Do we inherently value life? One way of thinking about this is to compare the appeal of a garden filled with flowers, butterflies and birdsong with one covered in paving-slabs. Children are often excited by animals and many families include a cat or dog for no obviously rational reason. Yet at the same time we appear to be content to exploit, deplete and destroy other life forms, from the massive destruction of rainforests to smaller, more local attacks.
The renowned naturalist and writer Edward Wilson suggests that humans possess an ‘innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.’ He argues that this ‘biophilia’ was essential to our evolutionary success because in order to find a meal or escape a predator our remote ancestors simply had to be alert to the presence of other animals and plants in the landscapes around them: ‘the brain appears to have kept its old capacities, its channelled quickness. We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world.’
A ‘tendency to focus on life’ is not the same as valuing life, so we might object that our ‘biophilia’ has its origins in an evolutionary drive to exploit other species or to compete with them. Wilson’s argument is subtle. He proposes that we endlessly seek to balance two ideals: nature and machine. Since the industrial revolution the balance has slipped and we begin to fear we have moved too far towards the machine. He wonders whether the presence of other life forms around us will prove to be essential to the health of our civilisations because they played such a vital role in the development of our brains. Much of Biophilia shows us the powerful encounters with nature he has experienced as a biologist, from discovering the way an ant nest functions as a super-organism to using molecular biology to enrich our understanding of our own bodies.
Wilson advocates the value of ecological diversity. His more recent The Future of Life presents the desperate situation we are in today as our current actions are set to bring about the extinction of 90% of all species through habitat destruction and climate change. The problem is urgent: how can we transform our innate interest in life into an active movement to protect life?