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The Forgotten Partner of Evolution
by Laurie Cookson

The relatively new field of ecopsychology is demonstrating the benefits to human mental health of exploring relationships with wild nature. When people walk through a forest or visit wilderness they often feel rejuvenated and inspired (Cohen, 1997; Adams, 2002). Looking out the window of a hospital at trees can promote healing (Cock, 2001). There are also a number of outreach programs that aim to improve the mental state of adolescents, neglected or mentally ill people by utilizing natural settings (Greenway, 1995; Montes, 1999). The study of wildness has had less influence in biology as its impact is unclear.

If tame, captured or injured animals are to be released back into the wild, their ability to survive improves if they have been allowed to develop or maintain a mind that is unencumbered with human nuances. They need a ‘wild’ set of skills and concepts if they are to fend for themselves in nature. A number of releasing programs take care to reduce or avoid animal attachment and reliance on their human carers. During breeding programs for the bald eagle, human presence is not revealed. Fledglings are hand fed using eagle-like puppets, and then introduced to the wild from the vantage point of hacking towers built away from human settlements (Priebe, 2000). The reintroduction of pet orangutans into the wild can be a long process requiring an awakening of abilities and confidence within the animals (Smits et al., 1995). Some animals such as rescued performing bears remain mentally scarred and programmed and will never gain the skills needed to be released back into the wild, so must be kept safely enclosed in sanctuaries. Perhaps the most striking example of the mental changes needed to make the transition from tame to wild was provided by the epic of Elsa the lion (Adamson, 1960). All of these examples suggest that to become wild or more suited to nature, some change must occur in the mind’s skill base and perceptions. This suggestion forces the question, are there any adaptive advantages to being wild?

Presumably, the human ability to recognize any such advantage will decrease as our species becomes ever more separated and detached from the wilderness. It now seems necessary to try and spell out the character and advantages of wildness, before the concept becomes unrecognizable in our scientific writings. Already, philosophies that claim wilderness to be a romantic human notion are finding voice (Callicott, 1994).

Ecologists generally understand that there are intricacies and imperceptible interactions from numerous species that contribute to the developing balance and health of an ecosystem. The inability of humans to ‘manage’ an ecosystem to greater health is recognized, and attributed to our lack of knowledge and understanding of these subtleties, and perhaps more importantly, an inability to abstain from self interest and assumption (Willers, 2001). Management often means some form of exploitation while claiming minimal impact. Perhaps the best we can do is to try and reduce past impacts by removing introduced pests, weeds and structures, and then leaving it to nature to reclaim and mend the land.

Being able to hold off and leave land to nature’s own devices is in some views a sign of human sophistication and maturity (Taylor, 1986). It shows a trust in nature and the foundation of its interactions - wildness. It is best to trust wildness, which is not a faith, but a recognition that in nature more happens than our science can currently know and map. For example, there would appear to be no clear rules or design in wildness, but the end result is a steady blossoming of diversity in the ecosystem of wilderness. Wilderness provides the most productive or stable land for the widest range of species; so many species in fact, that perhaps only half have been discovered and described so far (Wilson, 1993). Wilderness provides a priceless location for fostering biodiversity and for saving endangered species.

Being wild in nature seems important, but it is not clear why. Current definitions of wildness generally see it as living in the natural state with freedom from human control (Aplet et al., 2000), but this definition is not particularly informative for evolution or identifying selective advantage. Cookson (1999) provided the definition that ‘wildness is the highest state of achievement available to an organism’, which requires some explaining. Wildness is interaction at its most raw or natural state. There is a sense of directness and openness. It is a state of being able to do what you want, which for humans is forbidding, but which is essential in animals if they are to contribute to the health of an ecosystem.

There is also a difference between wildness and wilderness. Wildness is the force or quality of interaction, while wilderness is a place where wildness flourishes and has most influence (Grumbine, 1995). Therefore, wildness can occur outside the bounds of a wilderness area, although it will be harder to find. Wildness is widespread in nature, which may occur because there is no alternative, or it may be that there is a reason. Most things occur for a reason, and are not just a part of ‘the aether’.

