Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

An aspect of animal behaviour that has received much attention over the years can be summed up in Alfred Tennyson’s famous phrase ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’. This notion became linked in people’s minds with the phrase ‘struggle for survival’ that came in common use after the publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Today there are many television documentaries that focus on the tearing apart and eventual consumption of one animal by another. Indeed, carnivorous animals routinely engage in this kind of behaviour to keep alive.

However, there is an important perspective that is often ignored in discussions on this topic. The great majority of animals spend most of their lives in a state of good health and relative tranquillity, perhaps quite enjoying themselves most of the time. The really nasty bit – being attacked and eaten by another animal – is only a very tiny fraction of their whole life experience; and anyway, it might be preferable to a long, drawn-out and painful death from chronic disease. Moreover, in some mammalian species the release of endorphins during attack by a predator may well significantly reduce the pain and distress.

Pessimism and Optimism

The prevailing cultures across the globe have lost sight of our total dependence on the rest of the living world, and they are generating human activities on a scale and of a kind that threaten the integrity of the living systems of the biosphere that underpin our existence. If these activities continue unabated, the ecological collapse of civilisation is inevitable. There are also other highly unsatisfactory features of current society, including the gross disparities in health and conditions of life across different socio-economic groups, the massive population explosion and the existence of thousands of weapons of mass destruction.

What is the likelihood of cultural enlightenment coming about soon enough to avert ecological disaster on a massive scale? I am rather pessimistic. The maladaptive assumptions of the prevailing cultures are deeply ingrained, and the general ignorance of biological and ecological realities do not auger well for the future.

On the other hand, although it seems unlikely that effective cultural reform will come about soon enough to avert catastrophe, I don’t think it is impossible. So long as this is the case, I feel strongly that those of us who understand the nature and severity of the current situation should continue to do all we possibly can to bring about this radical cultural turnaround.

The Butterfly Effect

I have heard it argued that there is no hope of achieving ecological sustainability until we really understand the whole biophysical and social system in which we live, in all its complexity, and that much greater effort should be aimed at achieving such understanding through systems modelling. In my view, despite recent advances in systems theory and information technology, the complexity of the system is such that this kind of understanding will always be beyond us.

However, all is not lost, because I suggest we don’t need to understand all the intricacies of this massive and extremely complicated system in order to move forward to a biosensitive society. 

The approach we advocate is much simpler. All that is required initially is a single, if highly significant, change in the system. This change would consist simply of spreading understanding across the prevailing cultures of the world – understanding of the story of life and the human place in nature. This new understanding would thus become embedded at the heart of the prevailing cultures.

This single change in the system would have far-reaching repercussions throughout the whole of society – the butterfly effect of chaos theory.  It would lead, first, to sweeping changes in the worldviews and priorities of the prevailing cultures themselves. Unlike the situation today, these cultures would hold profound respect for Nature, and the achievement of harmony with the processes of life would be given the highest priority in human affairs.

This fundamental cultural shift in understanding, worldviews and priorities would be followed by the introduction of new biosensitive societal arrangements (e.g. economic systems, government regulations, population policies, structure of the work force) and then to biosensitive human activities (e.g. energy use, forestation, manufacturing, consumer behaviour, lifestyles).

Naïve? Unrealistic? Perhaps; but if so, then I think there is little hope for humanity.

Universities and the Future of Humankind

In these notes I would like to like to emphasise three points from the standpoint of human ecology. 

  1. Ecological background

Human history has been marked by four distinct ecological Phases:

  • Ecological Phase 1.  The Hunter-gatherer Phase.  This phase lasted some 300,000 years.
  • Ecological Phase 2.  The Early Farming Phase.  This phase began about 12000 years ago.
  • Ecological Phase 3.  The Early Urban Phase.  This phase began around 8000 to 9000 years ago, but it really got under way about 5000 years ago. The ecology of urban dwellers was very different from that of hunter-gatherers or early farmers.
  • Ecological Phase 4.  The Exponential Phase.[1]  This ecological phase, which began after the so-called Enlightenment around 250 years ago, is now in full swing.   It has been characterised by massive growth of the human population and an explosive and continuing increase in resource and energy use and waste production by humankind, with ever-increasing impacts on the ecosystems of our planet.  The most critical issue at present is global warming due to the enhanced greenhouse effect – but there many other signs of ecologically unsustainable changes in the ecosystems of the biosphere. 

