Biophilia and Gaia: Two Hypotheses for an Affective Ecology

by Giuseppe Barbiero

ABSTRACT: Affective Ecology is a new branch of ecology concerned with emotional relationships between human beings and the rest of the living world. The basic instinct that guides the evolution and maturation of a well-tuned relationship with the living world seems to be biophilia, our innate tendency to focus upon life and life-like forms and, in some instances, to affiliate with them emotionally (The Biophilia Hypothesis). Our feeling of a deep connection to Nature, our sensation of being a child of Mother Earth, of Gaia, is probably an instinct and it is present in all human cultures, including those more technologically advanced, where a scientific understanding of the planet’s living nature has been developing to an ever more advanced level (The Gaia Hypothesis). Nevertheless, within our artificial society, now distant from the natural world, we are running the risk that our biophilia is not becoming adequately stimulated in order for it to flourish as naturalist intelligence, the ability to take care of and subtly interact with living creatures. On a brighter note, we are discovering that Gaia continues to affect us on a deep psychological level, activating our involuntary attention (fascination) and favouring the restoration of our attentional capacity. We can all learn to respond to the call of Gaia and the natural world, to refine our senses and our mental capacities through the practice of active silence (mindfulness meditation); an engagement that seems to be particularly efficient in re-establishing our personal connections with Gaia and the living world.

Active Silence Training (AST); Affiliation; Attention Restoration Theory (ART); Directed Attention; Empathy; Fascination; Mindfulness Meditation; Open Attention.

The environmental crisis is an outward manifestation of a crisis of mind and spirit. There could be greater misconception of its meaning than to believe it concerned only with endangered wildlife, human-made-ugliness, and pollution. These are part of it, but more importantly, the crisis is concerned with the kind of creatures we are and what we must become in order to survive.
(Lynton K. Caldwell)


The urgency posed by the big environmental issues requires a global reaction from humanity that is both rapid and adequate to defend the natural world (Stern 2007; IPCC 2007; Rockstrom et al. 2009). Nevertheless, despite our ever increasing knowledge of the global ecology, only a minority are truly motivated to modify their behaviours in order to face the environmental challenges. We are talking about well-informed moral people, for whom the knowledge about such problems is motivation enough to drive them to take action for ethical outcomes (Schultz 2001). For the majority of people, on the other hand, an exclusively rational and cognitive approach to the big problems regarding the environment is often insufficient to motivate them to take preventative or remedial action. Of consequence, various authors have warned of the necessity to bring emotive and affective associations into discussions about conservation (Saunders 2003), environmental education (Wilson 2006) and sustainability (Colucci Gray et al. 2006; Camino, Barbiero & Marchetti 2009).
To consider emotive and affective connections between human beings and the rest of the living world opens up a vast field of interdisciplinary research that teeters on the boundry that lies between biology and psychology. Indeed, these types of connections to which we refer have their phylogenetic roots in the evolutional history of humanity and can therefore be the subject of biologists, or reflect the ontogenesis of the human psyche and therefore be the subject of psychologists. Epistemological, linguistical and methodological differences exist between biology and psychology that cannot be underestimated. Nevertheless, understanding how a connection between a human being and an animal, a plant or a natural environment is established, developed and consolidated is of fundamental importance for environmental education that aims to permanently modify the behaviour of people. Affective ecology is focussed upon this area of research (Barbiero et al. 2007b; Barbiero 2009): it is ‘affective’ because the capacity of the human species to bond with is only in part genetically programmed, and instead depends to a large degree upon the development of psychological potentials that themselves depend more upon cultural than genetic contexts (Bell, Richerson & McElreath 2009); and ‘ecology’ because ecology is the science of phylogenetically determined connections. Affective ecology is proposed as a complementary tool to cognitive ecology that conveys knowledge via rational reasoning, exploring new channels of comprehension about (and of communication with) the living world – that knows how to make wise use of the affective and emotional competences of people. To form a more precise intellectual framework of affective ecology, I want to unit two scientific hypotheses that could constitute its scientific base: the biophilia hypothesis, proposed by Edward O. Wilson (1984), and the Gaia hypothesis, created by James Lovelock (1979). Two scientific hypotheses that presume a strong affective component – explicit in the biophilia hypothesis and implicit in the Gaia hypothesis – and it is just this characteristic that makes their combination them particularly interesting to us.


