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  • Biophilic Design Aesthetics in Art and Design Education
  • Yannick Joye (bio)

1. Introduction: Defining Biophilia and Biophilic Design

In 1984 the renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote that

we are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms. They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted, and they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought. To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained. I offer this as a formula of reenchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions.1

This poetical quote nicely captures the essence of Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis. While the notion of biophilia had been originally introduced by the philosopher and social psychologist Erich Fromm, it became popular in Wilson’s characterization: namely, as the hardwired emotional affiliation with life and life-like processes.

One of the central assumptions of biophilia is that human evolution took place in natural environments and that repeated contact with, and dependence on, natural elements influenced early humans’ subsistence. From an evolutionary perspective it indeed makes sense for organisms to have a fitness advantage when they were (up to a certain degree) “hardwired” to automatically display emotional reactions to certain (survival-relevant) natural elements. Up to now the strongest empirical support for the existence of such hardwired affective reactions comes from experiments probing the negative emotional (“biophobic”) responses elicited by snakes and spiders.2 As these organisms posed a permanent threat throughout much of human [End Page 17] evolutionary history, having inborn mechanisms to deal with them would have constituted a significant adaptive benefit.

Biophilia theorists hypothesize that the reverse must also be true. As some natural elements were not threatening but improved the survival chances of ancestral humans, it seems only reasonable to assume that our species has also evolved positive affective reactions to certain natural objects. 3 Take the example of a flowering tree: flowers have always been part of ancestral biomes; they indicated that a tree would bear fruit at a specific moment in the near future; and they were themselves a potential source of food. Because of these advantages, some theorists contend that evolving a tendency or biological “preparedness” to display positive aesthetic reactions toward a lush and flowering tree would have constituted a significant adaptive benefit. This would have enabled individuals to be more attentive to these elements and perhaps more inclined to approach them, as opposed to individuals who remained aesthetically unaffected. According to Wilson, “biophilic” responses to these and other elements still guide human behavior and attitudes because on an evolutionary timescale humans have inhabited nonnatural settings only very recently: “It would be . . . quite extraordinary to find that all learning rules related to that [biocentric] world have been erased in a few thousand years, even in the tiny minority of peoples who have existed for more than one or two generations in wholly urban environments.”4

It is worth mentioning that biophilia is not a “tidy” theory, nor is there one definite interpretation of what the term exactly stands for. For example, the word “biophilia” does not always accurately reflect its content. Although the notion “bio” presupposes that biophilia is directed to biological objects and processes, most biophilia theorists employ the notion quite loosely and agree that the experience of biophilia can also be brought about by nonbiological natural elements, like mountains, glaciers, clouds, and so forth. Another issue is that while the aesthetic impact of natural elements has a central place in biophilia, other positive and beneficial effects of nature contact are commonly also captured by the notion of biophilia. For example, in what follows I will repeatedly point out that nature has so-called “restorative” effects on humans. Although aesthetic fascination can facilitate restorative experiences, the actual restorative effect should not necessarily be accompanied by an aesthetic experience. It thus seems that biophilia is commonly interpreted quite broadly: actually, it appears to suffice that there is a positive and presumably a hardwired emotional “nature effect” for it to count as a biophilic...


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