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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

December 23, 1994

Air Date: December 23, 1994


Need for Nature

Host Steve Curwood explores the “biophilia hypothesis” — a new scientific theory which says people depend on the variety of life . . . other animal and plant species . . . for their well-being. Edward O. Wilson of Harvard, a chief proponent of the theory, says that, if he’s right, preserving biological diversity could be the key to future human survival. (Encore) (14:15)

Northeast Old Growth

Steve travels into the forest of western Massachusetts with old-growth hunter Bob Leverette. Leverette is documenting the large and small old-growth stands that remain in the northeastern U.S. (Encore) (08:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Laura Carlson, Ingrid Lobet, Jennifer Schmidt
GUESTS: Edward O. Wilson, Bob Leverette

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Throughout history, poets, philosophers, and artists have extolled the beauty of nature and its effect on the human spirit. Now biologist Edward O. Wilson wonders if our joys and our fears of the natural world are partly encoded in our genes.

WILSON: People readily develop phobias, deep, aversive responses to snakes, to running water, to spiders, and to dogs, but not to the dangers that actually surround us in modern, urban civilization. Not the knives, not the guns.

CURWOOD: Also, most of the forests of the northeast have been logged several times over, but there are still pockets of old growth trees with tales to tell about our country's history. Those stories this week on this encore presentation of Living On Earth, right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living On Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. The fight which began over the northern spotted owl and grew in to one of the most contentious resource battles in recent years may finally be resolved. A federal judge in Seattle has approved the Clinton administration's Northwest forest plan which allows as much logging as possible while still protecting the owl. From KPLU, Jennifer Schmidt reports.

SCHMIDT: The administration's plan protects nearly 10 million acres of forest but allows a quarter of the region's remaining old growth to be cut. Both the timber industry and environmental groups oppose the plan. The timber industry argued it's illegal because it was crafted in secret and doesn't allow enough logging. Environemtalists said it allows too much logging. But Judge William Dwyer ruled neither side made it's case, and in a warning to the administration, the judge noted that the forest plan now allows for the maximum amount of logging possible and said that any additional timber sales would probably violate the law. If the ruling is upheld, it will mark the first time the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have worked together to preserve ecosystems. Environmental and timber groups are considering whether to appeal, and it's expected Congress will take up the issue next year. For Living On Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.

NUNLEY: Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt calls his decision not to use his administrative powers to increase grazing fees on public lands a "tactical retreat." He hopes that by doing so the administration can salvage some of its grazing reform plans. Babbitt, who had long fought for the hike, now says any increase will be left up to the incoming republican controlled congress. The GOP and western Democrats had blocked earlier attempts to legislate higher fees.

President Clinton's proposed budget cuts would slice more than 4 billion dollars from the cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities. That could mean even more trouble at heavily contaminated sites, including Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. From KPLU, Ingrid Lobet reports.

LOBET: Despite a 1.5 billion dollar a year clean up budget, a recent Government Accounting Office study reports clean up at Hanford is proceeding at a glacial pace. The report cites a backlog of 1500 projects, and that backlog could lengthen with DOE cuts. Energy Department spokesman Keith Taylor says the government is already cutting some of the unnecessary bureaucracy cited in the GAO report. But he says even with streamlining, DOE will still have to reevaluate it's current cleanup agreements and that will probably mean focusing on only the higher risk problems. Jerry Gilleland of the Washington State Department of Ecology says it's fine if the federal government wants to cut waste in it's budget , but the State will object if the cuts are going to mean a further slowdown in cleanup efforts. The Hanford Reservation is believed to be the Energy Department's most contaminated site. it includes, among other things, acres of storage tanks filled with radioactive slurry, many of which the Energy Department acknowledges are leaking. For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Seattle.

NUNLEY: NASA scientists say they've found the smoking gun proving that synthetic chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC's, are responsible for the destruction of the earth's ozone layer. Data collected by satellite over three years confirms scientists' long standing theories. The chemicals are being phased out under an international agreement. Some critics had challenged earlier evidence and charged that the phaseout was unnecessary.

