An Interview with Behavioral Ecologist: Gordon Orians Explains Our Innate Loves and Fears


Gordon H. Orians

“We could not understand the environment unless we entered the world already understanding these relationships.” – Immanuel Kant’s conclusion from his Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals is used by Gordon H. Orians to illustrate his own understanding of how our mind responds to the environment. Observing our fascination with natural landscapes, our interest for animals, trees, flowers, sunrises and sunsets, through an evolutionary lens, Prof. Orians argues that the life of our ancestors shaped what we love and what we fear.

Having realised that our interests in human responses to the environment greatly overlap, prof. Orians and I started a discussion via e-mail.  Here are some of his reflexions on the topic, which is explained in detail in his book Snakes, Sunrises and Shakespeare – How Evolution Shapes our Loves and Fears.

Most people today, including scholars, have an easy answer to the eternal “nature vs. nurture” debate: it’s clear that both influence our behavior. However, we seem to root for nurture to have greater influence on who we are. When I discuss hereditary influence on our temperament and cognitive skills in class, my students often protest against it. It just seems more fair, more optimistic, more democratic, if you will, to believe in the power of nurture. Are we unduly biased, looking at the matter like a horse with blinkers? How would you convince us to have greater respect for our biology, heredity, our nature? What about it is worth admiration? 

Both nature and nurture exert powerful influences on our behavior but how they do so varies enormously. For example, the fact that I speak English has little to do with nature.  The fact that I can speak at all has everything to do with nature.  Moreover, neither nature nor nurture are intrinsically desirable or undesirable and, hence, worthy of admiration.  Faulty theories about the role of either nature or nurture are likely to lead to unfavorable outcomes.  For example, many parents were unnecessarily traumatized because people believed and acted on the theory that autism was caused by bad parenting. We now know that autism is primarily a genetic disease; parenting has almost nothing to do with it.  People in many cultures have used the theory that other people were genetically inferior to treat them inhumanely.  We now know that intelligence is fairly uniformly distributed over Homo sapiens.  Most of this variation lies within, not among,  groups of people. We can all easily assemble lists of the misuse of both nature and nurture that have resulted in maltreatment of fellow humans. Both lists are potentially very long.

We should admire neither nature nor nurture but, rather, processes that foster outcomes that increase the quality of  human life and the lives of other organisms.  When valid theories about the role of nature accomplish that, they are worthy of admiration.  When valid theories of nurture accomplish that, they also are worthy of admiration. The devil is, as usual, in the details.

Yet, as your question points out, we tend to have a bias in favor of nurture.  Why might that be?  A least two factors may contribute to this bias.  First, if a problem is thought to soluble by nurturing, we judge that we have more control over the outcome than if the problem is thought to be caused by genes.  If it’s genes, we tend to think that we are helpless to do anything about it.  Understandable though this reasoning may be, it is false. We can and do compensate for genetically caused problems. In fact, knowing that a problem has a genetic basis is vital for developing solutions to it.  Progress in modern medicine, for example, depends on understanding the genetic underpinnings of various ailments. Similarly, whereas the ability to learn and speak a language depends on many genes, natural selection could not have favored genes that facilitate learning to read and write because written languages are only a few thousand years old, and, at first, only the elite knew how to read and write.  Accordingly, we do not need to undertake special efforts to teach people how to talk (two-year olds astound us by the speed with which they acquire a language) but we must devote years of work to learn how to read and write.  Enormous effort is required because we need to co-opt neural circuits that evolved for other purposes. Yet, we all judge the effort to be well worth it.

Another reason why we might have a bias in favor of nurture derives from the fact that we have a remarkably long and difficult childhood. Parents need to invest many years in nurturing and educating their children. Given the magnitude of the sacrifices we endure, we naturally wish to believe that we are truly making enormous differences in the quality of our children’s lives. Thus, it is unpleasant to be told that we have made less difference that we imagined and that our children have been molded more by their interactions with peers than with us.  Of course, it makes evolutionary sense that kids will be strongly influenced by their peers because that is the social group in which their lives will be spent and those are the individuals that will have massive influence on their success. But, for parents, the belief that we have been more important than we were is very comforting. And, of course, we are important in many ways, just not in some of the ways we thought we were. Bad parenting can really screw up kids lives.


