Reflections: Empathy with Nature as an Organizing Principle of Human Evolution

Biophilia is a term that was coined by biologist E. O. Wilson.  Pronounced bio-feel-ia, with an emphasis on “feel,” the word sounds emotional. Here’s his definition: “Biophilia is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” Wilson feels that we humans have an innately empathic connection to nature. He states that he feels this emotional connection, and that he feels he is far from alone in this experience.  For example, he quotes Nobel laureate Barbara Mclintock: “In speaking of her microscopic work with chromosomes, she says, ‘I actually felt as if I were right down there and these were my friends.  As you look at these things, they become a part of you.  And you forget yourself.'” (quote taken from THE BIOPHILIA HYPOTHESIS)

Of course he isn’t alone.  Many of the spiritually inclined feel that connection with nature without the need for a fancy word.  What’s interesting is that there may be a shift in which some scientists are allowing themselves empathy alongside objectivity.  When it comes to global shifts in consciousness, the more the merrier. I’ve heard a good many biologists talking with deep empathy, even identification with the world of their animal subjects.  Empathy can even develop with parasites.  In the 10/08/2004 episode “Behind Enemy Lines” on This American Life (Public Radio International), Carl Zimmer, the author of the book PARASITE REX, never actually states he has empathy with parasites.  But I’ll let you be the judge.  Here’s an exert from the transcript in which host Ira Glass is interviewing Carl Zimmer, asking him a pointed, and somewhat humorous question as to his loyalties:

IRA GLASS:  Whose side are you on?
CARL ZIMMER:  I think I’m on the parasite’s side when it comes to them getting a bad rep[utation].  I’m their PR man.
IRA GLASS: Speaking for humans, you’re either with us or against us.
CARL ZIMMER:  I have not gotten seriously sick in my life, and I have gone to places where there are lots of parasites around.  I don’t get sick.
IRA GLASS: Are you saying they can sense you are in league with them?
CARL ZIMMER: Who knows?

To me, that exchange seems to communicate an undefined connection.  And I don’t think it’s the least bit weird.  Call it a function of perception – developing connection in areas of empathic attention.  By the way, PARASITE REX is fascinating reading, and may, in my opinion, offer indirect but compelling evidence for an intentionality and ability to communicate that originates outside the tiny discrete bodies of some parasites.  Zimmer states that a lot of these parasites don’t have brains, or even nerves, yet they have this creepy chemical wisdom that can get them through an incredibly complicated life cycle that often involves manipulating the behavior of its host.

I doubt that E. O. Wilson had parasites in mind when he coined the term biophilia.  More like ants, trees, and butterflies.  But while ants fascinate Wilson, some people are repulsed by them.  Critics of biophilia state that Wilson, and people like him, are projecting their own feelings, and that the empathy they project is not innate.

If biophilia is innate, it’s clear that it can be lost with age.  When I was a young Boy Scout, my brother and I were given the nickname “Nature Boys.” It was meant to be pejorative.  We loved nature, would never have imagined doing the harmful things other boys did.  I once witnessed another Boy Scout capture a garter snake, and whip it like a towel to kill it.  I literally felt sickened.  The empathy that I felt was clearly not shared by the scout who killed the snake.  One could argue that biophilia is innate within a specific subset of people, like innate musical talent. I recall when I was a VISTA volunteer in Texas that young teens living in the projects were terrified at the notion of going camping.

But here’s an interesting observation I made when I was a preschool teacher.  I was 23 years old, working in a well-organized university day care with a high ratio of teachers to kids.  When I took them outdoors on walks, every 4 and 5-year-old child in my group was fascinated by nature.  An unmitigated spontaneous expression of wonder would erupt over something as commonplace as a ladybug.  You’ve missed one of life’s pleasures if you haven’t been close to the unmodified joy kids of that age can express around nature.  But I will admit I’ve seen hyperactive kids who want to step on everything.  Learned, innate, or some combination?  I would argue that neuralgic/organic impairments or a harsh environment are what cause a disconnect from innate empathy.   A sustained connection with Nature may require some nurture in all but the most empathic individuals.

The Potential of Superorganisms in Human Development
Wilson believes that there are complex colonies of insects, such as leafcutter ants, where the colony acts collectively as an individual organism — a superorganism.  For leafcutter ants, cooperation does not end with the efficient movement of swarms.  These ants have an amazingly complex division of labor.  For example, leafcutter ants grow their own food fungi from harvested leaves, and the ants are in constant communication.  The individual is, and acts as though it is, expendable.  If the notion of superorganisms is correct, then each individual is a cell of the organism.  And there are organs.  For example, the queen acts as the genitals. The soldiers act as immune system. But where is the brain?  Is the brain outside the cells of individual bodies, the organizing principle that bestows direction?  What is striking about superorganisms is that we can see both individuals and colony, a synergistic emergence that is not easily accounted for, a connectedness for individuals to the whole that has to be both unconscious and intentional.

How might the development of superorganisms apply to people?  Wilson argues that the development of biophilia in human beings iswolf howling from Facebook page Wild for Wildlife and Nature favored by evolutionary process, as this type of empathy is necessary for the long-term survival of our species.  Given global climate change and the extinction of species, that would appear to be true.  But biophilia may have a competitor — the “selfish gene.”   When individual gain becomes more important than group harmony, there is bound to be competition for resources and damage to the environment.  The successful evolution of humanity may involve connecting as a larger family that feels linked to its natural environment.  What grand and transcendent Mystery – the organizing principles that guide people into closer connection with the systems of Earth.

Image from Facebook page Wild for Wildlife and Nature

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