“Developmental psychologists have effectively shut out the world of butterflies, ponds, and porcupines…It has thus not occurred to researchers, furthermore, to ask about the possible ongoing harm of being restricted to domestic, human-dominated settings- as opposed to the more wild, multispecific sorts that have been the norm for all humans up until only recent times” (Fisher, 2013, pg. 140).
Perhaps it was my early exposure to ‘nature’ through frequent explorations of the lush greenery surrounding my semi-suburban childhood home, wherein a large, glimmering lake was home to myriad semi-aquatic species such as iguanas, various species of snakes including the notorious Cottonmouth, frogs, fish, turtles, insects, such as the captivating and very friendly spiny orb-weaver, and birds such as Muscovy ducks , ospreys, moorhens, and visiting sea gulls. Similarly, it could have been my father showing me all sorts of nature documentaries from a very young age, or the exciting animal toys that various family members gifted to me, or the fact that I watched nature-themed films such as The Lion King and Tarzan dozens and dozens of times as a kid. Or, perhaps it was a confluence of all of these factors that inspired in me a deep and vibrant passion for animals and all things relating to the natural world since I can remember. I quickly became obsessed, driven by an insatiable curiosity and desire to know the magnificent beings with whom I shagred this wonderful planet, and would often wade in the shallow edges of the lake, watching as tadpoles, insect larvae, fish fry, and countless other organisms scuttled about in their daily activities. Sometimes I would gather some of the tadpoles in a tank for closer observation, watching with utter amazement as they began to morph into their adult forms, at which point I would release them back into the lake so they could complete their transitions amid their natural surroundings. I’d long been curious about my intense fascination with and love for the natural world, about why it was that I felt so rejuvenated and content whenever I was surrounded by greenery or when I met the penetrating gaze of an animal other. I always wondered, where does this stem from? Surely, I thought, I couldn’t be the only one who felt this way. And then, during my final year as an undergrad at the University of Miami majoring in sociology with minors in English literature and philosophy with a bent towards the natural sciences, and while working on my honors thesis, I came across eminent biologist E.O Wilson’s ‘Biophilia Hypothesis’.
The biophilia hypothesis posits that, as a result of our extensive co-evolutionary historical trajectories with other life forms and natural habitats, we possess an innate desire towards interacting with and simply being around other living beings or ‘life-like processes’. Hypotheses surrounding the benefits of communing with our natural evolutionary heritage are not new, and an ever-growing body of empirical evidence from disciplines ranging from environmental psychology to the health sciences have shown that they’re predicated on more than mere intuition or speculation. Studies have shown that exposure to and prolonged contact with ‘Nature’ and animals is strongly correlated with physiologically, psychologically, and socially (strengthened social cohesion, for instance) restorative effects, that interacting with or even simply viewing natural or wild spaces can reduce stress, quicken recovery time for patients who’ve undergone surgery, increase positive moods and alleviate depression, confer respiratory benefits through increased air quality, and confer cognitive benefits such as improved attention and memory. Studies assessing the effects of biodiversity-rich natural spaces versus urban zones largely devoid of life on subjective wellbeing showed a significant correlation between level status of biodiversity and reported wellbeing. What’s more, a recent BBC Earth video that begins by posing the endlessly elusive query, ‘What is happiness?’, explores the foundations of the biophilia hypothesis on the basis of data from a study of over 7,500 people from 6 countries which assessed how they felt before and after watching BBS footage of wild places and animals. In line with the evidence cited above, their results revealed significant increases in such feelings as joy, contentment, curiosity, awe, and wonder, as well as reduced stress and tiredness after watching the clips. These are precisely the effects that I experience after watching a mere 3-minute video of whales gracefully maneuvering through the sea depths or of any other footage of the natural world. commonion with natural spaces and others seems to tap into a sort of raw, unadulterated wellspring of human happiness, one that is far more impactful and enduring than that which one supposedly experiences through financial and material pursuits.
Such findings are truly profound, for they lend legitimacy to something that many have felt for centuries yet often haven’t been able to articulate or substantiate concretely: that we are deeply connected to our natural support systems and animal counterparts on a multitude of levels, and that the myths of human separateness from and superiority to the natural world have been among the greatest deceptions ever perpetuated. We are so connected to nature and animals that simply being enveloped by or even catching a glimpse of them produce within us an indescribable and imperturbable inner calm. A walk through a meadow or wooded habitat, a chance encounter with a ‘wild other’, has the extraordinary ability to restore the colors of life back to one’s countenance and jubilation to one’s disposition. I suppose I’ve been a biophiliac all of my life, for since I can remember I have been utterly mesmerized by all living beings as well as the abiotic (nonliving) components of our biosphere such as rocks and minerals, rivers and mountains, and how all of these fit into one seamless, dynamic, living totality. There is something profoundly comforting in knowing that nearly everything that one encounters is alive, pervaded by a vibrant matter, that the atmosphere itself is composed of the essential elements that perpetuate life. Whenever I spend too much time in an urban setting that is largely devoid of natural spaces and our wondrous animal kin, I experience what I can only describe as withdrawals of a sort, the only remedy for which is at the very least to travel to the nearest farm or rural area where I can commune with my other halves. Once I do, I feel instantly reinvigorated, like a part of my self that was withering away has been brought back to life. As the 6th mass extinction rips through the immensely complex and varied ecological mosaics that are our evolutionary heritage, one would do well to consider the looming repercussions: the loss not only of our other halves and thus of that which makes life worth living, but also of our very own health and wellbeing.