There is no doubt that human civilisation will collapse if the present trends in population growth and in resource and energy use and waste production continue unbated. The days of the Exponential Phase of human history are numbered.

The fourth ecological phase has also seen the invention and manufacture of weapons of mass destruction which pose an horrendous threat to the human species.

Broadly speaking, there are two possibilities for the future. First, business as usual – leading inevitably to the ecological collapse of civilisation. Second, an effective transition to a fifth ecological phase of human history in which human society is truly sensitive to, in harmony with and respectful of the processes of life in and around us.  We have been calling this a biosensitive society[2].  A biosensitive society will promote health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population and in the ecosystems of the biosphere. Healthy people on a healthy planet.

  • Human culture as a powerful new force in biological systems

Cultural evolution has, of course, led to very many changes in human society which most people would regard as positive. However, culture can also get things wrong and can lead to behaviours that are nonsensical and sometimes very much against the interests of humanity.  We refer to these as cultural maladaptations. There are countless examples of cultural maladaptation in human history.  

Cultural maladaptations in the modern world are manifold. They range from activities adversely affecting human health, like the practice of smoking tobacco, to activities that threaten the future of civilisation, such as the use of fossil fuels as an energy source, the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction and economic systems that demand ever-increasing growth in the use of material resources and energy.

In fact, the prevailing cultures across the world today incorporate powerful delusions that are completely incompatible with the achievement of ecological sustainability and therefore the survival of civilisation. These cultures have lost sight of our total dependence on the processes of life, and they have no grasp of the nature, magnitude and seriousness of current human impacts on the ecosystems of our planet. They are blocking any effective move towards a biosensitive and sustainable ecological Phase 5 society.  In other words, there is little hope for humanity unless there come about radical changes in the worldviews and priorities of the prevailing cultures across the world.

In a biosensitive society the prevailing culture will be characterised by profound respect for the processes of life that gave rise to us, of which we are a part and on which we are totally dependent for our existence.  Unlike today, the goal of achieving biosensitivity will be seen as supremely important. It will be given highest priority on the political and social agenda. 

This change in the worldviews and priorities of the prevailing cultures of the world will be the most essential and significant difference between biosensitive and ecologically sustainable societies of the future and the bioinsensitive societies we live in today. The necessary changes in human activities (e.g. energy use, deforestation) and societal arrangements (e.g. the economic system, population policies) will not take place without this cultural transformation.

However, this radical cultural shift will only come about if a wave of new understanding sweeps across the cultures of the world – understanding of the story of life and the human place in nature. This new understanding will be the pivotal factor in the transition to biosensitivity. 

  • Universities                                                                  

The survival I am strongly of the opinion that universities have the potential, indeed the obligation, to play a key role in facilitating this cultural transformation. As I see it, new programs will be introduced with two main objectives:

  1. To bring about basic understandingthroughout academic institutions, and also in the community at large
  2. of the human place in nature
  3. of the inescapable fact that the survival of civilisation will require big changes in the scale and kind of human activities on Earth
  4. of the basic principle that the achievement of harmony with the processes of life that underpin our existence is a precondition for the survival of civilisation and the wellbeing of humankind (the principle of biosensitivity).

  5. To promote intellectual effort and cross-disciplinary dialogue dedicated to
  6. creating a vision of a new society that is truly sensitive to, in harmony with and respectful of the processes of life, and that promotes health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population and in the ecosystems of our planet.
  7. determining how the necessary changes in society can be brought about.

Universities could achieve these objectives in various ways: 

  • By disseminating, across all disciplines within the university and in the community, scientific information about the human place in nature and the current anthropogenic threats to human survival and wellbeing; and by mounting integrative undergraduate courses available to students in all faculties on the human situation in the biohistorical perspective.

  • By developing and applying integrative conceptual frameworks that facilitate thinking and communicating about the interplay between different cultural and physical components of the total system – in the context of the transition to a sustainable and biosensitive society.
  • By arranging multi-occupational and multidisciplinary workshops involving staff and students as well as invited representatives of governmental agencies, the private sector and community organisations, focusing on the social changes necessary for the achievement of biosensitivity. 

