Culture At Large

From biophobia to biophilia: loving God through His creatures

Rolf Bouma

One summer morning my 3-year-old son headed outside to ride his Big Wheel on our front sidewalk. He was “authorized” to ride the sidewalk between our house and our best friends’ house two doors down. We thought it was safe.

A blood-curdling scream, tearful wails and a jackhammer pounding on the screen door indicated otherwise. “What’s the matter?  Are you okay?”  What happened?” 

Between sobs he sniffled out the truth: “There are … three ... DEAD … bugs … on the sidewalk.” He was right. There were three large, DEAD beetles on the ground. On their backs. Motionless feet pointed upward like 18 flags of surrender.

“Sweetie, it’s OK. They’re dead. They can’t hurt you.” The wailings, however, increased until we realized that, for him, the beetles’ very deadness tipped the terror to the point where kicking in the bottom panel of an aluminum screen door was a most logical course.

I can’t wait to see his response (he’s 23 now) when I show him a new book that arrived on my coffee table this past week. Biophilia, by Christopher Marley, is a lovely art book comprised almost entirely of photographs of  … you guessed it … DEAD bugs (with a few snakes, octopi, crabs, sea urchins, birds and even minerals thrown in for good measure).

It is a gorgeous book. Stunningly gorgeous. In some cases an organism is photographed to reveal its individual spellbinding form and iridescent color. In other photos, Marley has arranged butterflies, beetles or other bugs to take advantage of their brilliant colors and odd, lengthy appendages, creating mosaics, color panels or prism-like collages. Aristotle is reputed to have said that art imitates nature. In this case, nature is art.

Rather than suggesting biophilia is innate, it may be helpful to think of it as a cultivated virtue. A most Christian virtue.

Some years ago the Harvard entomologist/myrmecologist E.O. Wilson titled a book Biophilia, a word that he borrowed from psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. Fromm defined it as a “passionate love of life, and all that is alive.” The word suggests that we have an innate love of living things and a predilection to protect them. For Wilson, it comes from our evolutionary lineage and the ties we have to all living creatures. For Marley, it’s implanted in us by “our divine DNA.” We are created that way.

It may well be both, although I prefer Marley’s religious instincts in this regard. If biophilia is innate, however, it often has to be rediscovered. When it comes to the odder profusion of life forms in particular - insects, reptiles and crustaceans, nature at its most “other” - aversion often runs deeper than fascination.

Rather than suggesting biophilia is innate, it may be helpful to think of it as a cultivated virtue. A most Christian virtue. Learning to love God’s creations, no matter how odd or other they may be.  

So, as Jesus suggests with ravens and flowers of the field, let’s consider them. See them. Love them. Just the other day I spent 45 minutes of an afternoon with my wife and other son watching three great horned owls - two fledglings and an adult - roosting in a  copse of trees some 50 yards off a municipal golf course. You fall in love by looking in someone’s eyes. I think I’m smitten. For 45 minutes we stared in their eyes and they peered back at us, odd bipeds with binoculars that we were. The next day, at church, I couldn’t stop talking about them.

Insects aren’t quite so easy. It’s a cultivated taste, best acquired at a respectful distance. It’s a healthy challenge to faith, to be reminded that the God who created you is also the one who thought up the praying mantis, the staghorn beetle or the rainbow dung beetle. 

My dead-beetle-phobic son is away at college right now, due to arrive home in a month. I look forward to showing him Biophilia, not to revisit a painful memory from childhood, but to see if all the years of camping and hiking and calling attention to created oddities has recalibrated his instincts, has moved him from biophobia to biophilia.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Environment