The battle over car emission standards isn't over despite EPA's decision to allow 12 northeast states to adopt California's tough clean air regulations. EPA chief Carol Browner says talks will resume in January on a compromise between carmakers and states. Automakers want a nationwide plan less strict than California standards. But Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut say no compromise will be clean enough. They plan to go ahead with the stricter requirements, reducing hydrocarbon emissions by 70 percent and forcing automakers to sell some electric cars by 1998.

The smog dogs are being let loose in Phoenix, next month the city will start its first-in-the-nation use of remote sensing equipment to check vehicle emissions without stopping drivers. Laura Carlson explains.

CARLSON: They're called "Smog Dogs" because the new sensors are able to sniff out polluting vehicles which otherwise have managed to escape detection. Six specially equipped vans will monitor passing traffic at locations throughout the Phoenix area. First time offenders will receive a warning in the mail. Drivers caught twice in one year will be required to report to an emissions inspection station or lose their vehicle registration. Supporters say the remote sensors will prevent people from tampering with their cars between required bi-annual inspections. Critics charge the technology is new and unproven and should be used only to audit the state's emissions testing program rather than to nab individual drivers. For Living On Earth, I'm Laura Carlson in Phoenix.

That's this week's Living On Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Need for Nature

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Running water, bird song)

CURWOOD: The pleasure of flowers. The fear of the dark. These are such universal human responses that it's hard to think that science would need to explain them. But there is growing scientific interest in the idea that responses to nature have been passed down through human evolution. That they are embedded in our genes. Edward O. Wilson:

WILSON: Sure, everybody likes nature. They will travel hundreds of miles just to stand on a seashore and see a sunset. They will crowd into national parks after traveling other hundreds of miles and so on. They have this powerful attraction. If not that, then they must go fishing; they must go hunting, or its equivalent, bird-watching and the like. This is an extremely important part of human life. And I believe then the specificity of this tells us a great deal about who we are as a species, and what we really need from the world around us.

CURWOOD: Edward O. Wilson is a Harvard biologist and a 2-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Fifteen years ago he coined the term biophilia to describe his theory that we as humans, in fact, all life forms, have a natural need to respond to other life forms. We all share the same basic system of genetic codes, whether we're lowly bacteria, majestic oak trees, or brilliant mathematicians. And we evolve together in ecosystems. So, Professor Wilson says, it's only natural that we should have a built-in relationship to other parts of the living world. Attractions and fears which are far stronger than those evoked by our own creations.

(Orchestral music)

CURWOOD: You scan your local front page as you hustle to get ready for work. A fiery car crash has killed a married couple and left their 2 children clinging to life in a hospital. How horrible, you think, as you rush out the door and into your own car. You don't have a second thought about getting in and heading out onto the freeway. There's no impulsive fear at the sight of the potentially deadly machine, or the sound of its revving engine, though more than 100 people are killed in car crashes in the US every day. But as you turn to back out of your driveway and glance at the back shelf, you gasp in horror and freeze at the sight of a giant spider. After composing yourself for a second or two, you look more closely and notice that it's not moving. Still closer inspection makes you feel quite stupid; it's made of plastic. A joke left by your kids.

WILSON: It's a remarkable fact that we have the propensity to develop phobias, meaning deep, autonomic, averse response. Cold sweats. Panic. The inability to shed them with therapy. For the ancient naturally, natural enemies of humankind, for example, people readily develop phobias, deep, aversive responses to snakes, to running water, to closed spaces, to heights, to spiders, and to dogs, but not to the dangers that actually surround us in modern, urban civilization. Not the knives, not the guns, and not to electric sockets or speeding automobiles.

CURWOOD: Professor Wilson says primitive responses are logical, because the human brain evolved in a world of plants and animals. Not a world of machines and asphalt. And compared to the hundreds of thousands of years humans have forged on Earth, it's been just a blink of an eye since agriculture and industry began to separate us from the rest of the natural world. Still, he says, it's a tough idea to embrace. Especially tough, perhaps, for scientists.

