Posts tagged E.O. Wilson

The Bug_Dome_by_WEAK!_in_Shenzhen. Photo by Movez/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Biophilia, or the “love of life or living systems”, describes the intimate and innate relationship between humans with nature as deeply rooted within our biology. These connections are attributed to earlier evolutionary origins, but continue to manifest in behaviors today: a physical retreat to nature, formal and informal representations of nature, or an organizational replication of natural systems. The affinity for nature is also a valuable and capable source for informing the design of a built environment. Sites with a connection to nature are not a new concept, noting the Garden Cities, Art Nouveau plant forms, and Olmstead as examples of humanity’s desire for the proximity of nature for respite, beauty, and health, but it seems a resurgence of interest has begun to emerge.

Though Erich Fromm is credited for coining the term biolphilia, the Biophilia hypothesis is the term and idea more commonly known today. Developed and introduced in the 1980s by biologist, theorist, and author E.O. Wilson, the biophilia hypothesis expands upon Fromm’s singular definition, outlining the evolutionary connections between our care and concern for animals and the desire for plants in our personal and professional environments in detail.

Furthermore, design built upon the principles of this hypothesis is referred to as “biophilic design“. According to William Browning, Catherine Ryan, and Joseph Clancy of Terrapin Bright Green – an environmental consulting and strategic planning firm – biophilic design integrates the relationship between nature, human biology and design of the built environment for the physical, psychological, and emotional betterment of the human user. Browning et al define 14 patterns of biophilic design, each fitting into three categories: Nature in Space (a direct connection to nature), Natural Analogues (a formal evocation of nature), and Nature of the Space (spatial configurations found in nature).

Amazon unveiled The Spheres, three glass domes located in Downtown Seattle operating as an escape for their tech employees into a biosphere housing 40,000 plants representing 400 species from around the world.

Of these principles, the one of most personal interest is the natural analogues, which Browning et al describe as:

  • Biomorphism – a formal design principal that seeks to replicate natural forms, those found in nature, or in other life forms. These forms can create a harmony evocative of life without directly imitating them in a recognizable way.
  • Natural Material – connecting to a site’s sense of place or to a larger natural environment through the use of minimally processed local.
  • Complexity and Order – replicating spatial and pattern diversity and hierarchy like that found in nature.

‘Artwall’ installation, made from site remnants, replicating natural forms at Tanner Springs Park. Photo by Jenny Cestnik (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Biophilic design and biomorphism play on our innate connection to nature as humans, seeking to satisfy design harmony and beauty through symbolic references in texture, patterns, contours, and arrangements. Nature is inherently rich and complex through its integrated ecological and geological systems. Replicating this diversity and interconnectedness can yield richly built spaces capable of evoking similar conscious and subconscious reactions.

Bug Dome is a bamboo shelter modeled after mounds created by insects. It was created from site materials as to return to the natural environment when it is no longer needed. Public Domain photo: Härmägeddon.

It should be clear the principles are not simply formal as explored here. Each can be applied to functional systems by designers in realizing sustainable solutions. Natural imitation is a valid and effective strategy within green design and green infrastructure. A holistic approach to applying natural forms and systems into/onto our built environment for building sustainability is well worth investigation.

Replica of the ancient Lepidodendrons or giant clubmosses at the Evolution Garden. Photo: Creative Commons

Replica of the ancient Lepidodendrons or giant clubmosses at the Evolution Garden. Photo: Creative Commons

Species come and go, sometimes as part of the evolutionary process of natural selection, other times due to natural catastrophes, or in the worst case, for anthropogenic factors. Unlike animals, plants don’t have any mechanism for surviving if their habitat is destroyed. Hence, they are more vulnerable to extinction; and even when they do survive, they can’t spread because new soil conditions favor other dominant species. Of the 30,000 plant species known to mankind, 12,914 of them have been evaluated, and is estimated that 68% of these are threatened species (Source: IUCN 2016).

The number makes sense when put in the context that more than 99 percent of all species that ever lived on Earth are now extinct. According to American biologist, researcher, and environmental theorist E.O. Wilson, by the year 2100 it is estimated that half of the current species inhabiting this planet, plant and animals, will be extinct. We are experiencing what scientist call “the sixth wave” of extinctions in the past half-billion years. The normal rate of extinction was about one to five species a year, but now it is 1,000 to 10,000 times this rate.

De-extinction is the process of bringing extinct plants and animals species back to life through cloning or selective breeding/seeding. Botanists and paleobotanists are now investigating this technique to resurrect ancient plants to our modern world. In 2012, National Geographic published an online article about Silene stenophylla, the oldest plant to be regenerated, which was grown from 32,000-year-old seeds. The efforts were led by a Russian team and they managed to germinate new seeds, using plant material trapped in the ice 124 feet below ground. The experiment suggests that the permafrost might be a depository for ancient plant and animal material.

With all of the controversy attached to de-extinction, this could be a corrective solution to our modern problem, but the mindset should change before going into this. It never hurts to remind that first mankind must take the preventive solutions to the possible extent, by avoiding activities that could end up destroying our biodiversity.

As landscape architects, we could look at what we have done with cycads– usually planted in interpretive and educational gardens – one of the oldest plants specimens to ever grow in our planet. And yet, their palmetto-looking form makes it fit for the aesthetical appeal in the profession. Can we picture now true prehistoric gardens in our communities? What about restoring entire plant communities? Only time will tell whether the era of the Anthropocene will be catastrophic or one of revitalization through technology…