An interview with Dr. Stephen R. Kellert about his new book, Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World.

What led you to write Birthright, and why now?

Can you share any experiences in your own journey discovering nature?

Can you discuss the balance between our innate “birthright” to nature and how such a connection might be learned?

What lessons can we learn from Birthright about nature in cities?

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Congratulations on your new book, Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World. What was the impetus that led you to write this book, and why now?

Well it’s a complicated answer, I’m afraid, but the notion of biophilia is something I’ve been working on for quite a few years since Edward Wilson and I co-edited a book back in 1993 called The Biophilia Hypothesis. Biophilia is this notion, as you probably know, that we have an inherent inclination to affiliate with nature that reflects our evolution in the natural world, not in an artificially created world such as dominates today. This inborn need, rather than being vestigial, continues to be instrumental in our health and our productivity and our physical and mental well-being. It’s a relatively simple concept: we have this inherent need, the evolutionary logic to affiliate with nature – which is relatively straightforward, because we evolved for more than 99 percent of our history in a natural context. But it is actually quite complicated, like most things with our species, as it gets revealed, especially in the modern world.

In my work, I believe the tendency to affiliate with nature is primarily expressed through a range of ways in which we attach meaning and potentially derive benefit from nature. These are quite diverse – everything from obvious things like material exploitation to less obvious things or things that tend to get trivialized or are deemed to be not important like our aesthetic attraction to nature but also the way in which nature informs our quest for meaning and purpose which you could call spirituality. Our affection for nature, but also our aversion to nature. And all of these represent a range of adaptive responses to the natural world, which I argue continue to enhance our well-being in various ways. So both explaining all these different ways in which we have this tendency to affiliate with nature and how they can be instrumental in a very fundamental way – our physical, emotional, intellectual, moral, spiritual selves – is complicated.

An additional complication is that, like most things human, this is not a hard-wired instinct, it’s a “soft-wired” or a weak biological tendency that depends very much on learning and experience and cultural support and a secure connection to place to become adaptive. And so that learning is interesting, but it is complicated because it allows us to stray from our biology and to learn things as individuals and as groups and as cultures, but it needs to be within these bounds of our biology. And we have this capacity, because these things have to be learned, to express these tendencies in both highly functional ways but also in dysfunctional ways. And that dysfunction can be at either end of the continuum. Any one of these ways of affiliating with nature can be insufficiently expressed or too exaggerated in their expression. There is a lot of individual and cultural variability in humans and we have this incredible capacity to go beyond our biology, which has been a hallmark of our evolution as a species, but it is a bio-cultural evolution, and that is a further complexity. And all this understanding has sort of nurtured and developed over the years, especially in the context of our modern society where we are increasingly disconnected from nature. And it’s causing all sorts of dysfunction as far as the adaptive and functional expression of these biophilic tendencies.

I wrote a book back in 1997 called Kinship to Mastery with the subtitle “Biophilia and Human Evolution and Development” and it was premature – it was an attempt to address some of the things I am talking about now, but it did not have, I believe, the necessary understanding that has kind of developed over the years. So I felt like Birthright was a book that needed to be written now, especially as biophilia has become a more accepted notion. It is great that it is more accepted, but it is often talked about in fairly simplistic ways without sufficient understanding of how complex our relationship is, especially our inborn relationship to the natural world. So that was one motivation for doing it now. And then another motivation was just that I wanted this book to be accessible in a way that perhaps hasn’t been written before – while I have a lot of theory and science in the book that talks about all the things I just addressed, I try to make it more accessible through a lot of storytelling and there are about 22 what I call “interludes” throughout the book which are everything from personal experience to explorations of other people and their relationship to nature, and even some fictional vignettes that try to talk about these things in a way that you can’t quite address through non-fiction.


I understand that your book traces the inherent relationship between people and nature. Can you share any particular experiences you have had in your own journey discovering your relationship with nature?