(Human ululation; sounds spooky and meditative at once)

WILSON: Biophilia is very much related to emotions, and furthermore, to emotions that are very ancient and not easily expressed because they fall outside this sphere of social intercourse. And therefore very difficult to put into words.

CURWOOD: For Professor Wilson, the question gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Are we a part of nature? Or do our intellectual, cultural, and technical capabilities place us beyond nature? He says the question is crucial today because so many plants, animals, and natural places are disappearing, never to return.

WILSON: There are 2 fundamentally different, even polar views of humanity's place in the world. One of them has us as being completely freed from nature, and therefore any world that we make that could be moderately comfortable and interesting in, then that might be free of nature, is humanity's destiny. We make our own destiny. The other very different view is that we are part of nature, that our mind has evolved, so as to be affiliated closely with the remainder of life and dependent upon certain configurations of it and an abundance of it and a great variety of it. That, that type of response to nature was of great survival value through the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, and it cannot be erased by concrete buildings and high tech. So that is the question before us today. Which of those 2 human species are we?

(Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring)

CURWOOD: The spring breeze rustles the new leaves and fills the air with a sweet, unmistakable scent. A group of early humans scans the area, committing the location of the flowering trees to memory. They know that where there are flowers now, there are likely to be fruits or nuts in another few months. This is a place to remember. Another group of modern humans is also eager to capture a memory of such a place. They spill off a tour bus. Cameras are clicking; it's just the right time to get pictures of the famous cherry blossoms along the tidal basin in their nation's capitol. Professor Wilson says it just makes sense, really. We call it instinct when a dog chases a cat. But the very qualities which we like to think separate us from other animals - reason and enlightenment - often cause us not to recognize our own instincts. Steven Kellert is a professor of environmental studies at Yale University, who recently edited a book of essays on biophilia with Professor Wilson.

KELLERT: It's a type of predisposition, if you will, a genetic tendency which are greatly influenced by human experience, culture, and in effect learning, and in the absence of cultural and experiential support it can become atrophied and stunted.

CURWOOD: Isn't this something that people have known and written about for centuries?

KELLERT: I think so. I think that we've intuitively recognized it to a large degree, certainly poets and philosophers have been very articulate and persuasive and profound in extolling the way in which humans derive emotional and intellectual sustenance from their relationship to nature. But I think that we haven't demonstrated it, particularly in a scientific way. I think we also haven't identified the full range of ways in which we derive benefit from nature, from our aesthetic appreciation of nature, which we often think of as a cultured or cultivated trait rather than something that has a biological basis.

(Music with percussion, rattles, drums)

CURWOOD: A herd of gazelles grazes peacefully on an African plain. Some of the graceful, slender animals catch a break from the blazing tropical sun under a grove of trees. Others seem to be drinking from a small pond: a rare find if it's really there. Suddenly, almost as one, their heads snap up. Their ears twitch. Their noses tests the soft breeze. Another minute, and the herd is racing away, a cloud of horns, flanks and tails flying across the landscape.

(Birdsong, crickets)

CURWOOD: To tourists watching from afar through high-powered binoculars, it's a once in a lifetime experience: the natural world at its most glorious and untamed. To a small band of their ancestors crossing the plain 5,000 generations before, it's also a meaningful experience. If they can catch one of the gazelles they'll eat for a couple of days. Even if they don't, the herd provides crucial information about the environment. It says water is here, and their placid grazing at first indicated that the area was safe: no lions or other predators around. And then their sudden flight also warned the relatively unprotected humans to be on guard for a possible threat.

(Percussive music returns)

CURWOOD: So, not only did other animals and plants give humans food and materials, they also told us about resources and threats in our surroundings. The early humans that learn these lessons well were favored for survival. Professor Wilson says we carry these ancient lessons with us today, in our near-universal human desires to have contact with certain animals, foods, even landscapes.

