Dr. Scott Sampson will present at a University of Utah lecture Tuesday on the theory that human evolution has designed us to care about the natural world -- that was until children started spending more time in front of a computer screen than outdoors. “Instead of seeing ourselves as above and superior to the natural world, we need to see ourselves as embedded in it,” Sampson says.
Sampson (pictured), a renowned scientist and host of Discovery Channel’s Dinosaur Planet, is giving the University of Utah’s 61st Annual Reynold’s Lecture on “The Extinction of Experience: Youth, Nature and Sustainability in the Digital Age.” In an interview with City Weekly, Sampson previewed his talk about his “Topophilia Hypothesis” the idea that humans bond with the natural environment they grow up in, as one he speculates is hardwired in human genetics.
He says as hunter-gatherers, early humans would have likely created an emotional bond with plants, landscape and other aspects of the natural environment they are born into. A behavior. he says, that is born both out of love and necessity. “Hunter-gatherers had to learn to form emotional bonds with nature,” Sampson says. “The same way … infants form bonds with mothers—it’s an essential part of growth, and by doing so we increase our chances of survival.”
Fast forward 70,000 years and Sampson says we have entered a digital age where these distinct bonds languish when children find themselves spending less than half an hour outside a day compared to seven to 10 hours in front of computer or TV screen.
“Just like if you remove a baby from its mother, it won’t form that bond with the mother. There are negative effects for places where we live because we don’t care about [them].”
Sampson cites research noting a hormone released in pituitary glands when humans bond with their parents, with loved ones and even researching identifying such bonds being made with pets. To tap back into a bond one makes with nature is one Sampson believes is vital for the world’s sustainability efforts. He also argues that the solution should not be to renounce technology but to embrace it to learn about engaging with our natural world, a role Sampson takes to heart on the PBS show Dinosaur Train, where he encourages children to discover the natural world just outside their doors.
At the lecture, Sampson will speak more about how educators should get children to interact with local forests, canyons and other natural environs to rekindle this “topophillic” bond. While Sampson concedes his theory has not yet studied hormone releases for individuals who are more embedded in the natural world around them compared to those permanently plugged into TV and the Internet, he still says the need to get children outside and in the sunshine is critical.
“One way or another, we need to make this happen,” Sampson says. “The sustainability crisis facing us now isn’t a crisis of technology so much as it is a crisis of the mind.”