It is the thesis of this article that wildness is adaptive because it offers a way of finding parsimony in the mind. Such a feature would offer many benefits, such as simpler behavior, greater efficiency, naturalness, greater fitness (in the evolutionary sense), greater relaxation, health and sense of well being. Perhaps the most informative consequence is that parsimony of the mind leads to closer attunement between an organism and its niche. The benefits of attunement are grounded in improved ability and skill within the niche. Attunement can also have highly spiritual connotations to some. It gives a sense of being ‘one with nature’, or of being ‘a part of the land’. Higher grades of attunement will make an organism and peoples feel like direct extensions to their environment, rather than separated entities. For indigenous peoples, it is this sense of belonging that they seem to lament the loss of in modern cultures (Voight and Drury, 1998).

For anything to be adaptive and accessible to evolution, it must contain actual variations rather than be a static concept. By realizing the importance of attunement claiming wildness, a scale accessible to evolution emerges. Gross differences in wildness can be graded through animals that are artificial, domesticated, tame and wild. Humans are no longer a part of nature, and are highly restrained in habits, so could not be considered wild. A suitable term is that they are artificial. Of course, humans are natural, and the way we are now is presumably the result of natural processes. So in a sense are we still wild? If a key part of being wild is attunement, the reason why humans are artificial rather than wild becomes apparent. Animals cannot be wild (attuned, efficient, adapted) to all of the nature in their environment. They can only be attuned and wild in relation to their specific subset of niche within the environment. Animals are at home in their niche and that is where their wildness operates. So while humans are natural (we have natural reasons for the way we are), we cannot set up an attunement relationship with a niche, and so cannot become wild. The niches for humans change rapidly, preventing the establishment of the bonds of attunement that would normally lead to the heightened state of wildness. Indeed, humans have a history of destroying their niche, occupying a slash and burn mentality. We do not commit to a natural niche, but instead pick and choose in an artificial way that can only retard our attunement to natural wildness.

Tame animals provide a further gradation into wildness. Some wild animals may be coaxed from their hiding places with the offer of food, and become somewhat reliant on human offerings. Domesticated pets show an even further gradation into tameness. At times though, pets may try to test out their adaptations the way nature intended, as shown when cats hunt for food around the home, or when dogs attempt to form a roving pack. These animals are more receptive to the wild than an artificial species. Some domesticated animals are quite capable of becoming feral. In this state they find wildness, but they can also become a great burden on the existing wilderness. Indeed, feral animals usually cause great harm to the wilderness as it existed upon their introduction. If the feral animals are not removed, with time a new wilderness would probably emerge along with a new set of species that have adapted to the introduced pest. The tragedy though is that such a wilderness is no longer pristine.

Other organisms not human influenced appear to occupy a level of attunement that gives them a functional level of wildness. All of these animals to us seem ‘wild’. But within that natural (attuned) world, there would also be variations in an individual’s level of niche adjustment, fitness, emotional stability, honed skill base, efficiency and instinct reliability. Wild animals vary in their level of attunement to their various niches, and therefore vary in wildness. Evolution is able to act on such variations.

In evolutionary terms, being highly attuned to a niche has obvious advantages. It provides heightened responsiveness to the changes and real events that occur within a niche. An attuned animal could read the signs in its niche faster than another, know its surroundings better, and improve its ability to anticipate and perceive. A non-attuned animal would be clumsy and unskilled. One expression of this ability was recognized in Australian aborigines by Europeans settlers. ‘Black trackers’ were often responsible for the location and rescue of white children lost in the outback, because they could read the tracks and signs of their land far more skillfully than the colonialists (Pierce, 1999).

In looking for the ‘adaptations of attunement’ that could change a mind, the main opportunities should be in how thoughts and experiences are organized (instincts), and the development of a motivation to be attuned or wild (desire). These are no small elements in the construction of individual personality and perception, reinforcing the idea that an achievement of wildness for a previously artificial human would have to be a life changing event.

