Can humans be truly human and truly fulfilled in a world of glass and concrete set apart from nature, surrounded by cultural artifacts and pursuits, enclosed in electronic cocoons where much of reality comes from the television screen and the computer display?
Not in a million years, according to a new hypothesis. It holds that eons of evolution, during which humans constantly and intimately interacted with nature, have imbued Homo sapiens with a deep, genetically based emotional need to affiliate with the rest of the living world.
Meeting this need, according to what is called the biophilia hypothesis, may be as important to human well-being as forming close personal relationships.
The hypothesis is still just that, and scientists' efforts to test it are still at an early stage. The term biophilia was coined in a 1984 book of the same name by Dr. Edward O. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist.
Now, in "The Biophilia Hypothesis," a newly published collection of essays edited by Dr. Wilson of Harvard University and Dr. Stephen R. Kellert of Yale University (Island Press/Shearwater Books), a variety of scientists try to lay out the issue in more detail.
As the book shows, there is some evidence in the proposition's favor, and if it is true it has serious implications not only for urban dwellers but also for the natural world. For while biophilia is important to the human psyche, scientists who are investigating it say, the characteristic becomes fragile in an urban setting.
Like many another genetically based traits, they say, whether it is fully expressed depends on learned responses; in this case, the degree to which people experience nature in their youth. Increasingly, it is being experienced by urban youth weakly or not at all, leading to indifference or even hostility to nature.
Adherents of the biophilia hypothesis fear that this indifference and dislike encourage degradation of the natural world.
Over the millions of years in which the human psyche was shaped, according to the developing hypothesis, survival and well-being depended on how effectively individuals coped with the natural environment.
Studies of aesthetic preference for landscapes, for instance, suggest that people in many different cultures prefer parklike settings rather than enclosed ones. Dr. Roger S. Ulrich, an environmental psychologist in the college of architecture at Texas A&M; University, sees this as a manifestation of an ancient preference for open savannas with scattered trees, which had fewer threatening properties than closed forest.