 Nature and nurture; photo by Chris Ford

Could you, in short, share your view on the basic premise of behavioral ecology/ environmental psychology, its value and its validity? 

 The basic premise of both evolutionary psychology and behavioral ecology is that emotions, which are the prime motivators of behavior, coevolve with fitness.  That is, organisms evolve to prefer to do things that improve their survival and reproductive success and to avoid doing things that have the opposite effects.  This premise must, of course, be tested. It has! Such coevolution is obvious with respect to sex and food.  Both  eating and sexual intimacy are highly rewarding; one does not need elaborate tests to know that those of our ancestors that found neither activity rewarding would have been under-represented genetically in subsequent generations. The same argument applies to habitat selection.  Those of our ancestors who elected to settle in ecologically poorer environments would have survived and reproduced less well than those who settled in better habitats.

The validity of this, and all other scientific premises as well, is established by using it to generate testable predictions about our emotional responses to components of the environment. In my book I describe the results of many such experiments.  For the most part they support the premise, but it is important to recognize that not all predictions based on a premise are necessarily appropriate. One might be tempted to reject a premise if a prediction fails when, in fact, the problem is an illogical prediction.  Conversely, a test might appear to support  a prediction based on the premise, but if the prediction is compatible with several other theories, the test is weak because it could not discriminate among alternative hypotheses.

What I have just described is, of course, normal science.  Everything in the previous paragraph applies to the testing of all scientific theories.  Evolutionary psychology does not differ in this respect from other domains.  It is also like the rest of science in that some of the theories we now favor are certain to be overturned by future research.


 Evolutionary psychology aims to explain, among others, our fascination with colorful sky at the sunset; photo by Christoper Michel

The recent popularity of evolutionary psychology sometimes seems to work against it. Together with some convincing ideas, there are some non-plausible, even arbitrary conclusions. How can we separate worthy parts of what is presented as evolutionary psychology, from not-so-valuable parts?

Evolutionary psychology is, unfortunately, a relatively young discipline. I say “unfortunately” because psychology should always have been evolutionary.  Just as nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution, nothing in psychology, which is a major part of the biology of one species, makes sense except in light of evolution.  Psychology developed as a non-evolutionary science primarily because most social scientists in the West, although acknowledging that we evolved by the same process that governed the evolution of all other species, believed that once we evolved our large brains, had a remarkable ability to learn, and developed cultures that enabled us to transmit information much more rapidly than is possible genetically, that we became emancipated from our genetic heritage. Other animals had genetics; but when it came to our behavior, we had only culture.

So we have just begun to explore the nature and extent of genetic influences on human behavior. As I document in my book, in the short time they have been active, evolutionary psychologists and behavioral ecologists have shown that focusing an evolutionary lens on our behavior leads to interesting hypotheses some of which have predicted the existence of behavioral patterns that were previously unsuspected. Much more remains to be learned and not all that we think we know now will survive the intense scrutiny it will be subjected to, but the next few decades should be exciting ones.

On my blog I’ve already tried to summarize some aspects of environmental aesthetics that you explain in detail in your book, like preference for savanna-like environments, preference for natural environment in general (as compared to urban environment), tree shape preferences, the appeal of water in the environment. But one thing I often wondered about is our fascination with flowers. It seems to be universal, thus it could have evolutionary base. But I couldn’t think of a reason why a colorful, fragrant flower, which we don’t typically eat, would grab more of our attention than any edible, nutritious plant. Could you explain your take on this seemingly unusual phenomenon? 

Our fascination with flowers is surely one of the more peculiar of human traits. Yet, because it is so commonplace few people have been surprised enough to have judged the trait worth investigating.  On page 104 of my book I offer some preliminary mutually compatible hypotheses that might explain why our remote ancestors would have benefitted from paying attention to flowers.  Following the logic I use throughout the book, if it were beneficial for them to pay attention to flowers, they would have evolved to find flowers attractive. Although we eat few flowers, flowers are an important source of information about current and future locations of foods.  When they are blooming, flowers produce nectar which bees harvest to make honey. Knowing where flowers where might have helped our ancestors find bee hives. Also,  flowers are followed some time later by fruits.  Remembering where flowers were, combined with knowledge of which plants produced edible fruits and when they would ripen, would certainly have helped our ancestors find fruit and increase the chance that they would arrive at the appropriate plants before other frugivores had eaten them all.


