E.O. Wilson’s notion of biophilia, which is slightly different from closely related to the newer idea of evolutionary psychology, posits that humans can not be healthy without some access to the natural world. The argument basically amounts to saying that we have evolved in a world which is not completely under human control, and we are not happy unless we are, at least to some extent, in such a world today.

I think the basic argument is likely true for most people. There was an interesting experiment which seemed to show that people next to a window onto an outside nature scene were under less stress than people next to a television screen showing the same image (I can’t find a link, but Journal of Evolutionary Psychology by PH Kahn). I think that many of us look for something to exist outside ourselves, and nature can play that role.

Some people use that as an argument for preserving the environment: we should preserve the environment to keep ourselves healthy (this is in some ways a variant on the idea that we should save the rainforest because we can find new pharmaceutical drugs there). Unfortunately, while I’m definitely in favor of preserving the environment, I think this argument fails. I think that technology can provide us the health benefits of access to the natural world, by hiding the sources of the technology. I think that a sophisticated robot dog can provide all the psychological benefits of a real dog, and more. With a good design we can get the unpredictability, the sense of a different mind and a different world operating. I think those are the things we need. I don’t think they have to actually come from nature.

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