Stephen Kellert has spent his life researching what people think about natural resource conservation, and The Value of Life is the result, presenting findings not only on Americans but on Germans, Japanese, and Botswanans. What the author reveals is that people vary widely in their response to the natural world, and that the ways in which they vary show just how much nature has to offer us.
The nine categories of values Kellert has designated are themselves illuminating. They include “utilitarian” values, which lead people to think of natural resources as goods to be tapped; “naturalistic” values, which center on positive physical, emotional, and intellectual encounters with the nonhuman world; and “ecologistic-scientific” values, whose focus is the patterns, structures, and functions in nature. “Aesthetic” values are evident when people find beauty in the natural world. Those with “symbolic” values use nature for communication and thought in stories, myths, and figures of speech, while those with “dominionistic” values see nature as a challenge-for example, as a mountain to be climbed or a wilderness to be braved. “Humanistic” values come into play when something of a one-on-one relationship develops, as when people bond with pets. Finally, “moralistic” values focus on right and wrong conduct toward animals and nature, and “negativistic” values are at work when people hate denizens of the natural world such as snakes and spiders. Comprehensive as this list of categories may seem, researchers in Botswana have had to add a tenth one, “theistic values,” to refer to the views of indigenous people who attribute conscious life to phenomena in nature.
Kellert reports on how urban people differ from rural ones, young from old, well-educated from less well-educated, loggers from environmentalists, hunters from humane-society members, birdwatchers from zoo visitors, TV watchers from backpackers. The author is, moreover, careful and insightful in interpreting his results, always with an eye to explaining the perspectives of various respondents. For instance, in noting that the Japanese have relatively little interest in conserving biodiversity, he reflects that this may be because they largely enjoy nature culturally transformed into an artform, often as an avenue of escape from the workday life. They are, in other words, more likely to be moved by flowers skillfully arranged in a vase than by uncultivated vegetation in a field, fed upon by animals.
But in the end, The Value of Life is not a book about how people differ. On the contrary, what Kellert really hopes to find is a human tendency toward “biophilia,” the term Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson has invented to describe an innate, transcultural disposition: by human nature, we love nature, according to this view. And conservation based on such “hereditary needs of our species” is seen to be on solid ground.
Kellert has to conclude, however, that there are but “weak biological tendencies” toward biophilia. Cultural “learning and experience exert a fundamental shaping influence on the content, direction, and strength” of the values he has defined, he writes. For instance, adult respondents with only a sixth-grade education have very high negativistic attitudes toward nature; those with some graduate education evince very low negativistic attitudes. Most Botswanans think that intervening to save wildlife may bring the wrath of the gods; educated Botswanans form a “striking exception” to the general view.
There is, in other words, as much di-versity about biodiversity as there is biodiversity. Yet Kellert is still determined to make his argument that “underlying values remain constant.” Thus after eight chapters that survey the riches biodiversity offers us by examining the vast array of human responses to it, Kellert, in a ninth chapter on education and ethics, concludes his book quite bluntly. “Every person possesses the ability to mine this creation and thereby enrich his or her experience,” he tells us. “This represents the ultimate self-interest of an ethic of respect and reverence for the value of life.” The author stretches toward a vision of richness for 200 pages and then backs away in the last sentence, collapsing everything into our “ultimate self-interest.”
The truth seems to be that the biophilia hypothesis is connected with the sociobiological hypothesis, also made famous by Edward O. Wilson. And within the framework of this particular theory, all phenomena, whether in nature or culture, is interpreted in terms of self-interest. Our deepest motivations are always buried in our selfish genes. But over the centuries, philosophers have seriously questioned the idea that ethics can be reduced to enlightened self-interest, and those classical worries return to bring doubt about whether an adequate environmental ethic can hold that humans should value nature only for what they can get out of it.
Kellert can say that he is enlarging the category of self-interest, and indeed, there is nothing narrow about his thinking; he wants all 10 million or so species embraced in “a broad anthropocentric ethic of life.” Still, it never seems to sink in that such ever-enlarging self-interest would “ultimately” (to use his word) pass over into something else-into a respect for life in which people would value something other than their personal well-being.
Interestingly, the results of a six-year study sponsored by the National Science Foundation and documented in Environmental Values in American Culture by Willett Kempton et. al. (MIT Press, 1995) suggest that such a mindset is not uncommon. Testing the claim that “we need to be as fair to plants and animals as we are towards people,” the study found agreement not only among 97 percent of Earth First members but also among 63 percent of sawmill workers from the Pacific Northwest. And even Kellert’s own research points to the conclusion that human beings are not entirely consumed by self-interest. Again and again, people have registered for him a value “especially associated with concern for the ethical treatment of animals and nature”-a value whose “more central focus is right and wrong conduct toward the nonhuman world.” Might this mean that people find intrinsic value in nonhuman life? Doubtful, thinks Kellert. The “highly abstract notion of awarding all species an inalienable right to exist” is too weak to motivate people into “denying their own self-interest,” he says.
But it is at least worth considering that what is needed to preserve biodiversity is not better surveys detecting biophilia in our selfish genes but moral vision and courage. And it is also worth considering that such qualities may already be more widespread than Kellert is prepared to realize. To be sure, The Value of Life is an excellent and important work. It is the best account available of the good reasons for preserving biodiversity, which are reflected in the values of millions of people. Would that Kellert could also have envisioned the best reasons, and perhaps found these operating in the values of people, too.
Meta has built a massive new language AI—and it’s giving it away for free
Facebook’s parent company is inviting researchers to pore over and pick apart the flaws in its version of GPT-3
The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus
The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.
Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging
The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.
Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI
One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.