When astronauts spend time in outer space, they often focus energy on life forms from Earth – such as the wheat cultivated on the Russian space station Mir by American astronaut John Blaha, and others, in the 1990s. One might wonder – of all the things to focus one’s energy on in outer space, why would someone choose to spend hours a day watching wheat grow?
The field of evolutionary psychology gives us good insights into the “wheat is interesting in space” phenomenon. Evolutionary Psychology is largely premised on the idea that the human mind includes a multitude of adaptations and psychological processes that evolved before the rise of large-scale civilization (as large-scale societies are relatively recent in terms of the evolutionary time scale – and the details of the human mind, that are with us today, evolved by-and-large before human groups expanded to the size of modern large-scale human communities). In modern contexts, we often find environments to be out of synch with our mental proclivities.
Being on a space station with some Russian guys is obviously cool, but is also evolutionarily unnatural – such a situation provides all kinds of stimuli and situations that would have never been encountered by our ancestors. From this perspective, it’s little wonder that astronauts will spend hours a day watching plants grow – as plant life has been part of all hominid environments – forever. And plants provide significant resources that humans have relied on for our entire existence.
I love the out-of-doors – and I think this love of mine for hiking, swimming, camping, etc., has some basis in human evolution. After all, I live in a Westernized place (New York), I have a nice office and a nice house – and I can drive to malls. Like most Americans, I don’t ever need to be outside unless I’m walking through a parking lot. But this summer, I’ve spent lots of time outside – and far away from parking lots at that! I’ve gone kayaking and swimming in Maine, hiking in Acadia (my son, Andrew, and I did the wickedly fun Beehive trail!), running on back roads of the Hudson Valley, camping in the deep woods of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and, with a group of old friends, I found myself hiking to the top of Mt. Greylock, the tallest peak in Massachusetts. And my daughter, Megan, and I still have our annual father/daughter camping trip to look forward to!
And based on the many other folks I know who are passionate about hiking, cycling, kayaking, running, swimming, camping, and more – I know I’m not alone. Why are so many of us so into the out-of-doors? Why don’t we just stay inside and watch reality TV in the air conditioned house? After all, reality TV often includes others in the outdoors – wouldn’t it be better to simply watch the brave souls on Survivor weather the elements from the comfort of our couch?
If you’re an outdoorsy sort like me, you can rest assured that evolutionary psychology can help explain what we do! Based on the idea that humans evolved in out-of-door environments for years, you would expect that humans have a natural inclination toward things found in nature – items that would have some bearing on survival. And, in fact, research shows that this is exactly the case. Atran (1998) has strongly documented that human cognitive processes are honed for nature – with people all across the world having dedicated psychology for categorizing plants versus animals, for instance.
Along these lines, there’s strong evidence that people are particularly attracted to natural environments that typify the African savanna that our ancestors evolved in (Orians & Heerwagen, 1992). We like to look at trees, animals, and water – and, of course, all these things had important implications for the survival and ultimate reproduction of our ancestors – so it makes good sense that we would have evolved to pay attention to these environmental features.
In a broad sense, the great evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson (1984) uses the term biophilia – the love of living things – to characterize the human mind – and for my money, this sounds spot-on. Next time you just want to jump in a lake on a summer day, hike through the woods up a rocky mountain, or walk along the tidal Maine coast in wonder at the nature that surrounds you, realize that you’re not alone – our love of the out-of-doors is foundational to human evolutionary psychology. Enjoy the rest of your summer – and don’t forget to get outside!
Atran, S. (1998). Folk biology and the anthropology of science: Cognitive universals and cultural particulars. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21, 547-609.
Orians, G. H., & Heerwagen, J. H. (1992). Evolved responses to landscapes. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds), The adapted mind. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.