  • By inviting leaders from different fields of human endeavour and specialisation to respond to the scientific information and to present their views on its implications for society as a whole, or for a particular aspect of society.

  • By publicising the outcomes of these activities as widely publicised in the academic literature, the social media and the daily press.

Stephen Boyden

This is a shortened version of a document sent to the Vice-Chancellor, ANU, Professor Brian Schmidt AC, on 14 July 2017.

[1] This ecological phase is now popularly referred to as the Anthropocene.

[2] The use of this term is discussed in the document Notes on biosensitivity. It is based on recognition of the fundamental and extremely important principle that human wellbeing and ultimately the survival of civilisation will be dependent on human activities being sensitive to, in harmony with, and respectful of the processes of life that underpin our existence. We must aim for a society that is not only sustainable, but that also positively promotes health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population and in the ecosystems of the biosphere. Biosensitivity is a broader and richer concept than sustainability. Some people are not happy with this word; but we will continue to use it until someone comes up with a better term. The concept is an important one, and it needs a name.

A National Biocentre – A proposal

Under the heading International Biocentre, I propose the establishment of a new kind of international organisation committed to spreading understanding of life in Earth and the human place in nature across the cultures of the world, and to promoting international dialogue on the way forward to a healthy and sustainable future.

In my view, there is also a need for institutions, based in this same philosophy, at local and regional levels. The following proposal for a National Biocentre in Canberra, put together in October 2018, is indicative of what I have in mind.


Canberra, like other urban centres, has a big range of cultural institutions. They include a National Gallery of Art, a Portrait Gallery, a War Memorial, a National Museum of Australia, a Museum of Australian Democracy, the National Film and Sound Archives, the National Institute of Sport and a range of churches, temples, theatres, arts centres and concert halls. There are also some public institutions focusing on non-human forms of life, like the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, the National Botanic Gardens, the Arboretum and the National Zoo; and there are many vigorous NGOs and community and student groups concentrating on a wide range of environmental or human health issues.

Yet, strangely, there is no public institution in Canberra that focuses on the story of life on Earth life in its entirety – microbes, plants and animals, and on the interrelationships between humankind and the rest of the living world. This is curious because we humans are living organisms, products of biological evolution, and entirely dependent on the processes of life, within us and around us, for our wellbeing and continued existence.

There is no institution in our society that provides a venue for learning about and celebrating life, and for exchanging ideas about the way forward to a society that is truly in harmony with nature.

This cultural deficiency is especially pertinent at the present time, because human activities on Earth are now on a scale and of a kind that they threaten the integrity of the living systems that underpin our existence.

The Proposal

It is proposed that a National Biocentre be established in Canberra.

The core theme of the Biocentre will be the story of life on Earth and the human place in nature, and the meaning of this story for human wellbeing and for the future of civilisation. This story is of overarching significance for every one of us, and for society as a whole. Yet at present it is understood by only a minority of the population. If it were understood by the majority, the prospects for humanity would be much brighter. We refer to this story as the Bionarrative.

The National Biocentre will be a physical entity, with its own building(s) and parkland. In the short term, it could begin operations on a small scale in rented or loaned premises. The building(s) of the Centre will be human-friendly and biosphere-friendly.

The National Biocentre will be for people who are interested in life on Earth and who care about the future wellbeing of humankind and the rest of the living world.


The activities of the Biocentre will consist of two main thrusts: (1) Life on Earth – spreading understanding; (2) The way forward – exchanging ideas

(1) Life on Earth – spreading understanding

Displays, exhibitions, courses and workshops will focus on important and interesting biological and biosocial themes. Themes might include, for example: biodiversity; our dependence on biogeochemical cycles; healthy soils, climate change; population perspectives; biology and the quality of life; disparities in human health and wellbeing; economic health without increasing resource use; lifestyles, health and sustainability; the four ecological phases of human history; 60,00 years of Homo sapiens in the Australian ecosystem.

Some displays will feature biosensitive devices, technologies and building techniques.

(2) The way forward: exchanging ideas

The National Biocentre will encourage a vigorous exchange of ideas in different sections of the community about the meaning of the Bionarrative for individuals and families, and for governments and society as a whole.

