, as modifiers of land and streams—their disappearance had secondary impacts that are only now being discovered.
Obviously, this kind of research—of which more can be expected in the future, because the skills, technological resources and knowledge base of these sciences is advancing rapidly—offers serious challenges to some of the myths that are popular among romantic environmentalists: the myth of the pristine ecosystems in the not-too-distant past, and the myth of the noble savages who lived lightly upon the land. It also calls for some rethinking of the widespread practice of ecological restoration, because it raises the question of what stage in an ecosystem’s history one might attempt to restore.
In closing, I would like to take a brief look at another movement—transhumanism—with some positive thoughts about its contribution to the future of biophilia, and some criticism of one part of its program that I see as very troublesome.
In some ways, the environmental movement and the transhumanist movement appear to be polar opposites: Where environmentalists tend to be highly suspicious of technology, transhumanists tend to be devout technophiles. Where environmentalists tend to be misanthropic, as evidenced by their reluctance to view humans as a part of nature, transhumanists tend to be exuberant boosters for the human future. It doesn’t appear to me that transhumanism was quite as strongly identified with technology as it is now when it was first proclaimed by Julian Huxley (in the same book where he proposed recognizing our responsibility for evolution). He wrote then: “What can be done to bring out the latent capacities of the ordinary man and woman for understanding and enjoyment; to teach people the techniques of achieving spiritual experience . . . to develop native talent and intelligence in the growing child, instead of frustrating or distorting them.”26 This seems to me remarkably similar to the “Human Potentialities” lectures that his brother Aldous was giving at the same time, and that are credited with launching the “human potential” movement in the 1960s.
But ideas and movements tend to have their own lives—especially in today’s superheated culture—and it appears that transhumanism has become much more oriented toward technology and science. I note the increasing emphasis on the expectation of the Singularity (when machine intelligence catches up to human intelligence) and the promotion of immortality. The latter would worry me if I thought there was any likelihood of its being achieved in the foreseeable future—but since I don’t, I assume that the people who are committed to the cause will carefully asses the enormous problems it would produce in the world. These, as I see it, come under two headings: equity and ecology. Regarding equity, I recall political scientist Harold Lasswell’s famous pronouncement that politics is a matter of who gets what, when, how.27 I see no reason at all to believe that—if an end to aging should become possible—the beneficiaries would be poor and uneducated people in developing countries. Regarding ecology: a human being is an organism/environment system, an enormous consumer through life of resources, space, and energy. We already have overpopulation, the result of two factors: birth rates and death rates. Until now, the concern has been rising birth rates. Has anybody at all thought about spectacularly falling death rates? I hope that some of my friends in the transhumanist world will reassure me that they have.
These two movements that I have briefly described are important and significant now, and will be in the future. Each has its concept of nature, its visions of the future, and its own kind of biophilia. Each brings us reasons for hope, reasons for concern. Neither is about to go away. The usual course we take when presented with what appear to be irreconcilable opposites is to take sides and argue. But there are other alternatives: there is what Charles Johnson called the creative integration of previous realities. There is the dialogue process, identified with the work of people like David Bohm and Daniel Yankelovich.28 These methodologies, and others like them, are not about making nice and ignoring real differences. They are about going deeply into differences, in ways that move beyond stalemate. They are work, and they do work.
These remarks summarize my thoughts about something I think of as happening, a handful of seeds, but far from a realized reality. It requires much more. This challenge echoes the words of Rollo May, who wrote: “in every act of love and will—and in the long run they are both present in each genuine act—we mold ourselves and our world simultaneously. This is what it means to embrace the future.”29
15 Actually, I know of three books with this title: Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); John Archibald Wheeler, At Home in the Universe: Masters of Modern Physics. (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1995); Rudolf Steiner, At Home in the Universe: Exploring our Supersensory Nature. (Herndon, VA: Steiner Books, 2000).