That’s a question that’s too big in the sense that you don’t want to be here all day or maybe many days because we all – and I’m not just trying to bring undue attention to myself – we all have a wealth of experiences with nature which are critical in our development, even ones that we forget. We all have childhood memories, somebody calls them “touchstone memories” that often are in nature. I don’t want to get too pedantic but we have to ask ourselves what do we mean by nature? If you just think of it as the non-human world or the world beyond ourselves, it has a lot of different ways of expressing itself. Sure, in spectacular areas like Yellowstone or the African Savannah if you get to visit there or great mountain ranges or the Grand Canyon, but nature is also experienced in very mundane and everyday ways – that is self-sustaining nature whether it be trees that grow in your backyard where you grew up or a local park or whatever it might be. And then there is indirect nature, which is nature that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for us constantly providing inputs, like a pet animal or a potted plant or an aquarium or a pond that you created or a backyard garden or a flowerbed. And then there is nature that is very vicarious and symbolic and representational and that is all around us since we spend most of our time indoors. Unfortunately we have done a pretty bad job of it in modern architecture, but it is still all around us in furnishings, in materials, in patterns, in pictures on the wall and screensavers, in how light and space is manipulated in the indoor environment and in lots of other ways.

We all have many memories whether it be as a kid playing in the backyard or a bush – it might be nothing from the perspective of an adult, but it might have been a world of wonder as a kid when you built a little hiding place or a fort or a treehouse or whatever it might be. They were places near home, but they were independent, those places that we first strayed out and played with being independent or autonomous. We all have thousands of memories like these that I would argue are very important in development. Most children’s books, the great majority of characters, even if they are fantasy characters, are drawn from nature. Ninety percent of children’s books have animals in them.

So I have had a lot of experiences, to get back to the question, that were deeply meaningful, some in spectacular places I talk about in the book, in Africa, in mountain ranges, or encountering wolves in wilderness areas, and then I’ve had many many mundane experiences that were very profoundly meaningful – as a child and even to this day – in the book I talk about a local park where I take my dogs just about every morning, and the rhythms and the details, nuances, changes and surprises and uncertainties – all these things which you experience when you encounter nature on a regular basis have been very meaningful as well. I’m not trying to duck the question, but there are just so many experiences that were meaningful in this journey of discovery of my own relationship to nature, and again all of our relationships with nature – part of why nature is so meaningful is because it is a journey of discovery, it is the most information-rich and challenging environment that we’ll ever encounter even in a world of complex technology. Unlike a computer, a lot of it is coping with uncertainty and challenge and fear, especially as a child. And that is an important part of its extraordinary impact on us.


Can you talk about the balance between our innate “birthright” to a connection with nature and the ways in which such a connection might be learned throughout one’s life?

As I mentioned, it is an innate connection, rather an innate desire to affiliate, but it is a birthright that has to be earned. We all have tendencies to eat, and that’s a pretty hard-wired instinct. But how it is revealed is quite diverse. We have such an ability to manipulate our biology and so you have a tendency to eat, but if you eat all fried foods that isn’t going to be too good for you. And so we all have this innate tendency to affiliate with nature, but it has to be nurtured and developed, and as I say it’s a birthright that needs to be earned. The word balance is a good one – like many things it is contingent upon learning but builds upon an instinctual tendency. I mean it could be either learned insufficiently, and then the tendency might atrophy and we might not get much benefit from it – somebody who has no affection for nature, who has no inclination to utilize nature who has no fear of nature who has no aesthetic attraction to nature – again all these different tendencies – will be deprived in many basic ways from benefiting from nature.

On the other hand, at the other extreme, it can be just as dysfunctional. You can over-exploit nature, you can try to over-control and dominate nature. You can love nature too much. All these tendencies to affiliate with nature have to occur in balance. But within those two extremes, there is a wide opportunity for expression, a lot of diversity and variety that occurs across individuals and cultures that can be adaptive. That is one of the really special things about humanity is our diversity. But it is diversity that is not infinitely plastic – it can’t assume every possible form, or you go beyond the bounds of our biology – then you get dysfunction. So it has to be in balance, although that balance has a wide latitude.


In our rapidly urbanizing world, what lessons can we learn from Birthright about the role of nature in cities?