Workshops will be convened in which different interest groups discuss and debate the social changes that will be necessary to achieve an effective transition to an ecologically sustainable and healthy of the future. Topics for discussion might include, for example: what it all means for: urban planning; governmental priorities; the economic system; primary, secondary and tertiary education; local food production; people’s lifestyles.

The outcome of these activities will be widely publicised online and in the press.

Other features

The National Biocentre will be much more dynamic than a conventional gallery or museum, with a great deal of community involvement. There will be an important input from local universities and research institutions. The Centre will constitute a two-way bridge between scientists and the rest of the population.

The National Biocentre will be a hub for interaction between NGOs, government agencies, the private sector and community groups concerned with the promotion of human health and ecological sustainability. Community groups, NGOs, commercial organisations and governmental agencies will be encouraged to mount displays consistent with the aims and objectives of the Centre.

There will be an important social dimension to the Centre, with comfortable meeting rooms conducive to convivial social interaction. It will be a place for celebrating life on Earth.

The National Biocentre could make a significant contribution to the transition to a healthy and sustainable society of the future. It might well become a prototype for similar institutions in cities around the world.


The above proposal is, in essence, an updated version of an earlier proposal. In 1965 a group of scientists in ACT proposed to the Federal Government that there should be a new kind of public institution in Canberra which they called a Biological Centre. [1]

The proposal was based on the view that the prevailing culture at the time suffered from a serious deficiency. It had lost sight of the fact that we are living organisms, part of nature, products of biological evolution, and totally dependent of the processes of life within us and round us, for our health, wellbeing and very existence. [2]

This reality was simply not reflected in the prevailing worldview and institutional structure of society, much to the disadvantage of humans themselves, and of the living systems on which they depend.

The group argued that there was a pressing need for a new kind of public institution to help counter this cultural void – a new kind of institution to stand alongside other public institutions like art galleries, museums, war memorials, botanic gardens, and cathedrals. They called this institution a Biological Centre. It was later referred to as a Biocentre.

The Biological Centre would be all about life – its history, how it all works, how we humans emerged through the processes of evolution, about our own biology and about how our species is now impacting on the rest of the living world. It would be a place for learning about it all – and for thinking and talking about its meaning for individuals and families and for society. There would be much more community involvement than in a conventional museum or zoo.

The proposal was strongly supported by some overseas scientists, including Julian Huxley, Konrad Lorenz and Nikko Tinbergen; and it was supported by every primary and secondary school in the ACT. We were invited to write an article describing the concept in the International Zoo Yearbook. This was published in 1969.

So, in May 1965 the proposal was formally put to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies. It took the government seven years to make up its mind, and when it did so, it was positive. Canberra would have a Biological Centre.

However, just at that time, in 1972, a federal election was called, and a new government came into power, and one of the first things that the new Minister for the Environment, Moss Cass, did was to knock back the decision to establish the Biological Centre. So, there is no Biological Centre in the capital today.

In later years, after his retirement from politics, Moss Cass regretted his decision, and indeed for a while he was chairman of a committee attempting to revive the project.

Over the years there have been several interesting efforts to rekindle the proposal, although the later versions differed significantly from the original concept, with less emphasis on understanding life and the human place in nature, and more emphasis on ecologically sustainable technologies and building practices. I was not involved in most of this work after about 1995.

1 The group of scientists behind this proposal included R. E. Barwick, E.C.F. Bird, S. V. Boyden (Convener), J. H. Calaby, R. Carrick, D. G . Catcheside, A. B. Costin, M. F. Day, A.H. Ennor, F. J. Fenner, O. H. Frankel, H. J. Frith, S. B. Furnass, E. H. Hipsley, I. M. Mackerras, W. L. Nicholas, M. Oliphant, L. Pryor, F. N. Ratcliffe, R. Slatyer, J. D. Smyth, D. F. Waterhouse, W. K. Whitten.

2 I say ‘lost sight of’ because many hunter-gatherer and early farming cultures in the past have embraced a profound respect for the living world, based on appreciation that we humans are part of nature and completely dependent on other forms of life for our existence and wellbeing.

