Biophilia

My husband has just acquired the new American Heritage dictionary, advertised as having several hundred new words. I haven’t checked yet, but I bet one of them is “biophilia,” new to me when encountered recently in a New Yorker article. The great naturalist E.O.Wilson (I’m about to look him up too) is remembered from a trip to Jerusalem for paying almost no attention to Holy sites, but instead being fascinated by the behavior of ants around an ancient wall. Biophilia: fascination with the natural world.

Is there a word for the interaction of humans and what we pleasantly call “nature,” separating it from us just enough to get a grip on it? Yes: it’s sociobiology, also one of E.O. Wilson’s words.

It’s come to my attention that some of the very young are quite interested in the natural world. Before they graduate to dinosaurs, they take to shells–counting, and ordering them, peering into the spiraled innards. Or they discover hawk feathers in the bushes between their house and the neighbor’s and hunch over a guidebook, trying to identify who met its demise. Hearing about Jonah, they shout, “cool,” and want to get inside with their little lantern and explore the watery cathedral.

Most of us fall into a more pedestrian category: we love what we euphemistically call “pets.” Turtles, hamsters, possibly canaries, cats, dogs. The rest of the natural world can go hang, but we love our critters. My daughter was born into a household where cats named Clarence and Wilhelmina already prowled. I haven’t proved this with her, but I expect some of her early memories include furry tails, meows, and big eyes peering from the shadows. No surprise, she’s now hostess, parent or what have you to two cats, Beau and Norma, and lately a huge white Pyrennese named Winston. (Does he look like Winston Churchill? Maybe a bit with the jowls and the loose-lipped grin.) But ask her to extend her love to birds or trees and she gives me one of her slightly bored, tolerant looks, of the loving off-spring facing a parent’s inexplicable tic.

Now I’ve looked up E.O.Wilson, a mymecologist–student of ants. No surprise, then, his focus on Jerusalem mymecon. More to our point, Wilson has developed a theory that the human mind is shaped by genetic inheritance–culture and language have something to do with shaping how we develop, but we are all hard-wired for certain behaviors, like associations in groups, though our groups don’t resemble ant colonies, with one enormous, sexual female and many asexual workers. On Human Nature, 1969, and The Ants, 1991, carry forward Wilson’s theories and research. As to biophilia, he coined it, and yes, it’s in the new American Heritage dictionary.

Here’s my thought of the day: that we develop interest in living things outside us in rather predictable patterns–from small moveable shells or turtles or feathers, to the places where they might live–seasides where we build drip castles. Then dinosaurs take over: we develop that overweening pride in association with what is huge which often threatens to overwhelm us with toxins, wars, etc. Then we settle down a bit; we want companionship, and either with parents’ help or a bit later on our own, we acquire pets we can cuddle, talk to, watch walk around, as we laugh at their nonbothered fixation with smelling body parts.

Finally, when we’re close to a half-century old, we develop an awareness of larger nature–the trees that shade our homes, the rivers that carry our canoes, the birds that come and go, singing the seasons. If we’re really lucky (I’m biased of course), we take to gardening, watching bees in our flowers and grasping a tiny piece of the intricate dance of life. And if we’re just a little bit cracked, we decide it’s our job to feed the birds. This is my stage in life. For a while, I could recruit several 12-year-old neighbor girls to help if I had to be out of town. I paid them a bit, and they filled the bird bath and spread sunflower seeds and corn about and in feeders.

Not anymore–they’ve grown beyond this. They’ve entered late childhood, early adolescence when the focus is entirely on the human group and what part we want to and are allowed to play. Today, with our brown winter city about to undergo a winter storm (it’s late February!), I am left wishing for a broader swath of biophilia. I’m up a creek to find stand-in bird-lovers.

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