Monday, January 14, 2013

That Biophilia Thing

One big happy family, we and our fellow travelers on this moving rock!

Nope, I'm not talking about singer Bj√∂rk’s music, nor am I referring to the display at the Children's Museum of Manhattan currently running with that Icelandic star's partnership.  I'm going all the way back to the beginning:  1984 (spooky, huh?) and Edward O. Wilson's publication of The Biophilia Hypothesis.  The hypothesis stated that humans are drawn to other life forms.  In his own words, we have "an innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes."  That explains a lot, don't you think?

More recently--2009--a study by Grite and Grindal (Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being?) attempted to and at least partially succeeded in determining whether contact with Nature was a boon to human  health.  They did manage to determine that a lack of visual contact with nature, as in inner-city living with all its mechanical and brick-and-mortar specialties, led to declining health.  To wit:

The hypothesis that humans have an inherent inclination to affiliate with Nature has been referred to as biophilia [1,2]. Biophilia implies affection for plants and other living things. Cities and indoor environments are dominated by manmade objects; the question is whether the concomitant depletion of natural elements has a negative impact on the human mind.

The research is a study of documentation, not research in the sense that we in college were subjected to such fun activities as sensory deprivation chambers in order to muster enough participation time to earn our Psych degrees.  No humans were harmed in the making of this paper.

So, the hypothesis, proven by abstraction from multiple academic sources, is that we're better off when we are at least visually in touch with Nature.  And I can't help but wonder why that was ever in doubt.  We wouldn't spend so much time posting photos of kittens and flowers if we didn't feel the tug.  The bigger question, in my mind, is whether or not Nature is better off when we're in contact.
Which came first, the chicken, the egg, or the geneticist?

The horse world is full of examples of Good Plans Gone Bad.  Our desire to be One with Nature has led to our desire to manipulate Nature, not just to cajole her into giving us her best.  We want to meddle, tinker, and do all of it with the stipulation that the Save Harmless clause is carved in stone.  We don't like to take responsibility for all that human-centric fun.

It's not just the horse world that's culpable in this messing around with Mother Nature faux pas.  But this is, after all, a horse blog, so that's where I'm going with this.  One thing about horse people, we will never make the grade as the "non-participant observers" anthropologist Margaret Mead so often warned us to be. She learned from her fateful intervention with the Trobriand Islanders that the minute you stir the alien pot with even one little finger and the best of intentions, the unintended consequences jump up to bite you in the ass.

Here we are, some 85 years post-Mead, 28 years past Harvard entymologist Wilson's Hypothesis, and we're doing a fine job of doing a terrible job of our fascination with how other living things work.  We've entered a new phase, which is good.

The fascination with growing our own food is part and parcel of the affinity for living organisms.  It doesn't have to walk to be alive, you know.  That the likes of Monsanto have taken tinkering with food genetics to a rotten new level is obvious and annoying, but it's the natural outcome of our desire to make things "better".  And we have on occasion waved a daisy at the idea of "natural" means of communication with various animal species, horses in particular.  But overlying it all is our inherent Human Superiority that seems to give us privileges that other species have yet to earn.  Like, never in history has a horse taken a herd of humans and moved them into the open plains and tried to teach them to live the horse life, but we do the reverse to them all the time then dedicate ourselves to changing their behavior to make it fit.  It's all about opposable thumbs and the invention of the internet.

Just look at my horses in their (relatively) small pasture, which is beggared by the size of the plains they were built to roam.  Look at their plaid and hot pink and carefully tailored blankets.  How chic!  Watch them march into their stalls for breakfast and dinner and dutifully perform their tricks for the cookies in my pocket.  Wow.  And not one of them has escaped the genetic manipulation that comes of keeping breeds "true" or crossing for specific qualities without considering what other qualities that we don't want are coming along for the ride.  Everything in my barn is "registered", so everything has met human tests of special-ness.

And this probably accounts for Zip's orthopedic issues, Pokey's squamous cell carcinoma, Dakota's inability to bend his short spine in any meaningful way, and Duke's attitude that far outsizes his actual 34.5-inch stature.  With the good comes the bad.  We've done wonders to overcome disease in many lifeforms, including our own, and in that area our tinkering is something to be proud of.  But we already know there's going to be a downside because there always is.  It's coming.  Wait for it.

"Do no harm" would be a suitable mantra at this juncture, but are we capable of that?  I'm not so sure.


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