Proposal for an International Biocentre

This proposal for the establishment of a new kind of international organisation, which we are provisionally calling the International BioCentre (IBC), is based on the following tenets:

· Present patterns of human activity on Earth are on a scale and of a kind that are unsustainable ecologically. Climate change is at present the most critical issue, but there are many other anthropogenic threats to the sustainability of the living systems that underpin our existence. If present trends continue unabated, the collapse of civilisation is inevitable.

· The survival of civilisation will require a radical cultural transformation, leading to a new society that is truly in harmony with nature (A Biosensitive Society).

· This transformation will not take place unless a great wave of new understanding spreads across the cultures of the world – understanding of life on Earth and the human place in nature (Biounderstanding).

· This wave of new understanding, sweeping across the prevailing cultures worldwide, is thus a precondition for the survival of civilisation and the future wellbeing of humankind.

It is therefore proposed that a new kind of international organisation be established as soon as possible that is dedicated to spreading understanding of life on Earth and the human place in nature across all cultures of the world, highlighting aspects of special relevance to the wellbeing of humankind and of the living systems around us.

The IBC will also provide a framework for informed dialogue about the social changes necessary for the achievement of a society is truly sensitive to, in tune with and respectful of the processes of life that underpin our existence, and how they can be brought about. It will communicate the outcome of these deliberations online and directly to politicians and governments.

It is recommended that an International Biocentre Planning Group be formed as soon as possible to develop the proposal in detail.

If interested, please contact me at

Environmentalism and the Green Movement

A minority of the population today have good understanding of the ecology of modern society, and this understanding finds expression in the ideologies referred to as environmentalism. The emergence of the Greens as a political entity is another indication of a growing concern about the ecological predicament – although election results in Australia suggest that this concern is shared by only a small section of the population. 

In fact, for over half a century there have been signs of growing awareness, among some sections of the community, that our present society is heading for ecological collapse. Numerous books have now been published drawing attention to this reality. Early examples from the 1970s include works by Paul Erhlich, Barry Commoner, Donella and Dennis Meadows, René Dubos and Barbara Ward.  Since that time there has been an explosive growth of literature on environmental history and philosophy.

Many individuals and groups have come up with ideas for an alternative society of the future that is ecologically sustainable. In 1972 Edward Goldsmith and others published Blueprint for survival, in which they argued for a shift to a new kind of society to prevent 1992‘the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life support systems on this planet’. Today there are many community organisations and NGOs campaigning for a transition to an ecologically sustainable society, such as the Transition Towns movement and the Great Transition Initiative.

There are also countless groups focusing on specific ecological issues. To mention but a few local examples here in Australia, we have the Climate Institute, Sustainable Population Australia, SEE Change groups, The Wilderness Society, Permaculture groups, Healthy Soils Australia, 350 Australia and Landcare groups.

At the international level there has been a series of major conferences on the theme of sustainability, organised by the United Nations, including the Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 to the Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.

There have also been many important international conferences on specific ecological issues, including the United Nations conferences that led up to the Paris Agreement on climate change in December 2015.

With the possible exception of the Paris Agreement, these warnings have not penetrated to the core of the prevailing cultures of the world. We have only to listen to the pre-election speeches of our political leaders for proof of this statement.  Although some important measures have been taken here and there to protect aspects of the natural environment, they have not been allowed to interfere with the inexorable thrusts of ever-moreism and market forces. The juggernaut rolls on.

So, while the process of cultural reform is certainly underway, it has a long way to go, and the inevitable counter-reform backlash is very much in evidence.  The ecologically maladaptive assumptions of the prevailing culture remain firmly entrenched, and the reform process is clearly in need of a big boost. 

Evolution and Human Health


For any living organism, health can be defined as follows:

Health is that physiological and behavioural state most likely to ensure survival and successful reproduction. 

In the case of animals, health is thus consistent with optimal performance, in terms of procuring food and water, avoiding predators, mating, giving birth and, in many species, successfully raising young. However, health is a relative concept, in so far as the state of an organism can be anywhere on a continuum from optimum health at one extreme to near death at the other.

The health needs of animals, including Homo sapiens, are determined by their evolutionary background.  This is because, through the processes of evolution, species have become well adapted in their innate biological characteristics to the conditions prevailing in the environment in which they are evolving.  It follows that these conditions are capable of satisfying their health needs.