WILSON: The reason why is very much a question of evolution. The prevailing idea is that humanity evolved in savannah, park land, along the edge of water, with bunches of trees available for retreat but with an open prospect all around to see potential food, game, and enemies. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that we have very strong residue of that type of preference alive within us today. And here we have something that does run across cultures from Babylon to MesoAmerica, back to the formal gardens of Europe and on to the exquisite gardens of old China and Japan, where we find people typically building small or sometimes large houses that serve as retreats, surrounded by vegetation, and looking out over swards with beautifully arranged trees and ponds, or lakes. And to, in many cases, animals, from peacocks to cattle and horses. And so this appears to be a configuration which arises many times.

CURWOOD: Some might say that these are just nice things that you described. Well of course, it's obvious that people like some water and some trees, but that doesn't mean it's biophilia or some scientific theory.

WILSON: Yes. What is pleasant to people, what they accept and what they have been drawn to all their lives seems perfectly obvious, so what's the need of an explanation? This is the same category of why is sugar sweet? And that might seem to be a trivial question, quite pointless. Until we come to related issues, such as why do people so like fat? Well, these are the very foods that were scarcest and highest in caloric value, so why do we like sweets and fat? There's a reason, very likely, in our evolutionary history.

(Meditative music)

CURWOOD: Okay, the biophilia hypothesis. What does it mean for us as humans?

WILSON: It's very important to us for several reasons. First of all, it tells us something about who we are as a human species. It is potentially a very important part of human history, what I call deep history. That is, genetic history. And then the question is of fundamental importance in conservation. If it is true that humanity makes itself completely, that we are capable of living happily and fully developed as human beings in a world of steel and stone, or out there in satellites colonizing space, if we're capable of that, of finding our fulfillment in other ways that has nothing to do with a living world, then the argument might be made for getting rid of most of the rest of life, at least most of the variety of life. Most of the natural ecosystems. On the other hand, if we do have this biophilic nature deep within us, which I believe is the case, then we are committing a tragic mistake from our own selfish point of view in disposing the rest of life and not paying more attention to the conservation of living forms. So as to give the maximum potential for aesthetic and psychological development and a healthy life for our descendants.

CURWOOD: Edward O. Wilson, University Professor at Harvard, and editor, along with Steven Kellert, of the new Island Press book of essays, The Biophilia Hypothesis.

Back to top

Do you agree? Is there a biophilia response in humans? Call our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988.

(music fades out)

Northeast Old Growth

CURWOOD: Old-growth forests: usually one thinks of the Pacific Northwest, where the largest tracts of virgin forest in the continental United States still exist. But even such densely populated states as Massachusetts have patches of old-growth forest. Not much, just tiny artifacts of what originally covered much of the eastern United States.

LEVERETT: The colonial side of New England, which attracts so many people is great, but it misses something. There's a precolonial and to have it all here from presettlement forests to colonial America to post colonial America, we've got it all right here in this state.

CURWOOD: Bob Leverett is a computer consultant in Holyoke, Massachusetts. But on weekends, and many days in between, he becomes a natural historian. He scouts out and documents stands of old growth trees. Here in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, they range in size from a couple of acres to a couple of hundred. On a cold winter's morning in the country town of Charlemont, a hundred miles or so west of Boston, Bob Leverett takes us into the Mohawk State Forest.

LEVERETT: This spot is the confluence of Black Brook and Cole River. There's somewhere between 3 and 5 hundred acres of what we would call the ancient or presettlement forest.

CURWOOD: I am going to need both hands for this, aren't I . . .

(Sound of climbing)

CURWOOD: Hand over hand, searching for footholds, we pull ourselves up the steep side of the ridge. We grab onto thin tree trunks and shrubs which grow straight out from the nearly vertical face of the slope and then take a sharp turn skyward. Near the top we stop in what looks like a rather unassuming spot. But to the trained eye of a natural historian, it's easy to see that these trees have remained undisturbed for more than two centuries.

