It was Saturday morning and I was in the offices of the New York Academy of Sciences on the 40th floor of 7 World Trade Center. The view to the East was spectacular. We could see the Brooklyn bridge and the 59th Street bridge with Brooklyn and Queen's in the background.
I love cities, I love the tall buildings and the hustle and bustle of the street life.
E.O. Wilson was about to kick off the opening session of The Two Cultures in the 21st Century. I had never heard him in person so I grabbed a good seat and settled down.
Most of his talk was about imaging the brain, behaviorial psychology, and evolutionary psychology. His main point was that scientists are learning a lot about how the brain works and this brings together the humanities and science. E.O. Wilson favors consilience.
Let me give you one example from his talk to illustrate the concept. Wilson talked about a study that was done to determine the ideal environment for humans. People were asked to identify their favorite scenes and the results were used to derive a composite view of what the ideal human environment would look like.
Wilson illustrated it with a slide taken from the third or fourth floor of the John Deere headquarters in Illinois. The view showed extensive grasslands with some water in the foreground. The trees had large branches that were almost parallel to the ground. Massive abstract sculptures evoked an image of large animals.
According to Wilson, this idealized environment is an ancient memory of the environment where we evolved. Our ancestors lived in caves on a cliff side overlooking a savanna full of large animals. The trees of the savanna have branches that are almost parallel to the ground. We like to have water nearby. This is why the typical modern human prefers that type of environment. Science and beauty come together.
Here's how Wilson describes it in The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth pp. 66-67
…Researchers have found that when people of different cultures, including those of North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, are given freedom to select the setting of their homes and work places, they prefer an environment that combines three features. They wish to live on a height looking down and out, to scan a parkland with scattered trees and copses spread before them, closer in appearance to a savanna than either a grassland or a closed forest, and to be near a body of water, such as a lake, river, or sea. Even if all these elements are purely aesthetic and not functional, as in vacation homes, people who have the means will pay a very high price to obtain them.I realized then and there that I was a strange sort of human. My love of cities must be some kind of aberration. I also realized in an instant that all of my mother's ancestors from the past 2000 years must have been desperately unhappy. They all come from Northern Europe where they lived in clusters of small farms in rolling hills covered in dense forest. The only thing they had going for them was the presence of large animals in the barns. How sad.
There is more. Subjects in choice tests prefer their habitation to be a retreat, with a wall, cliff, or something else solid to the rear. They want a view of fruitful terrain in front of the retreat. They like large animals scattered thereabout, either wild or domestic. Finally, they favour trees with low horizontal branches and divided leaves. It is probably not a coincidence that some people, I among them, consider the Japanese Maple the world’s most beautiful tree.
These quirks of human nature do not prove but are at least consistent with the savanna hypothesis of human evolution. Supported by considerable evidence from fossil record, this interpretation holds that human beings today still choose the habitats resembling those in which our species evolved in Africa during millions of years of prehistory.
[Photo Credit: ©John Deere (John Deere Attractions)]