Biophilia and Biophobia: two sides of the same coin?


Many of us surely remember the 2007 film INTO THE WILD, directed by Sean Penn and based on the book Into the wild, written by Jon Krakauer, which tells the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless (1968-1992), a young traveller from the United States. After completing his studies, he began wandering in the western United States, driven by a desire to spend time in total solitude in the wilderness. He arrived in Alaska in April 1992, and people who met him on his journey testified that he took little food and inadequate equipment with him. Five months later, his lifeless body was found in an old bus in the wilderness that served as his home. It was later discovered that Christopher died of starvation or, perhaps, to poisoning from some seeds.

We do not know exactly what drove the boy to leave society behind and immerse himself in unknown and wild lands that do not forgive the smallest mistake. We do not know whether it was the search for an extreme aesthetic ideal, or an escape from family discomfort, as his sister later claimed.

“Into the wild” focused on Christopher's daily struggle against hunger and his will to survive. Recently, while rewatching this emotionally impactful film, I began reflecting on the concepts of biophilia and biophobia.

In this article:


Biophilia is our love for everything that is alive. Everything that is alive attracts humans and can elicit feelings of affiliation (=biophilia) as well as repulsion and aversion (=biophobia) (Ulrich, 1993).

According to the US biologist Edward Osborne Wilson, 'biophilia is not a single instinct but a complex of learning rules that can be studied and analysed individually. Feelings shaped by learning rules fall into different emotional spectrums: from attraction to aversion' (Wilson, 1993, p. 31).

Therefore, the concepts of biophilia and biophobia are inseparably linked, and perhaps we could say that they are two sides of the same coin, even though the two phenomena are often studied and treated separately.

Both have had a very specific evolutionary function. During the long years of evolution, our ancestors had to encounter and deal with not only the beauties of Nature but also the hostile forces present in wilderness environments. The learning rules that characterise biophilia and biophobia have become fixed in our behaviour and genetic heritage, contributing to improved efficiency in the research for resources and refuges.


In a survival context, our ancestors may not have been able to afford an unconditional love for Nature, but had to come to terms with its dangerous and negative aspects as well: predatory animals, poisonous plants and fruits, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, storms, often drastic changes in the climate due to natural causes, and many others.

This process of gathering experiences has probably cost many human lives but was also the reason for our evolutionary success. Therefore, even today, Nature is perceived by many people as both 'good', providing benefits and aesthetic enjoyment, and as 'bad' as it still has the potential to harm our health and survival.

When we are faced with a dangerous situation in Nature, the immediate emotion of fear confronts us with certain choices. Fear is a primary emotion, common to all mammals, including man. It is a defensive emotion, provoked by a dangerous situation that may be real, anticipated, remembered or even just a product of our imagination. Fear is often accompanied by an organic reaction triggered by the autonomic nervous system, which prepares the organism for an emergency situation. Defence is mainly translated into three attitudes: fight, freeze or flight.

Faced with 'good' Nature, however, we develop another type of response called 'rest and digest’ (relaxation).

Biophilia and biophobia are probably two sides of the same coin, and we must take them into account when talking about biophilic design, because not all individuals will appreciate direct contact with Nature in built environments in the same way.

I am reminded of the words I recently heard a Nature Guide say in a documentary about Nature in New Zealand:

"Nature is not dangerous or hostile; it is us humans who are not always perfectly equipped to face it."

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Bettina Bolten, Biophilic design consultant

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