LEVERETT: Look at this one over here, Steve. The coloration on this is toward the cinnamon and I have not found any trees of sucacana Canadensis that have this coloration and depth of furrowing that have been under 150 years and typically they are over two. This is probably a 230 to 250 year old tree. If you look at the younger trees, you can find younger trees around, probably have to walk over this way a little ways because almost all of these are over here, so you've gotta -- now you'll notice that there the bark is thinner and thickness of bark is certainly an indication of age. Size is much much less so.

CURWOOD: Rooted only in a very thin layer of topsoil and on the exposed side of the ridge, the growth of the trees is stunted. But while that steep slope slowed tree growth, it also saved the land from being cleared. There are some big trees ahead, our guide says, though they make up only a tiny fraction of the ancient forest. We hike a little further along the backbone of the ridge and then down the inside of the north slope of the gorge. Here protected from the elements, we find them.

CURWOOD: Hey hey, now, take a look at this size of this one. This is a pretty big tree here.

LEVERETT: Yeah, this is monster-sized. What what we're doing here is we're getting a circumference measurement on it.

CURWOOD: Too thick for two people to reach around, the huge hemlock towers more than a hundred feet above the forest floor. Leverett estimates the tree is 250 to maybe 300 years old, and there are five or six such giants scattered over an acre or two of land.

LEVERETT: Now you notice over here on this ridge, you've got a big patch of hemlock. Now that is old forest in there and it's old forest right around in this bowl, but it is not all uniformly hemlock. A lot of it is yellow birch, black birch, sugar maple, white ash, red maple. As you look up that side you also see stems of white birch. Now if we start seeing too much white birch then that really spells major disturbance and opening. Toward the top it probably reflects colonial or post colonial fires coming from I would imagine clearing operations from the top. Slash catching on fire. But it comes to the edge and essentially then most of it stops. These north facing bowls just don't burn.

CURWOOD: The north facing slopes hold moisture better, so it was harder for settlers to burn away the trees and clear the land for pasture. Just as Brazilian settlers today make their way deeper and deeper into the Amazon, Americans worked their way out from the East Coast, slashing and burning as they went, leaving only pockets of virgin vegetation in their wake.

CURWOOD: Now with the vegetation are there other animals or other creatures or other plants that can only be in this kind of old growth forest?

LEVERETT: Probably not. These areas are far too small, fragmented to harbor any species that are strictly associated with old growth. We haven't found any in Massachusetts.

CURWOOD: No spotted owl, is here?

LEVERETT: No spotted owl in these areas.

CURWOOD: Although no unique plant or animal species have yet to be identified in the tiny old growth stands in Massachusetts, there are other tracts of old growth forest in the East which Leverett says may be more important biologically. In the Adirondacks in New York and in northern Maine, for example, there are thousands of acres of ancient forest which Leverett says, are more than just historical curiosities, and which he says need protection.

LEVERETT: We have something here that is really priceless, it's precious. It's a piece of America that existed before European colonization. And it's is as much a piece of history as any item, any ship, any invention that we have. In a sense we've got one last chance to have a piece of our history, to be able to say that we as a species can live at harmony with land, but to do that people have got to know about it.

(Sound of running water)

LEVERETT: This is the Black Brook, what we call the Black Brook hemlock stand.

CURWOOD: Just a few acres here.

LEVERETT: Just a few acres. And what's nice here is someone could drive up this road leisurely and see these ancient trees. One of my objectives is to find places where people can get to and see. Because obviously, not everyone is going to do what we just did.

CURWOOD: And for those who can't make it to the woods, Leverett is collaborating on book that will document the story of the surviving forests of the East Coast from southern Canada to the southern United States. A series of old growth stands, in places people never thought to look.

Back to top


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is directed by Deborah Stavro and produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Our production team includes Con Von Hoffman, George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, and Julia Madeson. We had help from Jessika Bella Mura, David Dunlap, Jonathan Medwed and Heather Corson. Our engineer in the WBUR studio is Keith Shields. Michael Aharon composed our theme.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; also from the Joyce Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and the Jessie B. Cox Foundation for New England reporting.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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