In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biophilia

  • Introduction
  • A Definition of Life
  • Fromm’s Ontogenetic Perspective

Ecology Biophilia
Rita Berto, Giuseppe Barbiero
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0239


Humans are inherently attracted to all that is alive; this attraction is called biophilia. Biophilia is an evolutionary trait which contributes to self-preservation and reproduction, and it does so by providing us with useful information about the natural environment. Biophilia was initially used by Erich Fromm to describe the psychological orientation to preserve life, and subsequently by Edward O. Wilson to describe the evolutionary adaptation that allows us to develop an affective bond with the living world (the Biophilia Hypothesis). Wilson identified two principal constructs of biophilia: fascination for and affiliation with life. Biophilia depends on the ability to focus attention on natural stimuli effortlessly, to be fascinated by Nature, and the ability to connect emotionally to the various life forms, namely to affiliate with them. In this article, the noun “Nature” written with a capital first letter indicates the biosphere and all the abiotic matrices (soil, air, and water) in which it flourishes, thus avoiding confusion with “nature,” that is, the intrinsic quality of a certain creature and/or phenomenon. Biophilia steers our preference for natural environments. Humans have an unlearned predisposition to pay attention to and respond positively to content, characteristics, and patterns of stimulation that were favorable for survival; this predisposition was instilled over thousands of years of evolution in the African savanna (the Savanna Hypothesis). Hence, a preferred setting maximizes security and seclusion (Prospect-Refuge Theory), offers information that enables us to comprehend and predict (Preference Matrix), and allows restoration from the elements of the environment that threaten well-being (the “relax and renew” response). Natural environments are consistently preferred and are more restorative than urban environments. The importance of contact with Nature extends beyond aesthetics to include a range of benefits in terms of enhancement of physiological well-being (Stress Recovery Theory) and recovery from mental fatigue (Attention Restoration Theory). Biophilia as a phylogenetic process takes account of the different types of Nature (wild, rural, urban) and different human cultures (Paleolithic, Neolithic, bourgeois), whereas as an ontogenetic process it depends directly on exposure frequency and time spent in contact with Nature. This brings to a modern-day phenomenon, namely the fact that many children are deprived of Nature. Indeed, experiences of Nature are said to be becoming extinct, and a consequence of this is the atrophy of biophilia. To sustain Nature experiences in urban and indoor settings, biophilic design was proposed. Biophilic design is an application of the Biophilia Hypothesisin architectural design and urban planning to sustain affiliation with Nature, which can lead to the formation of positive attitudes and behaviors toward natural environments.

A Definition of Life

The term “biophilia” arises from the combination of two words, both descending from ancient Greek: “bio” (life) and “philia” (love); thus, the literal meaning of biophilia is “love for life.” However, to speak of “love for life,” we must first specify exactly what we mean by “life.” Lenton, et al. 2020 proposes using the word life (written in lowercase) to indicate the set of properties that are common to all living things, and the word Life (with a capitalized first letter) to indicate the phenomena that emerge from the coupling of the metabolism of living organisms with the external environment. In this sense, Life emerges as a dynamic process in which both organic and inorganic forces concur to continuously remodel what Volk 1998 calls Gaia’s habitable conditions. Human beings are capable of recognizing living organisms (life) in the non-living world as being distinct from the process that is Nature (Life) in its entirety. Therefore, biophilia can mean both “love for living creatures” (life) as well as “love for Nature” (Life), intended as all living creatures plus the abiotic environment in which they live and prosper.

  • Lenton, T. M., S. Dutreuil, and B. Latour. 2020. Life on Earth is hard to spot. The Anthropocene Review 7:248–272.

    DOI: 10.1177/2053019620918939

    This paper reflects on some approaches that identify Life as a biological and geological phenomenon. The authors stress the importance of recognizing the geological impact of Life on Earth and suggest that efforts be made to identify the laws that would permit humans to navigate the Anthropocene Epoch successfully.

  • Volk, T. 1998. Gaia’s body: Towards a physiology of Earth. New York: Copernicus.

    Volk revisits Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis. It blends high-quality science with particularly evocative images chosen to describe Life on planet Earth as a physiological system.

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