Many people seek to understand the human connection to nature, wondering about our place in the world, and intuitively sense that it cannot be fully explained within the limited frame of individual experience. They often look for insight by trying to understand the life our distant ancestors experienced, prior to civilization. I’ve noticed that the “savanna hypothesis” is one of the most common search terms that brings readers to my blog.
An evolutionary perspective on our relations with the environment might be the most profound, and perhaps the most useful when it comes to analyzing our emotional reactions to it. It goes beyond our immediate response to our surroundings, and focuses on how one particular type of environment in East Africa shaped many of our psychological processes. It addresses mechanisms that we’re not consciously aware of, though we experience their end results. We sometimes take these for granted — thinking, for example, that it is accepted knowledge that snakes are scary, and that’s just the way it is — while at other times the power of those evolutionary influences amazes us — how can sunsets be so compelling, though they are a common phenomenon in our lives?
A growing body of research in the field of evolutionary psychology has enabled scientists to offer many fascinating hypotheses regarding the relationship of evolution, environment and our behaviour. Gordon H. Orians, a biologist and the author of the savanna hypothesis, brings together theory and research in his new book Snakes, Sunrises and Shakespeare. He discusses how evolution shaped what we like and what we fear in the world around us.
While an evolutionary approach explains mechanisms that reflect the experience of our species, I find it interesting that prof. Orians tries to understand these by imagining the personal experiences of our ancestors with the environment:
Snakes, Sunrises and Shakespeare covers some of the topics I have already written about, like the savanna hypothesis and tree shape preferences. It also offers several other potentially interesting topics, among which I’d like to highlight the following:
1. Habitat selection – arguing that choosing places to live was very important decision for our ancestors, the author investigates what were the good choices for early humans in the light of Appleton’s prospect/refuge theory.
2. Applications of prospect/refuge theory – some examples mentioned are paintings and views of nature in dentist waiting rooms and hospitals, used to decrease anxiety, and some are discussed by prof. Orians here:
3. Environmental aesthetics – what we see as beautiful today was simply a way of life for our ancestors. Fishing, birdwatching or spending time outdoors weren’t just hobbies back then.
4. Explanation for our fascination with sunrises and sunsets is one of the aspects of investigating environmental aesthetics. Here’s the theory behind it: our ancestors needed to pay attention to the fact that the night-time is approaching, so they could find a refuge before darkness fell – thus a red sky should grab our attention. Hypothesizing that sunsets are more threatening than sunrises, prof. Orians describes an analysis of landscape paintings, which determines that sunrise paintings depict people much further from refuges than they are found in sunset paintings.
5. Applied environmental aesthetics – some very interesting examples discussed by prof. Orians here:
Some other intriguing questions covered in the book are Why girls climb more (something I, too, noticed at my local playground), Why we value musicians so much, and How we can work toward a better understanding of our ecological mind.
I have great expectations from the book because it’s about things that are inherently fascinating. Beside kindly letting me share parts of his interview, prof. Orians also agreed to answer a few of my questions after I read his book, so if you have any questions you’d like to ask, please email me of leave them in the comments section below. You can learn more about Snakes, Sunrises and Shakespeare here (don’t miss the rest of the interview).
Sunset in savanna, photo by Alan Newman