If an organism is exposed to conditions of life that differ significantly from those that prevail in its natural environment – that is, the environment in which it evolved − it is likely to be less well adapted to the new and different environment and is likely to show signs of maladjustment. It will be less healthy than in its natural environment.  This fundamental evolutionary health principle applies to all plants and animals.

Thus, in the case of plants, all species are biologically adapted to the conditions prevailing in the environment in which they evolved.  That is, they are adapted to certain kinds of soil (e.g. soil depth, chemical constitution and water content), a certain intensity and quality of solar radiation, certain atmospheric conditions and a certain temperature range.  If they are exposed to conditions which differ significantly from those to which they are adapted, they will not grow well or will die.

The evolutionary health principle is taken for granted by those responsible for the health of animals in zoos.  Zoo keepers try to arrange that creatures in captivity receive the same kind of food that they normally eat in the wild and, if possible, to ensure that they are exposed to temperatures similar to those of their natural habitat. If, like hippopotamuses, they naturally spend most of their time in water, they will be provided with water to wallow in.  If the animals in the wild live in trees, then they will be provided with branches to climb.

Clearly, the natural environment does not satisfy the health needs of all creatures all the time.  Every animal eventually dies.  But in animal populations in their natural habitats most of the individuals are in a state of good health most of the time. This applies to all species, including our own.


As in the case of all other animals living in their natural environments, most of the time most of the members of hunter-gatherer communities were in a state of good health.  Indeed, they had to be in order to survive and successfully reproduce under the demanding conditions of their lifestyle and habitat. 

Most people: 

  • Would have been well nourished.  There is no diet better for any animal than that which is typical of its natural lifestyle and environment.  Undernutrition, malnutrition and obesity were rare in normal circumstances, although in periods of unusual drought people’s health would have deteriorated.
  • Would not, before contact with people from urban societies, have suffered from such infectious diseases as influenza, the common cold, measles, cholera, typhoid and plague.  There were simply not enough humans living together to support these pathogenic microbes.
  • Would not have suffered from such organic disorders as appendicitis, duodenal ulcer, diverticular disease of the colon and cardiovascular disease.  It is known that blood pressure tends to remain more or less constant in adults in primeval societies after the age of about twenty years, rather than increasing steadily after this age as is frequently the case in modern communities. 

On the other hand, the primeval life style was characterised by some built-in hazards which are absent from modern society.  There was a considerable risk of serious injury acquired during hunting, and severe wounds often became infected leading to gangrene or septicaemia.  Any incapacitation due to injury or ill health was of much greater survival disadvantage in the hunter-gatherer setting than under the protective conditions of modern civilisation. People did not have the benefit of the artificial antidotal measures like antibiotics, chemotherapeutic agents and surgery that are available today.  The average age in primeval populations was probably around 25 years. 

Numerous definitions of health have been proposed for humankind.  Here we adopt a biological definition similar to that given above for all living organisms:  health in humans is that physical and mental state that would have been likely to ensure survival and successful reproduction. Another appropriate definition is:  health is that state of body and mind conducive to, and associated with, full enjoyment of life.

Of greater practical interest than the definition of human health is the identification of the health needs of our species.  There are various approaches to this issue, ranging from one’s own personal experience to the application of knowledge from medical research.  Here we adopt a biological approach based on the evolutionary health principle, which recognises that the conditions to which humankind had become genetically adapted through evolution satisfied the survival and reproductive needs of our ancestors for many thousands of generations, and that significant deviations from these conditions are likely to be associated with signs of maladjustment or ill health.[i]  The evolutionary health principle clearly applies to a wide range of physical aspects of life conditions in humans.  There is no diet better for humankind than that which was typical for hunter-gatherers.  It is also clear that the principle is applicable to some aspects of behaviour.  Marked deviations from natural sleeping patterns cause maladjustment, and health is likely to be impaired if patterns of physical exercise deviate markedly from those of humans in the natural habitat. 

There are good reasons for supposing that the evolutionary health principle also applies to psychosocial and relatively intangible aspects of life experience.  For example, the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers are usually characterised by incentives and opportunities for creative behaviour, a sense of personal involvement in daily activities and plenty of convivial social interaction.  Most of us would agree that such conditions are all likely to promote health and wellbeing in our own society.

