Every youngster starts out loving nature. The fancy word for one’s natural affinity for living things is biophilia, a term coined by naturalist Edward O. Wilson. The flip side of the biophilia coin is biophobia, and everyone probably has a bit of that as well. I remember, for instance, learning at age 4 to fear mice. My teenage aunt and I were sitting on the sofa reading a story. Suddenly she screamed and yanked her feet up off the floor. I saw a mouse skittering across the linoleum and thought, "Oh, you’re supposed to be afraid of mice."
What becomes of our affection for nature depends, in large part, on how it is nurtured. In this issue, Young Naturalists looks at the lives of 16 people who have channeled their interest in the outdoors into natural resources careers. Their stories may help young people picture themselves working in conservation fields. And they may give adults ideas for encouraging students of nature.
Here are a few more stories of how a young person’s biophilia can lead to a biophile career. Support, imagination, and self-knowledge can help shape this inclination.
At an early age, future primatologist Jane Goodall displayed keen powers of observation and interest in animal behavior. Curious about how an egg could come from a chicken, 5-year-old Jane hid in the henhouse and waited for hours to see a hen enter and lay an egg. Meanwhile, her mother searched for her and was just about to call the police when she saw Jane scoot out of the henhouse, covered with straw and beaming with pride in her discovery. Instead of scolding Jane for disappearing, the wise mother sat down with her excited child to hear her story. With her mother’s steadfast support, the little zoologist grew up, traveled to Africa, and became one of the world’s most famous field biologists, studying chimpanzees for more than 40 years.
Not every young naturalist gets such encouragement. As Wilson shows in his autobiography, Naturalist, adversity can sometimes strengthen one’s ties to nature. In his case, a lonely childhood moving from place to place made the constancy of birds, ants, woods, and waters all the more appealing. When choosing a science career, the self-aware young Wilson took into account his strengths and handicaps (deafness in one ear and blindness in one eye), and looked for an overlooked subject (social insects).
Biophilia turns up in funny places–like the animal-populated cartoons of The Far Side creator Gary Larson. A young collector of critters, Larson majored in biology in college but switched to communications because he "didn’t know what you did with a bachelor’s in biology." Yet when Larson began his comic strip, biophilia fed his imagination. He filled his cartoons with zany insights into all manner of scientific thought and subject matter. For example, he shed light on insect biology in his cartoon of a housefly with a wallet full of photos of thousands of maggots. As writer Natalie Angier explains in the book Scientists at Work, Larson’s witty work has made him the toast of many serious scientists.
Rebecca Krystosek, a senior at Bagley High School, channeled her passion for exploring rivers into an award-winning science project. For four months last year, she waded three rivers to collect insect samples, then stayed after school to sort and preserve them. Often working at her microscope on the kitchen table, she spent the next three months identifying 415 families and analyzing data to assess water quality. Among other honors, her study garnered a top place in the Minnesota Academy of Science State Fair. Krystosek says her sense of stewardship evolved along the Mississippi–floating the river near home on a milk-jug raft and later monitoring it with the student River Watch program. Inspired by her biology teacher Olin Anderson, she discovered "no matter what area of science you study, there are intricate relationships you never knew existed." Now Krystosek envisions a career in politics and environmental law.
No matter the path taken, one thing is clear: Careers can be built on biophilia.
Kathleen Weflen, editor
You can nurture a young biophile by giving him or her a Volunteer gift subscription.