Biophilia Framework
According to Edward O. Wilson, biophilia is «our innate tendency to focus upon life and life-like forms and, in some instances, to affiliate with them emotionally» (Wilson 2002, p. 134). Humanity, over the course of our evolution, would have developed a set of phylogenetically adaptive learning rules that mould our relationships with the natural world, even today (Wilson 1993). If this hypothesis is correct, the biophilic instinct would find its expression in a) attention – the capacity to let oneself be fascinated by natural stimuli, and b) empathy – the capacity to emotively affiliate with the different forms of life, or, as more precisely suggested by Silvia Bonino when referring to one-way empathetic engagement with non human life, differentiated participation. Thus, attention and empathy would constitute the two central constructs of biophilia and, at the same time, the two mental faculties that characterise the human instinct to love and care for Nature, faculties that should therefore be adequately cultivated.

Psychologists generally agree that attention can be defined as the process by which some elements of sensory information are encoded and elaborated whilst other aspects of the sensory reality are neglected (Valenza & Simion 2002). Our senses continually receive an enormous mass of stimuli and information about the external and internal environments that is elaborated by the subcortical centres without us being aware. Only a small part of this information reaches the cerebral cortex and engages with the consciousness, and thus gaining our attention. Attention focuses on only some aspects of the world that for some reason appear to be important. Our faculties – i.e. memory, deduction, risk evaluation, etc. – concentrate and attend towards the origin of the stimulus. Attention is phylogenetically adaptive and has evolved in man in response to the needs of basic survival, developing configurations of characteristic neural networks, corresponding to the diverse modalities with which attention manifests (see e.g. Parasuranam & Davies, 1984; Parasuranam, 1998). Here, we will consider two types of attention: directed attention and open attention.

Directed attention is the capacity to activate a state of alertness or to consciously direct ones attention towards the object that provoked it. It is a type of functional attention which serves that that we are doing and that requires mental effort to be maintained with time. It is the form of attention that one needs to carry out tasks or to finish a job. It is the form of attention that we can define as passive and subordinate because it responds to external stimuli, it is attracted to them and it can become prisoner of them (Pensa 2002).
Open attention, on the other hand, is a state of vigilant consciousness, active because it is attention in itself, free and independent of external stimuli. A form of attention that takes care of “here and now”, that attends new insights, as in the sense of the Buddhist yoniso-manasikāra which implies exactly this type of attention, where yoni indicates the maternal womb (Pensa 2002): a form of attention that generates new awareness, and becomes a permanent mental state.
Directed and open forms of attention are not coextensive mental states: directed attention limits open attention. However, directed attention is important for establishing open attention. For example, suppose you were to take up a new sport that you had never done before; the movements do not come easily, they are awkward and you feel cumbersome performing them. We therefore apply our will to focus our directed attention on the exact execution of each movement until, with practice and patience, the movement comes naturally. This liberates the need for directed attention, leaving space for open attention, that Simone Weil calls “true” attention (Weil 1966). Thus open attention has a systemic nature: the athlete does not pay attention to the sequence of necessary movements anymore (directed attention), but to how these movements equilibrate between themselves.
According to Ursula Goodenough, the phylogenetic origin of the sentiment ‘to affiliate with’ resides within the neuronal networks involved in the contemplation of our profound genetic affinity with creatures of other species. It seems that these neuronal networks evolved via the exaptation route from networks that guided our maternal and paternal instincts, networks that also generated emotions like love, care and the instinct to protect. The root of altruism and of responsibility, in the literal sense of the term to marry (sponsum) things (res), has its origin in «our capacity to experience empathy with other creatures and respond to their concerns as our own» (Goodenough 1998, p. 127).
The sentiment ‘to affiliate with’ seems, from this perspective, like a particular manifestation of empathy, here intended as the capacity to feel, to understand and to share thoughts and emotions with another. From an ontogenetic point of view, empathy evolved with the psychological development of the child. Around 3-4 years of age, a child experiences his/her first form of empathy for participatory sharing that will accompany him/her for all of childhood. In adolescence, with the development of an ever more sophisticated cognitive capacity, the ability to feel and share the thoughts and emotions of others extends to the comprehension of entire social groups (empathy for general conditions; LoCoco, Tani, & Bonino 1998) and (in an extended form) to participate in the “emotions” and expressivity of animals and the sacrality of vegetable life (Hill 2000) and certain natural landscapes (Naess 1976). Thus empathy transforms in this way into differentiated participation or asymmetric empathy of the different forms of life and natural objects (Barbiero 2007a). We talk about differentiated participation (or asymmetric empathy) because the real sense of empathy, by definition, can only exist between human beings that reciprocally divide the capacity to understand and share human emotions. The relationship that is established between a human being and an animal cannot therefore be of empathetic form because, even when a non-human living being is able to perceive and correctly tune to the emotive state of a human being, it is not able to share the experience. Indeed, many animals perceive human emotions, but they experience them in a completely different way. The reverse is also true: even though it can be useful in certain contexts (with children and the elderly), human beings should avoid the psychologically regressive confusion of projecting human sentiments onto a non human living being.


