On the Savanna Hypothesis in the Environmental Psychology

Interesting fact No.1: Genome-wise, modern humans are very closely related. Any two modern humans, from anywhere on the globe, possess greater genetic similarity than do any two chimpanzees; even those selected from neighbouring groups in Africa (Davies, 2001; Ridley, 2000; Wells, 2002; according to Falk and Balling 2010).

African savanna during an unusually wet period; photo by Martin_Heigan

Interesting fact No.2: A broad survey  of art preferences (Wypijewski 1997, according to Dutton, 2003) of people living in ten countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas found “an odd cross-cultural uniformity” – respondents in all countries expressed a liking for realistic representative paintings including water, trees and other plants, human beings, and animals, especially large mammals. Two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who hired professionals to conduct this survey in the first place, produced a favourite painting for each country using the statistical preferences as a guide.  The paintings turned out to be very similar — they all looked like ordinary European landscape calendar art. An influential art critic Arthur Danto claimed that this findings demonstrate the power of the international calendar industry to influence taste away from indigenous values and towards European conventions. Was Danto right?

English garden, Munich; photo by A.Schauervilla

The first finding goes hand in hand with current theories that all modern humans evolved from a very small founder population, perhaps no more than a few thousand closely related individuals, living in Africa some 70,000 years ago (Lander, 2001; Rogers & Jorde, 1995; Wells, 2002;  according to Falk and Balling 2010). Enter evolutionary psychology, an approach that seeks to identify which human psychological traits are evolved adaptations – that is, the functional products of natural selection or sexual selection. It is based on the premise that the traits which increased the likelihood of survival  (and/or having offspring) for our nomadic ancestors, are still shared by most people today, regardless of their functionality in the modern times.

Al safa park in Dubai; photo by PGBrown1987

For example, our ancestors who feared heights had greater chances of survival than those who were indifferent towards heights (and were more likely to be reckless and fall). As a result, most of us today feel at least moderate discomfort about heights (without the experience of height-related trauma; thus, it’s not a learnt response for most of us). This fear remains persistent even though it is not as functional as it used to be – we don’t need to climb mountains if we don’t want to, and when we’re in high buildings we’re usually well protected against falling. It is something that had been adaptive for our species for thousands of years (while we don’t have, for example, an innate fear of texting while driving, because it is an evolutionary novel hazard – even though we would benefit from it).

Parco Savello, Aventine Hill, Rome; photo by Neil Hunt

Coming from the accepted idea that much of human evolution took place in the East African savanna, Orians stated what has become known as the savanna hypothesis, predicting that landscape features characteristic of this environment should be preferred over those found in more dry or moist tropical habitats (1980, according to Summit and Sommer, 1999.). Such a preference for the savanna-like landscape would have theoretically developed over the course of human evolution, initially as an adaptation to surviving in the East Africa. He noted that parks all around the world were typically designed and maintained to resemble savanna landscapes: grasslands with widely spaced, laterally spreading trees.

Phoenix Park in Dublin; photo by infomatique

Appleton’s (1975/1996, according to Han,2007) prospect-refuge theory offers an explanation of why would people prefer locations similar to the savanna grasslands in Africa, or why such settings could have been a good choice for our ancestors. It is because  grasses provide easy lookouts for spotting prey and threats, and scattered trees offer hiding places from enemies and predators; thus these settings afford prospects and provide refuge; they offer the opportunity to “see without being seen”.

Blenheim, Oxfordshire, the landscape by Capability Brown; photo bDrumaboy

So, this is, in short, an alternative to art critic’s view that calendar industry (a cultural influence) can explain relative uniformity in landscape preferences for people all over the world. It is worth considering that something much deeper and older is at work. What about the empiric support of savanna hypothesis? Generally it tends to be rejected when savanna biome is compared to other biomes (there is little evidence that people prefer savanna over all other biomes, except for the children in Balling and Falk’s study from 1982, according to Falk and Balling, 2010). However, more landscape-featured version of the savanna hypothesis tends to be supported because the preferred features of landscapes can be described as relatively smooth ground surfaces with scattered trees (according to Han, 2007, Falk and Balling, 2010). Han (2007) describes this as more psycho-biological rather than bioecological form of savanna hypothesis – people do prefer savanna-like landscapes, but not necessarily actual savanna biomes over other biomes.

Central park New York; photo by Dougtone

Evolutionary psychology is one of the today’s most influential theories that attempt to explain landscape preferences. However, the explanation if offers is not complete, and it’s not intended to be such, since it only covers our evolutionary “base”, and we have all kinds of cultural “build-ups”, which are combined together to shape our final preferences. In other words, evolutionary psychology only attempts to explain the part of our preferences that are innate and relatively similar in all people, possibly more pronounced in childhood before preferences based on personal experience and cultural influences take place.

Maasai Mara, Kenya; photo by Kalense Kid

I guess there remains the question of why is this all important in our everyday life. Here’s one possible application in encouraging sustainable behaviour. As I’ve written before, when people in desert climate want to have lawns and English style parks, their preferences are not congruent with their environmentally friendly aspirations. Learning more about the parts of us that are not under the influence of our will can help us to be able to better understand what we want and what is important, and direct out behaviour accordingly.

Maasai Mara, Kenya; photo by eddzis

We are not aware of a great deal of our psychological functioning (yes I know, Freud, too, pointed this out a while ago), which is one of the reasons why we often have difficulties explaining our behaviour and why our attitudes are often unreliable predictors for it. In other words, we often act the opposite of what we belive in, and later can’t explain why we did so. Any theory that sheds some light on those hidden parts of us (and is empirically supported) can be useful in improving our lives.


1. Dutton, D. (2003). Aesthetics and evolutionary psychology. In J. Levison (Ed.), The Oxford handbook for aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press.

2. Falk, J. H.&  Balling, J. D. (2010) Evolutionary Influence on Human Landscape Preference. Environment and Behavior, 42(4), 479–493.

3. Han, K. (2007) Responses to Six Major Terrestrial Biomes in Terms of Scenic Beauty, Preference, and Restorativeness. Environment and Behavior 39: 529

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