Taking our knowledge of the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers as a starting point, we can put together a working list of physical and psychosocial conditions likely to promote health and wellbeing in our species (Box 1).  They are referred to as universal health needs because they apply to all members of the human species, wherever or whenever they may be living. 

Not every item on this psychosocial list is absolutely essential for health. Lack of satisfaction of one psychosocial health need may be offset to some extent by the satisfaction of others.  On the other hand, every item on the list will, if satisfied, make a positive contribution to health and wellbeing.

Most of the items on the list of postulated psychosocial health needs, like creative behaviour and sense of personal involvement, cannot be defined and measured as easily as the physical health needs; but this does not mean they are less important.

Unfortunately, conventional measures of social wellbeing in our society today do not take the less tangible psychosocial aspects of life experience into account; nor do they feature on the platforms of the major political parties. However, it is crucial that deliberate effort be made to take these psychosocial factors into consideration in any assessment of current human life conditions or in planning for the future.

Brief comment is called for on the concept of stressors and meliors.  Stressors are experiences which cause anxiety and distress, and they are a normal aspect of life.  If they are short-lived and not too severe they can be seen as contributing positively to the quality of life and wellbeing; but if they are excessive and if they persist they can interfere seriously with both mental and physical health.  Equally important are experiences which have the opposite effect to stressors and which give rise to a sense of enjoyment.  Such experiences have been called meliors.  Common meliors include the experience of creativity, fun, aesthetic enjoyment, and conviviality. 

Every person can be considered at any given time to be at some point on a hypothetical continuum between a state of distress and a state of enjoyment.  Their position on this continuum is largely a function of the balance between meliors and stressors in their recent experience.  

The cultural environment has an immense influence both on the levels of meliors and stressors in an individual’s daily experience as well as on the nature of the factors that cause them.  Culture also affects the energy and pollution costs of attempts to avoid stressors or to experience meliors.

Universal health needs of the human species

Physical needs

Clean air (not contaminated with hydrocarbons, sulphur oxides, lead etc.)

A natural diet (that is, calorie intake neither less than nor in excess of metabolic requirements; foods providing the full range of the nutritional requirements of the human organism, as provided, for example, by a diverse range of different foods of plant origin and a little cooked lean meat; a diet which is balanced in the sense that it does not contain an excess of any particular kind of chemical constituent or class of food; foods with a physical consistency of that of natural foods and containing fibre; foodstuffs devoid of potentially noxious contaminants or additives)

Clean water (free of contamination with chemicals or pathogenic micro-organisms)

Absence of harmful levels of electromagnetic radiation (e.g. alpha, beta, gamma, ultraviolet and x-rays)

Minimal contact with parasites and pathogens

Protection from extremes of climate (temperature, wetness)

Noise levels within the natural range

Levels of sensory stimulation which are neither much lower, nor much higher, than those of the natural habitat

A pattern of physical exercise which involves short periods of vigorous muscular work and longer periods of medium (and varied) muscular work and stretching; but also frequent periods of rest

Psychosocial needs

An emotional support network, providing a framework for care-giving and care-receiving behaviour, and for exchange of information on matters of mutual interest and concern

The experience of conviviality

Opportunities and incentives for co-operative small-group interaction

Opportunities and incentives for creative behaviour and for practising manual skills

Variety in daily experience

Contact with the natural environment

An environment and lifestyle conducive to a sense of personal involvement, purpose, belonging, responsibility, challenge, comradeship and love.

[i]  This does not mean that evolutionary change in the human species has come to a halt.  There has been a relaxation of some selection pressures that were powerful in the hunter-gatherer environment and in the long term this will result in genetic changes in human populations (J. M. Rendel 1970. The time scale of genetic change. In S. Boyden (Ed.) The impact of civilisation on the biology of man. Canberra: Australian National University Press).  There have also been some new selection pressures associated with the advent of farming that have produced changes in some populations.  A well known example of this is emergence and  spread in European populations of lactase production into adulthood in response to the availability of bovine milk as a food source. For discussion of this change and for other examples see G. Cochran and H. Harpending (2009). The 10,000 year explosion: how civilisation accelerated human evolution. New York: Basic Books.

