Biophilia: the human bond with other species, Wilson 1984

Compendium Volume 5 Number 1 July 2021

A book review by Rachel West

As I read the first chapter, Wilson brought me far into the forests of the Amazon Basin to encounter canopy-dwelling birds and frogs found nowhere else on Earth; he showed me the life cycle of a tiny moth so specialized that the adult lives only in the fur of the 3-toed sloth, and held up fistfuls of forest soil teeming with tiny life to demonstrate that “the woods were a biological maelstrom of which only the surface could be scanned by the naked eye.”

With his astonishing eye for detail and his fluid prose, he fascinated me, he drew me in, he fed my curiosity…and then he reminded me: “Eliminate just one kind of tree out of hundreds in such a forest, and some of its pollinators, leaf eaters, and wood borers will disappear with it, then various of their parasites and key predators, and perhaps a species of bat or bird that depends on its fruit… and when will the reverberations end?”  

Throughout this book, Wilson brought me close to the beauty of living systems across the world. He taught me enough about them to make me curious, and then to make me care; and then, when he showed me how easily that entire system could be disrupted, he had my undivided attention. This kind of understanding and connection, Wilson argues—this human bond with other species—is an essential ingredient in motivating us to change our behaviors in order to slow the rate at which “the wildernesses of the world [are shriveling] into timber leases and threatened nature reserves.”

One of the challenges with building these connections and then acting upon them, Wilson suggests, is that we are programmed to operate in physiological, not ecological, time; that our minds “travel back and forth across hours, days, or at most a hundred years. The forests may all be cut, radiation slowly rise, and winters grow steadily colder, but if the effects are unlikely to become decisive for a few generations, very few people will be stirred to revolt.” But in recent times, our impact on ecosystems has been compressing “ecological time” to align with “physiological time,” and the results are becoming visible in the span of single generations; the massive Florida manatee die-off due to the destruction of their seagrass pastures is but one starkly visible example of the reverberation felt by the loss of a single species from an ecosystem.

In the chapter “The Conservation Ethic”, near the end of the book, Wilson explores the relationship between the human drive to perpetually expand—and the related desire for personal freedom, at least in Western cultures—and the necessity for conscious stewardship of the environment to ensure our ultimate survival—not only our physical survival, but our spiritual survival. He writes “The only way to make a conservation ethic work is to ground it in ultimately selfish reasoning.”  In other words, it is likely that wild species and places will be best understood and protected with respect to their perceived value, such as the vast array of plant compounds that have shown promise as anti-cancer compounds, or, as has been increasingly recognized in recent years, for the ability of wild places to improve the emotional and spiritual well-being of the people who spend time there.

This book is even more relevant now than it was when it was released in 1984, and thus has the potential to reach a broader audience today. More people may be ready to hear some of the truths held in this book because now, more than ever before, the human race is seeing, and feeling, the long-term effects of the way we have treated the planet.

Wilson, E.O., 1984, Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 5 Number 1 July 2021