Animals can attune to their niche through a number of stages. At the very least, they must evolve the physical adaptations needed to make them suitable for a niche. But as Elsa the lion showed, this is not enough. A further stage is to fine tune behaviors and habits by altering the organization of the mind. Parsimony might occur in a number of ways, firstly by removing the blocks and inhibitions of the mind, so that it can operate more naturally and simply. A natural animal appears to have few inhibitions. In comparison, a captive animal often learns many commands and inhibitions, the removal of which is often a crucial step if they are to be rehabilitated back into the wild. Second, parsimony can be improved by acting on the organization of the neural pathways in the brain. This action suggests a learning component to the development of instincts. Each species will vary in the quantity of neural pathways available to changes through parsimony. There will be a range of inherited instincts or reflexes that cannot be changed. But further, an ability to adjust attunement would require the presence of influential neurons that can learn to take charge of the mind and tie all codes of behavior together to give one sense of well being or instruction. Those species with higher proportions of uncommitted neurons, most often identified as occurring in the cerebral cortex, would provide particularly fertile ground for learning the instincts of parsimony.


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A part of being wild is to react naturally and swiftly. A good set of instincts allows an animal to take some things for granted, giving them time to tackle other important issues such as finding food or attending to a particular danger. If instincts can be learnt, then repeated learning should drive a successful thought or skill deeper into the subconscious until it can be assumed, eventually to the point of becoming an instinct. An animal would probably be unaware of this process. A key feature of instincts is that it is behavior that produces a result, for a reason to which the animal is blind (Epstein, 1982). Instincts seem to become a ‘gut feeling’, which at times can be difficult to ignore and trace. Some of our own skills and behaviors can seem so entrenched and personal that at times they would seem to be inherited. For example, ascents, feelings of disgust, and beliefs are obvious examples of learning, even though they might feel naturally embedded in us. They become a part of an animal’s psyche for which there is no alternative. Learning and training on a wide range of fronts can develop our beliefs, skills and sporting abilities until they become instinctive or as easy as ‘second nature.’

One example of instinct learning clearly occurs in birds as imprinting. Fledglings go through a period when their minds are highly receptive to imprinting with certain beliefs. This process is so powerful that they can even imprint to see a human as their parent, when any hint of objectivity should instruct them otherwise. The fledgling becomes blind to its instinct.

In mammals, a similar imprinting of instincts might occur, but more slowly, and apparently with the capacity for future change and modification. Changeux and Danchin (1976) discovered a suitable candidate for the parsimony of instinct learning. They described a process of ‘selective stabilisation’ that acted on the uncommitted neural pathways that occur within the cerebral cortex. The repeated stimulation (= learning) of certain pathways leads to their consolidation and entrenchment as the path to take in future interactions. The more often a pathway is selected, the more deeply it becomes a part of the personality or behavior of the animal. With time and repeated use, it could become assumed and buried deep within the subconscious as an instinct. Other parallels are that the structure of the neural pathways ‘evolve’ through a natural selection of those proving to be most useful (Llinas, 1987), not too different to the natural selection happening on physical adaptations. De Bono (1969) provided another model of this learning process that could be interpreted as leading to instincts. He modeled the mechanism of mind as similar to a plate of gelatin being shaped into a series of gullies and pathways through the drops of hot water that represented stimuli. These gullies could eventually become instincts. De Bono (1969, page 256) also provided the useful recognition that if we are not careful, the development of such an assuming (instinct based) mind could produce delusions or ‘self-perpetuating patterns that seem uniquely true’. While Crook (1987, page 390) notes that ‘reality is essentially an attribution of the mind, which can become illusory’. We could add, that such a risk is especially more likely to occur if the instinct learning animal loses touch with the reality check so conveniently provided by the wildness.