Naturalistic intelligence is the eighth manifestation of human intelligence according to the classification posed by Howard Gardner in his Multiple Intelligence Theory. It is defined as the ability to connect, on a profound level, with non human living beings and to appreciate the effect that such relationships have upon us and our external environment (Gardner 1999). This form of intelligence requires a developed sensory ability with which to perceive living organisms, the capacity of logical reasoning that allows us to distinguish and classify living organisms on the basis of certain logical parameters, a particular emotive sensitivity toward all that is “natural” and, finally, a certain existential knowledge that allows us to link all these qualities together on the basis of experience of a spiritual nature (Gardner 1999). If biophilia, as stated above, is a set of phylogenetically adaptive learning rules, it could constitute the physiological basis and the psychological potential from which naturalistic intelligence emerges.
However, as observed by Richard Louv, if children are not allowed to have the opportunity to develop an adequate relationship with nature, biophilia is not stimulated and naturalistic intelligence atrophies, causing damage to both the physical and psychological development of the child, which Louv defines, on the whole, as “nature deficit disorder” (Louv 2005; Charles & Louv 2009). Thus, it is necessary that the pedagogy of naturalist intelligence reverts to its original vocation, educating people to recognise the peculiarities of the living state of the various forms of matter (Buiatti & Buiatti 2001) in its manifestations of autopoiesis (Maturana & Varela 1980), negentropy (Schroedinger, 1942) and mental processes (Bateson, 1980). Life is a natural phenomenon, different and unique with respect to all the rest (Capra 1996; Buiatti & Buiatti 2008).

Who is able to recognise – intuitively or intellectually (by which, it is not important) – the peculiar harmony of each living organism cannot fail to experience a profound sentiment of marvel and of reverence for the mystery of matter that is able to transform itself into something living; and the fact that each organism – even a clone! – is actually unique and unrepeatable. Life, in this sense, is truly sacred (Bateson & Bateson 1987; Goodenough 1998). Thus, a theoretical framework is needed that can account for each element and that makes sense, not only of the living taxonomy, for example, but also of the great biogeochemical cycles and the sentiments of affiliation that we feel «for our Sister, Mother Earth» (Francis of Assisi). A theoretical framework is needed that meets the scientific standards of the XXI century, and that excites and inspires. Gaia, Mother Earth, a universal myth, yet also a contemporary scientific hypothesis, provides the answer. An efficacious pedagogy of naturalistic intelligence cannot but start here.