Biophilia vs Biophobia for Your Kids

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Edward O. Wilson defined biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”.  He suggested that people are born with an instinctive bond with other living systems.  Most kids love animals – Wilson says that’s instinctive.  We like to think of biophilia as finding the joy in nature – ‘affiliating with other forms of life’ sounds a tad creepy.

The opposite, biophobia, is the fear of nature.  Unless they are growing up in a city without contact with nature,  this usually isn’t a general fear in kids.  More typically it would be a fear of spiders or snakes or caves or some other aspect of nature rather than nature itself.  A kid might love a bunny rabbit while live in fear of dogs.  David Orr writing in Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, calls biophobia humanity’s distaste for ‘natural systems’; this ranges from discomfort in ‘natural’ places to active scorn for whatever isn’t man made, managed, or air-conditioned.


Whether biophilia in instinctual or not plays on biophobia in kids.  If kids start out loving nature, the development of biophobia becomes an issue of child development.  Something in a kid’s life journey made them afraid of some aspect of nature.  The question for a kid’s adults is how to prevent a dog bite, or whatever, from becoming a fear of dogs.  Things will happen to any healthy kid, we just want to be sure these things stay in context and don’t lead to some form of biophobia.  Further,  we as adults don’t want to transfer our phobias to our kids.

SnakeWhen I was little, an uncle had a board with four deer hooves mounted to it.  He rattled them on the floor behind me and scared me half to death.  After that,  I always was leery of that uncle and stayed away from those hooves.  As an adult I have no fear of deer hooves, mounted or not and I don’t even recall which uncle it was that pulled that trick on me.  Point is,  I didn’t develop a phobia around deer or their hooves or, for that matter, uncles.

On the other hand,  I have a fear of heights.  I have no recollection of anything that might have generated that fear in me.  Some have suggested that experiences of ancestors can be passed down in the form of fears like acrophobia.  Maybe, maybe not.  My fear is not extremely irrational in that it develops in places where falling would cause, at least, massive injury.  Further,  I can overcome it with practice.  Basically I have to get into the high place a few times until I feel I can handle the situation safely, then it’s ok.  

For example, I had the opportunity to take a canopy crane ride at the Wind River Canopy Crane Research Facility in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest a few years back.  I knew people rode in the open canopy all the time with no problem so, intellectually,  I knew there was nothing to fear.  Still I gripped the railing so tightly while dangling 240 feet in the air that I suspect you can still find the indentations from my fingers on the steel-pipe railing.  The others on the gondola had comfortable conversations as they scanned the roof of the forest.  I would have taken the ride again if the opportunity presented itself and I probably would have come to enjoy it after a few times.  Point is that these kinds of phobias can be overcome.

Maintaining Biophilia

So, what can we do for our kids and grandkids to help them keep their instinctual love of all parts of nature?  Here are some ideas:rat

  • Don’t intentionally scare your kids with spiders or snakes or anything else that might give them an opportunity to develop a phobia.  If you insist upon taking them to scary movies or the halloween haunted house, be sure to put the experience in perspective and, if at all possible, show them the simple mechanics behind the screen.
  • When your kid does, as they will, get injured or scared by some aspect of nature, don’t coddle them, but do help them get the incident into perspective and take their responsibility in the situation.  For example,  what did they do to incite the dog to bite them?  Did the dog growl first (an opportunity to teach what growing means)?  Was there some other warning they could learn about that will prevent a future dog bite?  Simply give them the tools they need to prevent or deal with a dog bite in the future so they are no longer afraid of the situation.
  • Get them out of the city.  Take them hiking, camping, and swimming in a lake and the ocean and make it enjoyable.  Help them experience and enjoy nature.
  • Teach them about ecology, geology, meteorology, zoology, biology and all the aspects of nature and help them get it into context.  Start with books, but be certain the book knowledge is brought into reality through direct experience.
  • If they have already developed a fear of something in nature, help them work through it.  If it’s particularly deep seated, you may need professional help.  If it isn’t too bad,  help them gain more experience with and knowledge of the object of their fear.

Why is this important?

Here’s a quote from E.O. Wilson:

“People can grow up with the outward appearance of normality in an environment largely stripped of plants and animals, in the same way that passable looking monkeys can be raised in laboratory cages and cattle fattened in feeding bins. Asked if they were happy, these people would probably say yes. Yet something vitally important would be missing, not merely the knowledge and pleasure that can be imagined and might have been, but a wide array of experiences that the human brain is peculiarly equipped to receive.”

Where does personal biophobia lead?  Nature deficit disorder – we’ve talked about that before.  Societal biophobia can be more dangerous as it can lead to the loss of natural functions on the planet as a result of:

  • trying to control nature
  • making decisions without the necessary understanding and appreciation of the role of nature and potential outcomes of those decisions
  • simply ignoring nature in the quest to expand the built environment

What do you think?

Should we concern ourselves with biophobia?  How do you suggest we help kids avoid  biophobia?  How about society and biophobia in the political process?  Leave your comments below.

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