There is nothing more satisfying than when our travelers experience “that one magic animal encounter moment in the wild,” whether it is a few seconds of eye contact with the infinitely wise eyes of a wild silverback gorilla in the jungle foliage in Uganda, the leviathan blowhole smell of a humpback whale close-up from a small dinghy in Baja’s Sea of Cortez, or the ethereal humming of the beating wings of thousands of monarch butterflies taking off in a Mexican butterfly sanctuary.
Such moments occur when we sense something special beyond what we actually see, smell and hear—when we feel a deep connection with the natural world. In that glimpse of time, we are taken away from our homo sapiens anxieties, logic and preoccupations and truly amalgamate with nature. When people get to that point, all these mundane human feelings are succumbed by awe, joy and even perhaps love. There is a name for that love—biophilia. In Latin, biophilia translates directly to the love of life or living systems.
The idea that humans possess an innate tendency to be drawn to and seek connections with nature and other forms of life is the foundation of the biophilia hypothesis. It was first described by the psychoanalyst Erick From in his 1973 book, “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness,” where he defined the phenomenon as a “passionate love of life and all of which is alive within.”
I first learned about the hypothesis some 20 years ago, when I attended the legendary Professor Edward O. Wilson’s packed lecture hall at Harvard University. Apart from being a famous ant researcher, Wilson is also a prolific fiction writer and nature philosopher. In his 1984 book, aptly named “Biophila,” he proposed that the tendency of humans to focus on nature and other life forms has, in part, a genetic basis. He defined biophilia more broadly as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.”
Biophilia is not just some airy—fairy concept. Serious researchers have proven that the human preference for animal connections is a product of biological evolution. For instance, animal behavioral scientists have shown that adult mammals—including humans—are preferentially attracted to baby mammal faces with large eyes and relatively small features. This suggests that the positive emotional response that adult mammals have toward baby mammals across species helps increase the survival rates of all mammals. No wonder the World Wildlife Fund panda logo, which is all about cuteness with its big panda eyes, has become such an icon of animal conservation worldwide!
Child psychiatrists have also found that animals can develop nurturing relationships with children in early and middle childhood and even help children with autistic-spectrum disorders. It would be easy to claim that animals can be healing for adults as well, just look at the many pets that we keep that make us happy. According to the American Pet Product Association, it was estimated that in 2015, there were more than 78 million dogs and 86 million cats owned as pets in the United States. Approximately 44 percent of all households in the United States have a dog, and 35 percent have a cat. The biophilia hypothesis helps explain why ordinary people care for and sometimes risk their lives to save domestic and wild animals, and keep plants and flowers in and around their homes. As a consequence, our natural love for life helps sustain life.
Because of our technological advancements and more time spent inside buildings and cars, it is argued that the lack of biophilic activities and time spent in nature strengthens the disconnect between humans and nature. The concern for a lack of connection with the rest of nature outside of us, is that a stronger disregard for other plants, animals and wild areas ultimately could lead to further ecosystem degradation and species loss. Therefore, reestablishing a connection with nature has become more important in the field of conservation.
There is a need to embrace biophilia in the context of more effective conservation efforts. For years, the message to preserve our planet from the environmental onslaught was one of a doomsday narrative. The big non-governmental organizations’ messages were traditionally those of fear and impending catastrophe. This approach was somewhat effective, but eventually, donors and the broader public became tired and tone-deaf to all that negativity. The otherwise concerned felt a sense of powerlessness against the overall huge scary picture. All the while, the environmental destruction continued unabated.
At one point, this message changed and the need for conservation was more justified on basic sound economic arguments. Concepts such as sustainable development and wise use of renewable resources from threatened habitats came into vogue. Examples were sustainable non-timber extraction from natural habitats, balanced crop-rotation and community-supported ecotourism. But even these efforts still have not made a large enough impact to protect our imperiled planet.
Insufficient political will, systemic corruption, lack of a broader education, and only few women engaged in conservation and economic development initiatives were just some of the obvious larger challenges associated with this economic approach. However, the biggest obstacle for the economic reasoning was (and still is) that most resource extraction economies and their polluting effects do not account for externalities. In other words, the real-time costs of environmental impacts are not paid fairly by the current final consumer. The health of the environment and our future generations will have to pay the price instead.
So, fear and economical common sense have not proven sufficient enough to motivate everyone to participate in conservation efforts. Perhaps an additional instrument for successful environmental preservation is to promote biophilia. The conservation message should be more one of shared love for our environment, accepting and fostering what we all have in our genes—an innate, positive emotional connection with the planet and its species.
Although in a small scale, what our Natural Habitat guides in the field try to facilitate is that embryonic emotional connection we seek with nature. We see it when our guests watch coastal grizzly bears feeding just yards away from us on the mudflats in southwest Alaska. Or, when snorkelers swim with the enormous whale sharks in Baja or hikers rest quietly in front of dozens of enormous melting Greenland glaciers.
It is nature experiences like these that can be enough to reawaken our love for our planet and its inhabitants. It is our hope that our travelers become positive conservation advocates that energize others to mobilize against mankind’s path toward planetary destruction.
Professor Wilson reflects this optimism about the future of conserving wild places in his book:
“I will make the case that to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in our mental development. To an extent undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirits are woven from it and hope arises on its currents.”