Keukenhof garden in Holland; photo by Patrick Mayon

Another topic of the book that overlaps with my blog’s theme is our fascination with the distant views. How does it fit the evolutionary perspective? 

During the course of a year, our ancestors exploited large landscapes to meet their material needs.  Even over short time spans, they would have needed to traverse large areas to find water, food,  fiber, and construction materials. Most of those resources  are stationary.  Once you know where they are you need only remember their location to relocate them when you need them.  However, animals, including many of our most important predators and prey, are constantly on the move. Knowing where they are at any moment may be valuable. Skilled trackers can tell from foot-prints how long ago large mammals passed by and in what direction they were going. But we can also learn a lot by watching from a high perch that offers a broad landscape vista.  From our lookout we can spot herds of mammals and also see friendly or hostile people approaching. The farther we can see, the more warning we have, and the more time we have to prepare for either a war or a hunt. Or the view may inform us that it is a good time to relax. Whatever the immediate outcome, a distant view offers much information; much of it may be valuable.


People enjoying the view on a viewing platform at Interlaken; photo by Kosala Bandara

Given the strength of our evolutionary heritage, it would be useful to consider its application in environmental protection. Can the understanding of our ecological mind, as you call it, be helpful in answering environmental issues we’ve created? 

The better we understand how and why our interactions with nature affect us emotionally, the more likely we are to find ways to adjust our behavior so that we can enjoy the many goods and services provided by nature without further reducing the ability of ecosystems to provide those benefits.  The best predictor of human behavior is usually the incentive structure.  We usually focus on economic incentives, which are, of course, important.  Nevertheless, emotional incentives are also very powerful.  Many people give money to save lions, tigers, and elephants even though they never expect to travel to Africa or Asia to see them. The pleasure of knowing that they exist suffices.  In the final chapter of my book, I describe several ways in which we are using knowledge of our emotional responses to components of nature to improve people’s health (therapeutic horticulture, building design).  I also emphasize the importance of getting children out into nature. Today, most children are exposed only to virtual nature on television and via “videophilia”. We know that direct experience with nature facilitates cognitive development and generates positive feelings about nature. People who have never experienced nature are unlikely to truly love it and be willing to work to sustain it.


 Children playing in a new, still sparsely greened park in Los Angeles; photo by The City Project

In psychology, we know that how we feel about something often depends on the context, or the mental frame through which we look. It makes me wonder what it’s like to spend so much time being mindful of  evolutionary perspective, that is, hundreds of thousands of years of human experience on this planet.  Has thinking about such long historical frame influenced you personally, the way you think about your own  life experience?

I grew up in a parsonage in the American Mid-West. My father believed that we had stewardship responsibilities for nature; his Sunday sermons often dealt with caring for nature.  As a child I naturally sought religious answers to such questions as:  Who are we? Where did we come from?  Where are we going?   But, as I matured as an evolutionary biologist I increasingly sought scientific answers to these and other questions. I came to recognize  that, although our understanding will always be incomplete, scientific methods are capable of enhancing our understanding of many processes that I had found puzzling. In addition, I came to find great pleasure in recognizing myself as a member of just one species among millions on a tiny twig on the massive “Tree of Life.”  As Charles Darwin said,  there is grandeur in this view of life on Earth. Its incredible richness is the outcome  of natural processes that we can understand; the more we understand them, the greater our potential enjoyment.

*prof. Gordon Orians is the author of the savanna hypothesis and Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Washington, Seattle. A proper introduction would not be short, and I didn’t want to repeat the information you can find elsewhere, so I encourage you to learn more about him here and his new book here. I learned that he is very cooperative and kind, and also very passionate about his work and eager to share his insights with the world. 


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