During instinct learning, it would be very important to keep instincts well grounded in reality. Learning an irrelevant tangent would be detrimental. If selective stabilisation occurred in the presence of a wilderness, then honest and direct feedback interactions should occur and lead to the production of quality natural instincts. Instincts within a niche are sensible and highly useful. If a niche changes however, then old instincts can become a problem. Unyielding instincts can harm survival when conditions change, because an animal might be programmed to give the wrong response despite the new circumstances. There must be a balance between what instincts or reflexes are inherited (those that will always be useful), and those that are best left to learning through attunement and consultation with the wild niche, as a way of keeping you sharp.

If it is an adaptive advantage to be wild, then there should also be a motivation, desire or reward in animals to be that way. Animals should want to be wild, because of its enormous benefits. Instantly, many people will say they do not feel any desire to be wild. However, it is important to separate primal or biological desires from the controls we now place on ourselves through our current belief systems and learnt disgusts. If wildness is seen as the source of human evil and selfishness, then instinct forming processes that aim to give us wildness will fill us with disdain. Nevertheless, it is important to look at how the animal in us acts. If wildness is simply a state of attunement or integration into the natural world, then wildness may in fact be a way of making animals more pleasant and responsible within their system.

If this theory is correct, the most fundamental motivation in an animal should be to be wild, which by using the spin of attunement, means animals must have a desire for attunement or interaction. A more informative name for wild desire is that it is an interaction desire (Cookson, 1999). The goal of attunement is to have as many interactions as possible released from the same quantum of effort. Parsimony of the mind is attractive because it offers a given mental effort an escalating range of possibilities and interactions.

The seat of the interaction desire is the pleasure center in the hypothalamus. This organ appears to have more control over animals than it deserves or can be explained if its role was simply to fill the needs of sex, hunger and survival. In rats, monkeys and other animals, stimulation of this region by implanted electrodes has been shown to override all other desires such as sex and hunger, even to the point of death through starvation (Routtenberg, 1980). A reason has not really been forthcoming, and its power has been thought of as a design fault or primal extravagance. But if the primary aim of the pleasure center is to deliver wildness, then its function and adaptive advantage is explained, and the level of importance evolution has placed on wildness can now be appreciated.

The pleasure center can operate as the organ that seeks wildness, by following one simple principle. It gives us a feeling of pleasure if we can gain greater perception for reduced neural effort. In other words, it will give us pleasure if for one neural effort we can interact or see a wider range of interactions than before. The pleasure center has all the hardware necessary to act in this fashion. Effort and stimulation to the cerebral cortex (main site for instinct learning) is directed through the stage gate of the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus and its pleasure center can see the effort of what goes in for what comes out. The pleasure center system also has its connections spread deeply throughout the cortex (Routtenberg, 1980), so it can amply measure the breadth of interaction (number of cortical neurons that were stimulated) for each burst of energy pumped into the cortex. The more cortical neurons stimulated from the same quantum effort, the greater must be the parsimony and therefore the skill and attunement of the mind.

This arrangement and role for the pleasure center also explains why we enjoy a wide range of parsimonious achievements in the mind, such as understanding, achievement, problem solving, realization, inspiration, enlightenment, and music. Pleasure for parsimonious achievement is needed to steer the instinct learning process of selective stabilization into the realm of wildness where instincts must be attuned, efficient and inspiring.

These observations show that evolution has placed great store in the need for an animal to become attuned to the natural world, to the level where it can be said to be wild. Even if wildness is not the state you think is suited to our species, we need to recognize its place in the wellbeing of other animals. The question to ask is whether an understanding and perception of this level of organization for the mind could benefit human culture today. This is a field being tackled by ecopsychology (Roszak et al., 1995; Winter, 1996). The discussion in this paper suggests that wildness is the best psychiatrist you could ever want to meet.

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Laurie Cookson lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he obtained his PhD in Zoology in 1989. Currently, he is leader of the Wood Protection research group at CSIRO, working on environmentally safer technologies for the timber treatment industry. The diversion into ecopsychology stems from a life long fascination with nature, and an interest in why it is misinterpreted.

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