Throughout history humans have been on a quest to understand themselves and the world around them. To uncover our story. Traditionally the Humanities explored what makes us human through the study of culture, and the Sciences studied the natural world and the physical links between species within it. These studies remained separate until a breakthrough theory in the 1970’s changed everything. Biologist Edward O Wilson observed that insects and animals act in certain and predictable ways, and proposed that these behaviours have evolved similarly to physical traits, following Darwin’s principle of Natural Selection. This would indicate that
the root of behaviour is biological, genetically inherited and built into the architecture of the mind, making the mind a vessel of preconceived information, an advanced and intricately designed organ for life.
This was radical and, when applied to humans, went against the commonly accepted idea of Tabula Rasa which stated that the mind is born blank with all human characteristics and behaviours the result of upbringing and culture. His proposal initially sparked outrage as it seemed to suggest that the traits seen in humans today are just who we are, fixed and unchangeable, which removed the hope that we as a species could be better and our future brighter – something I think many of us fear. In fact Wilson’s theory couldn’t be more of the opposite. His proposed origin of human nature was the first tangible piece of hope for humanity because, following the laws of natural selection, we can’t possibly be a purely destructive species as this would propel us towards inevitable extinction. No. Wilson believed there is more to us and that only in combining the Humanities and the Sciences to form a joint study would we ever be able to uncover our true human nature and answer the age old question, What makes us human? What is our story? In developing his Biophilia Hypothesis Wilson started a new age of observation and learning that, as it develops theory into fact, is telling the story of our past, rationalising our present and forging the frontier of our future.
“The noble savage, a biological impossibility, never existed. The human relation to nature is vastly more subtle and ambivalent…”
-Biophilia, 1984, Pg 12
The Biophilia Hypothesis
Wilson looked at our modern culture and noticed that we put importance on our purpose, things we have to do, jobs and problems that need solving. These problems come before a concern for nature, which is seen as a luxury, but are in fact a means to an end. So when they are completed what is left? What is our end goal? Unanimously across the world the answer is survival, growth and self-fulfilment. These are the goals that natural selection progresses all life towards and are the ultimate measure of success. Wilson believed that, having spent 99% of our evolution living in and around nature, to achieve and sustain these goals, natural selection designed our mind to intrinsically focus on life and natural processes; to depend on its natural evolutionary environment as a resource for its function.
According to Wilson, we therefore developed a need to have the most sensitive sense of stewardship towards nature; to know how to evolve and grow in delicate harmony with it, finding balance between the seemingly conflicting strategies for life – exploiting for success and surrendering for success. Wilson labelled the relationship between these poles The Conservation Ethic, and measured its strength in the balance between the two. The conservation ethic was evident to Wilson in all creatures living in their evolutionary habitat. Insects for example all know when to halt their population growth so not to squeeze out other species they value and rely on. This behaviour is innate – a result of natural selection. Wilson proposed that our mind evolved similarly, with biological biases towards nature and living things that together form a unique relationship with the natural world. One that maintains balance, ensures our survival, growth and fulfilment and sets us apart as human. He called this our Biophilia Tendency and hypothesised that it is the particular way we inherently interact, gravitate towards and respond to nature that makes us human. It is what defines us from all other life on earth and is the key to our development, our culture and our success.
“To explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development…our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents.”
– Biophilia, 1984, Pg 2
Steven Kellert, a colleague of Wilson and fellow pioneer of Biophilia, put the hypothesis to the test when he studied people’s reactions to specific natural species. Whilst he didn’t confirm our relationship on a genetic level, he did identify a global trend in human behaviour that could be seen to exemplify Wilson’s Biophilia Tendency. He found people of all ages, cultures, genders and professions responded similarly, though in varying intensities, in some of 9 ways and used these to classify the expressions of our Biophilia Tendency. He began, in collaboration with others, to explore the benefits behind these, finding that, as well as providing material resources, exposure to nature could indeed be seen to fulfil emotional, cognitive, and spiritual needs within us, allowing for a more successful, meaningful and fulfilling personal experience of life.
Practical & material exploitation of natures physical resources.
Sustenance, protection, and security
Detailed study of obscure connections & complexities within nature
Hone observational skills
Understand and respect the importance of each species and its role in the system
Inspiration and ability to harness potential through exploitation or mimicry
Using nature as a metaphor
Communicate, express and record a vast array of ideas, thoughts and information
Ethical concern & respect for spiritual significance, order & harmony in nature
Confidence in identity and meaning of life
Strive to protect and keep order
Fear, aversion, dislike & alienation
Safety from threatening aspects of nature
Fascination, curiosity, exploration & direct experiences of natures diversity
Learn and gain knowledge
Heightened awareness, improved stress recovery, peace of mind, increased creativity and problem solving, improved physical and outdoor skills and better relaxation and rejuvenation
Physical beauty or preference of an environment, pattern or design.
Assessment in terms of its compatibility with human needs.
Love & emotional attachment towards nature – giving it human characteristics.
Find community and companionship
Will nurture and care for nature
Ability to learn from or exploit
Mastery & Control
Strong bond, understanding and appreciation for nature.
–The Biophilia Hypothesis, 1993, pg17-31
Wilson, however, explained that the expressions of our biophilia tendency remain purely biological unless stimulated by nature. When we interact with it, expressions begin to develop into behaviour and emotions which guide us towards satisfying experiences with nature, and an optimum environment where our mind will develop to its full evolutionary potential – with all of its functions unlocked. We will have a natural and innate affinity and respect for this place and will conserve it for this reason. In developing each and every expression of our Biophilia Tendency the path will be clearer, our conservation ethic strong and all our goals achievable.
Can the psychic thread of life on earth be snapped without eventually fatal consequences?
-Biophilia, 1984, Pg 117
But to our ancestors, nature wasn’t an Eden, it was filled with dangers that made life hard. Survival was a constant struggle and so, stimulated by nature, they innovated from their surroundings, developing tools that better supported their survival. These primitive technologies weren’t enough to have a negative impact nature therefore, thinking it was a limitless force and an endless resource, humans hammered away at it. Wilson proposed this was a successful strategy for survival, a key part of our development and evidence of our unique relationship with nature. Exploiting nature in this way allowed the mind to advance, which allowed other expressions of Biophilia to flourish into innovation, creating a rich culture of art, design, religion, law, technology, medicine, science, cuisine etc., all of which, according to Wilson, echo humans’ relationship with nature and allowed us to grow. We were naturally advancing towards an optimum environment however, a naïve understanding and perspective of ourselves, nature and its value to us had fostered a culture that slowly filtered the operations of the mind, and distorted our instinctual relationship with nature, eventually throwing our conservation ethic into disarray. As society advanced, our innovations began to overpower nature and the mind’s desire to be connected to it – thinking we had conquered nature, we gave up our nuanced relationship with it, which disturb the balance within ourselves and reverberated into the rest of the world.
According to a UN 2018 report, 55% of us are now predicted to live in urbanised environments – devoid of life and stimulated only by our own crude portraits of nature. Whilst we may seem fine, according to Wilson, a portion of our mind and therefore for a portion of its function, our culture and our potential remains untapped – unfulfilled. These spaces lack the thing that makes us brilliant and are dehumanising us. Focusing purely on survival and growth, our understanding of nature is unevolved and our ability to utilise nature to realise all our goals remains dormant, and in this none of our goals are actually fulfilled long term. Wellness is declining, pandemics are eating into our population and extinction lies on the horizon for us, and more swiftly a predicted 1 million species, where the lost of any one could bring the whole system tumbling down. Before knowing its true value and intricacy, we are erasing our evolutionary experience and with it, Wilson believed, part of ourselves, our hope and our future.
“The truth is that we never conquered the world, never understood it; we only think we have control. We do not even know why we respond a certain way to other organisms, and need them in diverse ways, so deeply.”
-Biophilia, 1984, Pg 139
Searching for our human nature Wilson discovered humanity in the midst of a far greater search to find its optimal environment, and at a pivotal moment.
He showed how the innovations and advancements we have achieved as a species have all stemmed from our Biophilia Tendency, and have moved us towards the right goal, however, with it distorted there is an imbalance. Our minds lack the resources needed for fulfilment and therefore success. Without rationalising our true nature into a modern language of facts and benefits, and making the need for conservation as clear as our need for exploitation, Wilson believed we would remain lost – our mind trapped between two worlds, longing for nature as a resolve but dependent on the innovations that are destroying it, searching for an equilibrium that our culture isn’t capable of offering. His Biophilia Hypothesis changed how people looked at the world, at ourselves and at the built environment and inspired people from all specialisms to explore further and what they found was incredible!