Human Society – A Conceptual Framework

The framework depicted in the Figure below is designed to facilitate thinking and communicating about the social changes necessary to achieve biosensitivity. It is an elaboration of the ‘Biosensitivity triangle’ (see Figure 1 ‘The Biosensitivity triangle’ in A Biosensitive Society). The framework reflects the fact that there are essentially two quite different aspects of human society in which changes will be necessary, designated the physical dimension and the cultural dimension respectively.

It is Human activities that directly influence human and ecosystem health. In some instances, the relationship is quite simple. Tobacco smoking in individuals results in lung disease. Deforestation results in loss of biodiversity.

In others, the relationship is more complex. For example, the use of fossil fuels as an energy source results in increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This leads to climate change, which, among numerous other effects, brings about changes in the geographical distribution of certain mosquitos, and the consequent introduction of mosquito-borne diseases in human populations in areas which had previously been free of these diseases.

The number of humans (under Human population in the Physical Dimension section further down this page) in a given area is also an important factor affecting human and ecosystem health.

While it is human activities that directly affect human or ecosystem health, these activities are strongly influenced by the cultural dimension of society. The assumption in governments that economic growth is what matters most leads to activities on a scale and of a kind that seriously interfere with ecosystem health.

New understanding in a Prevailing culture can lead to changes in cultural arrangements, and hence to changes in human activities. Scientific knowledge about the effect of CFCs on ozone levels in the atmosphere, and of the undesirable consequences for life on Earth, was eventually embraced by the prevailing cultures worldwide, leading ultimately to the Montreal Protocol of 1987. This. in turn, led to new and effective cultural arrangements prohibiting the production and use of CFCs.

The effect of variables in the cultural dimension on human and ecosystem health are always, of course, indirect, in that they only have impact through their influence on human activities. Government policies, an aspect of Cultural arrangements, determine whether a new coal mine goes ahead, and this in turn determines whether the coal will be combusted, leading to further greenhouse emissions and further global warming. An economic system that demands ever-increasing use of natural resources and production of wastes, is ecologically unsustainable in the long term.

Cultural arrangements, such as government policies and the economic system, are themselves a function of the worldview and priorities of the prevailing culture. A worldview that sees economic growth and jobs as more important than the threat of climate change results in governmental polices that will hasten global warming and the collapse of civilisation.

The survival of human civilisation will be dependent on big changes in the worldviews and priorities of the prevailing cultures across the globe.


Prevailing culture

This includes the shared worldview, beliefs, knowledge (including knowledge of how things work and of technologies), values and priorities of a human population. It is a major determinant of cultural arrangements and human activities, and it therefore indirectly influences human and ecosystem health.

Cultural arrangements

This group of variables is another aspect of human culture. It includes such factors as the economic system, governmental regulations, legislation, the institutional structure of society and educational programs. Cultural arrangements are largely determined by the prevailing culture.


Human population

This category of variables describes the state of the human population at any given time. It includes such variables as population size and the geographical distribution of the population.

Human activities – collective

This group of variables covers all kinds of human behaviour, such as use of extrasomatic energy, farming, manufacturing, retailing, travelling, construction of buildings and making war.


This category includes all human-made objects, including machines, electronic devices, vehicles, buildings, clothing, books and works of art.


When exploring the relationships between aspects of human society and human and ecosystem health, it is useful to have at hand working lists of the health needs of humans and of ecosystems. The prevailing conditions in human society must satisfy these various needs.

Examples of such working lists are presented in Tables 1 and 2.

For a rationale behind this list, see Evolution and Human Health


In the history of civilisation, it has frequently been the case that new techniques have been introduced simply for curiosity, or sometimes because they have benefited a particular individual or group within society. But with the passing of time societies have organised themselves around the new technologies and their populations have become progressively more and more dependent on them for the satisfaction of basic needs. Eventually a state of complete dependence is reached.

The current dependence of human populations on fossil fuels is an obvious and extremely serious example. Others include our dependence on electricity and, quite recently, on computer technology.

This insidious form of addiction passes largely unnoticed, although it is often of immense economic and ecological significance.

From the ecological standpoint it is significant that in the modern cultural setting the following basic behaviours usually use up much more energy and create much more pollution than they did in the past: seeking in-group approval; seeking to conform; seeking attention; seeking novelty, seeking excitement, seeking variety; seeking comfort; visiting relatives; being selfish; being greedy; and being generous.