Biodiversity and biophilia. Powerful watchwords of environmentalism. They seem to evoke in scientific terms the values of nature and
of species conservation. Yet they also embody a curious irony. The
concepts gain their persuasive authority from science, seen as
objective and independent of values. Yet the concepts unmistakably
promote a particular value: conservation. The popular appeal of
these concepts seems to depend paradoxically on science being
value-free and value-laden at the same time. That apparent duplicity is puzzling, but perhaps no accident.
The equating of environmental values with facts, as expressed
in appeals to biodiversity and biophilia, is not uncommon. (It is
touted widely in biology classrooms, I think.) Here, I want to challenge the assumption (this month’s Sacred Bovine) that these two
concepts are scientific, or justified by observations and evidence
alone. I especially want to profile the origin of the terms, and the
politics behind them. Alas, politics seem to prompt some persons
to reject all environmental protections as so much sentimental
“tree-hugging.” If we wish to save the planet from biological ruin
we need ecological science, but not because it depicts the inherent
value of nature. Accordingly, I want to endorse an alternative for
how biology teachers should approach environmental “values”—
as unapologetically anthropocentric and selfish, and expressions
of long-term prudence.
The term “biophilia” originated with renowned biologist E. O.
Wilson. Recognized first for his field work on ants, in 1975, he
published his monumental Sociobiology, and later his Pulitzer
Prize-winning On Human Nature. They ignited a firestorm of controversy about the genetics of behavior and inspired a generation
of researchers. Alongside his research, however, Wilson has
ardently advocated the conservation of nature. Recently, he helped
launch a bold initiative to protect no less than half the planet as wilderness (Hiss, 2014; Wilson, 2016, 2017).
Integral to Wilson’s conservation strategy was his 1984 book
Biophilia. There he speculated on “an innate tendency to focus on life
and life-like processes” (p. 1). He posited a hereditary need for spiri-
tual encounters with nature, the “innately emotional affiliation of
human beings to other living organisms.” While framed nominally
as a biological hypothesis, it “invites us to take a new look at environ-
mental ethics” (Wilson, 1993, pp. 32, 38–39). That is, from the
outset, the concept was intimately tied to conservation (Takacs,
1996, pp. 217–219; Wilson 1984, pp. 119–140; 1993, pp. 31–41).
Some philosophers—long seeking to justify the value of nature
objectively—jumped on Wilson’s bandwagon (Kellert & Wilson,
1993). Ethicist Stephen Kellert (1993) called biophilia a “biological
imperative” (p. 60). But the argument has always been scientifically
flawed. First, a hypothesis is speculative, not demonstrated fact.
Wilson tiptoed around obvious counterexamples. Also, alternative
explanations for why people value nature were never fully weighed.
Later, Wilson hedged the whole biophilia issue by saying, “if it
exists, and I believe that it does” (1993, pp. 31, italics added). “If,”
indeed. Belief and rationalization do not substitute for solid evi-
dence. If the biophilic emotion was universal and “imperative,”
no one need argue for it. Wilson’s bold claims about behavioral
genetics were provocative back in 1978, but with the human
genome now counted as twenty thousand or so genes, the era is
past when one can propose willy nilly a gene for this or a gene
for that. A genetic basis for biophilia now seems (more clearly in
retrospect) sensationalistic and egregiously overstated. “What if”
speculation ultimately contains very little justification.
Wilson’s argumentative strategy fit a pattern—from the Paleo diet
and Social Darwinism to sexist and racist screeds—of trying to naturalize ideology, or inscribe cultural norms into nature (Allchin &
Werth, 2017). He did not just acknowledge that many people
appreciate nature. He declared the disposition universal and innate.
“Innate means hereditary and hence part of human nature”
(Wilson, 1993, p. 31). He thereby tapped into intuitive impressions of nature as inevitable and unchallengeable, and perhaps
even intentional. Biophilia, he said, is a “psychological phenomena
that rose from deep human history” and thus is “resident in the
genes themselves” (p. 40). That fostered an image that conservation
was an essential part of our identity—to be betrayed only at a cost.
But genes are not destiny. They do not define “identity” (Sacred
Bovines, ABT, April 2005). Most human behavior is conspicuously
flexible and learned, not genetically determined in any direct sense.
Deep skepticism is thus warranted at the outset. There is no evidence
for the purported biophilia gene(s). Over and over again, efforts to
characterize human nature scientifically have collapsed later when
their selective use of evidence became clear (Sacred Bovines, ABT,
Feb., 2012). When science is inspired by cultural ideology, standards
of evidence need to be exceptionally rigorous. We need to prevent
easy bias and short-circuited justification. Philosophers especially
need to be more attuned to the scientific dangers of the naturalizing
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 80, No 5, pages. 397–400, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2018 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2018.80.5.397.
THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER SACRED BOVINES
THE POLITICS OF BIODIVERSITY-SPEAK
DOUGLAS ALLCHIN, DEPARTMENTAL EDITOR