Front Porch Essay #8

Biophilia and Deep Affiliation With Nature: Implications For Social Work
Fred H. Besthorn, M.Div, MSW, Ph.D

People of diverse backgrounds have long held that natural settings are good for the mind, body, and spirit. Around the world, untold numbers of people gaze out a window at a scene of trees and grasses or tend a small garden and feed a deep sense of satisfaction.

At any given moment, a child or elder picks up a cherished pet and feels less alone and more loved. In 1984, evolutionary biologist and then Harvard professor, E.O. Wilson, concluded after a generation of research that these phenomena and countless others like them furnish compelling evidence of what he called the Biophilia Hypothesis. Wilson and other biophilia theorists since have asserted that human beings not only derive specific aesthetic benefits from interacting with nature, but that human species has an instinctive, genetically-determined need to deeply affiliate with natural settings and lifeforms. Wilson (1993) contends that the desire to affiliate with other sentient, non-human organisms and ecosystems and the response people have to hem is innately biological and intensely emotional. The human response to these affiliations have complex benefits which not only enhance our psychic and physical well-being, but are critical to our evolutionary survival as a species.

The conceptual essence of biophilia is that human being have a need—a biological imperative—to connect with nature in order to maximize our potential and lead productive, fulfilling lives. According to Robert Ulrich (1993), biophilia researcher, humanity’s eons old affiliation with nature conferred advantages in humanity’s effort to survive throughout history and that people continue to need and value nature precisely because of the genetically encoded adaptive benefits it has offered us physically, emotionally, and intellectually (Kellert, 1997).

For social work, the story of nature has been quite different. Social work has always had an ambivalent understanding of its relationship to the natural world. The professions has consistently claimed for itself and ecological awareness. Our person/environment, ecological, and ecosystems models of practice have centered the profession’s attention on the link between the individual and their unique surroundings (Besthorn, 1997). Indeed, few social workers would allege their professional orientation is not guided by some form of environmental or ecological consciousness. Yet, social work’s conventional environmental models, with few exceptions, have shown an almost complete disregard for integrating a comprehensive understanding of the connection between person and the natural environment and the way we derive individual and collective meaning from this association (Besthorn, 2000).

Biophilia offers social work a fundamentally different view of the person/environment construct and argues for the primary shift in the way the profession views its relationship with the natural world. There is little dispute that experiencing nature and finding intense connections with animals enriches people’s lives in ways never before understood. Nature, in all its forms, is a critical ingredient for healthy development and realization of full human potential. It is certainly essential for our survival. Our biophilia propensities represent a vast accumulation of resources critical to the way social work understands and responds to the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual development and well-being of the clients it serves.

Biophilia is compatible with the core values and concerns of social work. Like social work, biophilia theory recognizes the intrinsic worth and dignity of all human beings inasmuch a biophilia respects the significance and integrity of all beings. Biophilia acknowledges the complex interrelatedness of life. This means that all living organisms, not just a select few, have inherent value.

Biophilia has great potential for social work practice settings as well. natural settings can assist in reducing levels of stress, promote healing, and aid in problem solving. Social workers can begin to employ natural elements in interventive settings. The design and siting of buildings and practice spaces is an essential place to begin. Observations from windows can include natural views, gardens, or nicely landscaped areas.

The social work profession has as one of its missions, the enhancement of human well-being. Nature, mediated through our biophilic attachments, offers and essential vehicle for human identity formation and a tool for healing, both individually and collectively. However, increasing sprawl and consumerism have diminished vast areas of natural habitat and caused immense declines in biological diversity. The question now facing us is, do the prospects of these habitat and species’ extinctions pose a serious threat to the welfare of humanity? More specifically, can we and the people we serve, experience full lives with material, emotional, and spiritual significance if the natural environment is substantially diminished and degraded? Biophilia would suggest the answer is an unequivocal, "no."


Besthorn, F. H. (1997). Reconceptualizing Social Work’s Person-in-environment Perspective: Explorations in Radical Environmental Thought. Dissertation Abstracts International, 58(10A), 4067.

Besthorn, F. H. (2000). Toward a Deep-Ecological Social Work: Its Environmental, Spiritual, and Political Dimensions. The Spirituality and Social Work Forum, 7(2), 2-7. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing.

Kellert, S. R. (1997). Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia In Human Evolution and Development. Washington D.C.: Island Press.

Ulrich, R. S. (1993). Biophilia, Biophobia, and Natural Landscapes. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington D.C.: Island Press

Wilson, E. O. (1993). Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington D.C.: Island Press


Fred H. Besthorn, Ph.D, is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas. Dr. Besthorn is a founder of the Global Alliance For A Deep Ecological Social Work (GADESW). He writes and speaks on the subject of person/environment practice. He can be reached through the website,