Some Preliminary Thoughts on Conscience and Biophilia


By Michael Bryan

Humans arguably have a genetically determined capacity to empathize to some degree, to consider themselves from the viewpoint of another, and to imaginatively place themselves in the viewpoint of another. Together with our prosocial nature, these capacities are called conscience and underpin ethics, much of religion’s moral precepts, politics, law, and human social life.

While we have a psychological basis in the brain for such feelings and intuitions, our culture develops, refines and conditions our actual ethical/moral behavior by building upon that biological bedrock. For instance, the circle of a human’s ethical concern might naturally be constrained to those just like them, i.e. their own tribe, with outsiders falling into a category of “other” not requiring or eliciting the same level, or any, ethical obligations.

Some have theorized that the cultural phenomenon of religion has hijacked, or built upon our natural capacity for conscience to widen the circle of ethical concern to co-religionists, and even to the universe of all humans. Thus does culture reinforce, reify and widen the reach of our natural capacity for conscience, and turns it into the basis for ethics, religion, morality, philosophy, politics, law and hence into large-scale cooperative behavior. In recognizing that a fallow, culturally-undeveloped conscience is limited in its application to the complex social constructs and questions of a modern society, we might consider the innate capacity for love of the natural world that E.O. Wilson has termed “biophilia”.

Wilson has argued for the existence of an inbuilt sympathy for and love of the natural environs that we are part of. Surely all neurotypical humans have felt that biophilic capacity respond when immersed in a natural environment, when interacting with a non-human animal, or upon seeing the plight of a fellow creature in distress? However, that capacity for biophilia remains fallow and powerless to motivate collective social action toward its full realization in group behavior.

An important first step, perhaps, is to recognize the existence of the biophilic capacity, but the vital next step is to begin a cultural ramification and elaboration of that capacity, to expand behaviorally-relevant societal values based upon the capacity for those biophilic feelings. Unless we develop an ethics, morality, belief system, politics, and laws based upon the biophilic capacity, our biophilia remains a fallow feeling unable and unlikely to widely affect our collective behavior.

Ethics, morals, and law operate in large part by accurately comporting with the natural impulses of our consciences; doing what is ethical, moral, and legal is reinforced by aligning largely with the intuitions of our conscience. To develop the traditions, morals, and laws that will allow humanity to preserve the diversity of life and bio-service systems on which our own survival depends, those cultural constructs must align with, and be reinforced by our capacity for biophilia.

Preserving our species is only possible by protecting the biological context in which we emerged and grew to prominence. Our patrimony is the diversity of life and the environmental services the complex web of life provides us. These are the intellectual and common property of all mankind and we are destroying and depleting them due to a lack of ethics, morals, and law based on our biophilic capacities.

What is happening around us (the 6th great extinction, global climate change, the destruction of the ocean biomes) should shock and outrage us all, and personally, a lot of people do feel that way. But if it does not reach beyond outraging our individual biophilic feelings, it cannot motivate effective collective action.

Our survival as a species depends, in a very real sense, upon the cultural development of our collective capacity for biophilia into a complete and complex system of thought and belief. It is the charge of this generation of leaders to create such systems that resonate with our biophilia and goad us into effective societal action to save ourselves before it’s too late. This, I believe, is the highest calling of political leadership in today’s world.


  1. This is a deeply honest observation…. There are increasing numbers who realize that “paper water” rights will soon become water wars, at the worldwide level. The Desert Southwest will lead the ultimate need for effective policy in the US… I believe this Piece addresses a worthwhile set of talking points, and CD4 is a place where we are doing exactly that. The district has such a diverse range of water users, and my observation thus far is that Dr. David Brill is working to make sure he understands them from each constituents sets of needs. I believe it’s worth taking a look at what he is working to understand, and therefore, to accurately represent.

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