Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Evolution and Valuing Nature

Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale and the author of Descartes’ Baby argues argues that our psychological responses to nature result from evolutionary pressures. We are all “irrepressible taxonomizers”, he claims, a vestige of our evolutionary past in a world in which organizing the world into categories carried distinct survival benefits. After all, knowing predator from prey can be the difference between an untimely death and a quick meal. If this account is accurate, then Darwin’s own intense devotion to the classification of mussels resulted from the very same evolutionary mechanism which he would later propose!

Bloom further argues that our appreciation of nature – ethical, aesthetic, etc. – results from similarly deep-seated psychological traits, again, evolutionary holdouts. Appropriating E.O. Wilson’s “biophilia” hypothesis, Bloom argues that the vast quantity of empirical evidence suggesting some general human valuation of nature – for example, preference for landscape paintings – suggests some sort of evolutionary cause. (For a critique of Wilson's theories, and evolutionary psychology generally, see Darwin's Legacy.) While Bloom recognizes that the descriptive claim that humans value nature cannot generate any evaluative claim concerning the protection of the natural world, he does argues that the psychological benefits of exposure to nature do support the definition of nature as a good. Hence, although scientific theories cannot make value judgments, they can inform them. Of course, he concedes, “indiscriminate biophilia” makes little sense in an increasingly a-natural world. However, if correct, such psychological theories could generate novel arguments for the preservation of nature.

Interestingly, Bloom draws on the writings of Dennis Dutton, whose theories of art underlie much of his arguments on the psychology of nature. I had the pleasure (no pun intended) of hearing Dutton speak at a lecture at Stanford University earlier this year. While controversial – Dutton made comments were provocative regardless of which side of the analytical/continental philosophical divide one happens to fall, including a shot at a certain Bay Area philosopher – Dutton’s speech was interesting in that it provided a link between evolutionary biology and aesthetics. Roughly, the topic of the talk was the same as the article: the evolutionary nature of aesthetic values. Dutton claims that this nature might ground something like objective aesthetic values, in contrast with conventional views of aesthetics which its values as subjective. I strongly recommend to anyone interested in art and biology to look into this further.

Bloom is currently writing a book on pleasure.

Ben Picozzi

1 comment:

Denis Dutton said...

Thanks, Ben. Glad you liked the talk. You may find the back of your head in the photo at

Scroll down. Lots of reviews there too, as well at the talk I gave at Google earlier that day.

Best wishes,