I’ve been interested in cities for a long time, and I’ve been very interested in the design of structures, especially urban structures. The reality of our world is that we spend ninety percent of our time indoors and in the U.S. I think it is over eighty percent of the population now lives in an urban area. And for the first time in human history we now have the majority of the world’s population living in urban areas. So, barring catastrophe, that’s where people want to be: in a built environment, in an urban built environment, spending most of their time indoors. This does not eliminate the need to affiliate with nature; it just makes its satisfactory accomplishment that much more challenging. And that’s where your Biophilic Cities Project work becomes, I think, so relevant. The big question is how can we live in a compatible and nurturing and positive and beneficial and harmonious relationship to the world beyond ourselves, to nature, in an increasingly urban and built world. And it can occur in many many ways, but like I say it is more challenging.

I conclude Birthright with a final interlude, which is a fictitious interlude that focuses on a young woman, she’s in her twenties, she’s working with a marketing and advertising firm in an urban area, she lives in a small apartment, it’s New York City, and she’s basically a happy person and she has good friends and a nice family, she kind of likes her job. Yet she feels like something is lacking in her life – and she wishes there was more meaning, more connection, whatever – and she reads this article (that this hypothetical person writes) about the importance of nature and its role in human physical and mental well-being, and how you can bring nature into your life even in the most urban areas. After she reads the article, she starts to make changes in everything from the décor of her apartment, to how she spends her recreational pastime, to some of the interests she develops to some of the places she travels to. And she brings nature into her life in so many different direct and indirect representational ways, and it enriches her life tremendously – physically, emotionally, intellectually, but also spiritually. It gives her a greater sense of meaning and purpose through those connections. The last chapter is called “Ethics and Everyday Life” – I just want to end the book (even though I’d been dealing with these issues throughout the book in a focused way) on how you can bring nature into your everyday life even in the most urban areas, even if you are a young person with limited resources living in a high rise apartment in the most urban of environments.


Is there anything else you would like to share about the new book, your current work, or any future projects we should keep an eye out for?

I’m working on a couple of projects right now – one is I’m trying to establish a Global Institute for Biophilic Studies, which will explore the various ways nature is related to our health and well-being. It will have program areas in childhood development, in the built environment, in health, in the natural environment, and in values and ethics. I’m hoping that will happen, and there will be many affiliated organizations, universities, and people around the world that will network through this Global Institute of Biophilic Studies.

The second is a project of the Global Institute (GIBS for short), a project we just started which is a national initiative to understand and connect Americans and nature. The first phase is underway and it is being supported by the Department of the Interior, a number of states around the country, and the Disney Corporation. This project will try to generate understanding of the relationship of Americans and nature and the role it plays in people’s lives in our country. Based on the results of that study, we will make all sorts of recommendations for changes to programs at the government and non-government level.

The third project I would like to mention is related to biophilic design. And biophilic design, like biophilia, is something that is very simple, but how it expresses itself and how you implement it is very complicated and it can be really trivialized by silly, superficial things that people do, but it needs to be much deeper than that. So the whole area of how we design and develop our built world through biophilic design is very challenging – we created a film called “Biophilic Design The Architecture of Life” which tries to get into biophilic design in a way that the book doesn’t, more visually.

The final thing I would mention is I co-edited a book that just came out this past spring called Companions in Wonder with the subtitle “Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together” with a woman named Julie Dunlap. One of the real challenges as I mentioned before of developing these biophilic tendencies is to do so during childhood, which is, AS you know, the most important learning period. And yet children are increasingly disconnected from nature. Children are now on average spending 52 hours per week in front of a monitor and only 40 minutes outside. You can still connect to nature on an electronic monitor, but it is a different kind of experience. And so the whole problem of reconnecting children with nature is a great challenge and one of the things about doing so is that children need mentors. Now of course the most important mentors are adults like parents. The title Companions in Wonder is taken from Rachel Carson’s notion of a sense of wonder and how important that is in childhood and how important this experience of nature is in developing that sense of wonder. The book is a contributed volume, and there are many different essays by some great writers who talk about either their own childhoods or their experience with children, often their own children.


Interview by Julia Triman, Biophilic Cities Project Researcher 

Julia is a Masters Candidate in Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia.