Friday, June 7, 2013

Textscape: "The programmed search for the correct environment"

Edward O. Wilson
Emeritus, Pelligrino University Professor
Entomology Department, Harvard University
Twice Pulitzer Prize Winner,
U.S. Medial of Science, International Prize for Biology,
Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science,
Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Sciences,
Nierenberg Prize,
TED Prize
Our biologically and genetically rooted attraction to and benefits derived from perceptions of nature seem to be becoming an inescapable commonplace -- if not definitive shapers of public policy. In cleaning up the clutter of stacked books around my desk (and "managing" my Kindle) I recently read (or reread) several perspectives on Nature as textscape.

E. O. Wilson's The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2006) takes on the no mean task of trying to convince a hypothetical traditionalist, conservative Christian "Pastor" about the imperative for everyone to work together to protect -- to save -- Nature from the human-made scourges of natural habitat loss, introductions of invasive species to non-native areas, pollution, human overpopulation, and over harvesting of plants and animals.

It's been six years since publication, and it seems likely that the purpose of the book probably has yet to be fulfilled.

The book does, however in Chapter 7, "Wild Nature and Human Nature," sum up Wilson's concept of biophilia -- its presence in our minds and societies and its positive, trustworthy impact (Wilson argues) on all our lives. (Wilson introduced his biophilia hypothesis in  Biophilia (Harvard University Press, 1984) based at least in part on Erich Fromm's use of the word as a psychological state of attraction to everything alive (The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, 1964)  For Wilson, his biophilia hypothesis, in a series of increasingly influential books, became a kind of beneficent collective unconscious, "something fundamental [that] moves beneath the surface of our conscious minds, something worth saving."  Wilson's biophilia is also a kind of mental software that ensures humanity's continued existence, if not always happiness: "The programmed search for the correct environment is a universal of animal species for the best of reasons--it is an imperative of survival and reproduction."

Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.
Director of Research
Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine
University of Arizona at Tucson
Esther Sternberg's Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009) seems to cite many of Wilson's same sources, as she develops a biophilia thesis throughout the book.

At the brain level: ". . . when people view scenes that are universally preferred -- a beautiful vista, a sunset, a grove of trees -- the nerve cells in that opiate rich pathway [of the brain] become active. It is as if when you're looking at a beautiful scene, your own brain gives you a morphine high! Not only that, but as color, depth, and movement are added to the scene, more and more waves of nerve cells become active farther along this opiate-rich gradient."

And beyond those activated opiate-rich pathways, there is data about emotional and social impacts of a close experience of nature: "Researchers found that residents who by chance had been assigned to apartment units located near plots of green performed better on attention tests and coped better with major life problems than those whose apartments, though  identical to the others, were near barren areas. In their report, the researchers remarked how these findings attest to the power of nature . . . . the presence of a few trees and some grass outside a sixteen-story apartment building could have a measurable effect on its inhabitants' functioning."

A cursory scroll down through this blog (example: textscape post on How Urban Parks Enhance Your Brain, post on July 17, 2012 and many preceding) traces my evolving (meandering) collection of perspectives on textscape / nature / epistemology (either as attempt at understanding or just entertaining analogy-making).

Next project (book to be cleared up from that stack on the floor): John Muir: Nature Writings.