Catching, and holding attention–the biophilia effect

January 1, 2007

clipspaceshipcomparison.jpeg E. O. Wilson popularized the term biophilia to refer to our innate attraction to the diversity of the natural world. For me, some form of genetic hardwiring allowing our ancestors to see the subtle distinctions between two plants–one poisonous, one not–seems pretty much a given. However, being an ecologist, I’m not exactly neutral on this as 1) I think preserving the earth’s biodiversity is a pretty reasonable thing to do, and 2) I’ve grown up making such distinctions, progressing from bugs, then herps, then birds, and onto ants.

However, one of the strongest arguments for the biophilia hypothesis is not that you find naturalists wherever you go. Ask a college freshman to name 10 species, let alone 10 species of bird, and you find most struggling after five or six (a disturbing number forget Homo sapiens). The best evidence is that among these very same students, one can recognize every release of the Ford Mustang, one collects lady head vases, and another can give a spontaneous lecture on the subtle variations in, and performance of, the WW II fighter, the P-51 Mustang. Given the incredible accumulation of facts such obsessions demand, and the relative unimportance of Ford Mustangs to our ancestors on the plains of Africa, the most reasonable hypothesis is that this whole “collecting” thing is best understood as displaced biophilia. IOW, if you grew up in suburban North America, you likely saw more species of cars than birds, and were predisposed to obsess about the former. (OK, cars were probably more linked to your fitness, as they were your predators when you were young, and offered reproductive opportunities when you were a bit older, but you get my general point).

I have never seen a better illustration of displaced biophilia than this pseudobiological poster describing the relative sizes of every Starship from the annals of science fiction, from the Enterprise (Constitution Class), to the Borg collective’s assimilation cube, to the Galactic Empire’s (Executer Class). It is gorgeous, as all good depictions of scaling relationships can be. That is just happens to thrill the sci-fi geek, is not, as they say, a bug, but a feature.

If you want to catch someone’s attention, exploit their biophilia.  Place a bunch of subtly different objects in front of them, scaled appropriately, and let them play “one of these things is not like the other“.