“I offer this as a formula of re-enchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendour awaits in minute proportions.“
-Biophilia, 1984, pg 139
Extremely powerful, Biophilic Design today is a constantly evolving practise that, guided by research and with 14 biophilic patterns at its disposal, is able to stimulate our Biophilic Tendency and craft fulfilling, healthy, meaningful and functional biophilic experiences using direct interactions with nature and design treatments that mimic nature and stimulate the mind in the same way. Reflecting our new understanding of nature, technological innovations are intertwined with it and play a vital role in this practise as they are able to accompany, enhance, simulate and support nature’s diversity even in the most urban of environments. This allows Biophilic Design to be achievable in any space, and for its effects on us to be far more profound and consistent as spaces can now adapt to and fulfil our needs rather than dictating them.
Whilst still in its infancy, by embracing Biophilic Design now, we are closer than ever to that ideal environment humanity has been searching for. This practise has the potential to take us to new heights, unleashing our potential in a way that current mechanical, industrial and urbanised design could only dream of.
“Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.”
-Biophilia, 1984, pg22
Many of the vanguard brands at the forefront of innovation, such as Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google have already seen the potential and incorporated Biophilic Design in their head offices, stores and products showing technology and nature in beautiful, modern and progressive juxtaposition. Businesses like these, and smaller ones that followed suit, use Biophilic Design to benefit from greater staff retention, improved levels of staff creativity and productivity, are able to charge more for their products and experience better brand recognition and loyalty. A small number of hospitals and schools are now starting to use the practise to boost recovery rates in patients, lower the need for medication and improve the learning capacity of students.
It seems strange and detrimental then that this fundamental, proven and applied method of design has been effective and accessible for years, and yet it is only being readily and properly practised in select offices and stores, and not in all walks of life.
Why is the language of Biophilic Design not fluent in all buildings and indeed homes? Surely it could solve a LOT?
Well, before lockdown, money was valued above wellness therefore Biophilic Design was written and celebrated as a ‘profitable innovation’, and embodied as a method for economic design not all design. Without understanding it properly, organisations used it as a quick fix for a better bottom line, throwing plants into offices and erecting green walls. But this often backfires, as these attempts become a metaphor for what happens to us in these spaces, slowly withering away. Refocused on new priorities, reviewing the world and ourselves from a new perspective and with a new sense of empowerment and concern (and set to spend more time at home), I think our lockdown experience is seeing this change. We all share a dream of fulfilment, sustainability, harmony, progress and wellness – not just profitability – and have, in a small way, experienced these by allowing ourselves to reconnect with nature and life when the rest of the world fell away. Now, knowing there is a path to maintain this as a way of life, and achieve these aspirations on an even greater level without the need to give anything up but with everything to gain, we are going to follow it and fully immerse ourselves. More than just a houseplant trend – designing for human nature and taking control of spaces in support of functional, sustainable and prosperous living, I think we are arriving at the moment where Biophilic Design will take its place in the home, transforming it into the Refuge, the Reserve, the Eden we now need it to be. Designing Sanctuary homes we will set a new agenda for Biophilic Design, abstracting and evolving its language and possibilities, but first we must, as Pablo Picasso once said,
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Understanding the purpose and patterns of this practise, bad design no longer has to hold us back. We can all design for the change we want to see in the world, and the potential we feel in ourselves. Science is showing that our story, past, present and future, isn’t set, as Wilson put it, at the retreating wall of the forest, but within it. Nature is our evolutionary history and our evolutionary future. It is our life’s story. Let’s see where Biophilic Design takes us, and the heights we can reach when we breathe life into spaces and they do the same to us. The new normal? I think so.
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To read about this subject in more detail please check out the resources I used to put this post together:
Biophilia by Edward O Wilson
The Biophilia Hypothesis by Edward O Wilson and Steven Kellert
Biophilic Design : The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life by Steven Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen and Martin, L Mador
14 Patterns of Biophilic Design by Terrapin Bright Green
You may also find Erich Fromm’s books on defining and understanding Human Character interesting even though they predate Wilson.