Our primal habitat modifies how we think today

“A hunter and a wild animal play out a life-and-death drama in which corridors often determine the winner. An animal moves quietly along a hedgerow between two fields and the hunter follows close behind. The animal turns along a dense stream corridor; so does the persistent hunter. In desperation, the scared animal glides through a woods to a powerline cut, and down its corridor. In exasperation, the puffing hunter spurts after it, but can’t close in. Some time later, both hunter and hunted are heading for home—along different roads. The hunter and the hunted know the landscape as crisscrossed by corridors.”

—Richard T.T. Forman and Michel Godron, Landscape Ecology

Many of our reactions to landscapes today may be traced back to our evolution on grassy plains.

Many of our reactions to landscapes today may be traced back to our evolution as hominids on grassy plains.

Many of our perceptions of safety, comfort and pleasure to be found along and around paths  derive from our own experiences, but many less conscious reactions do not. The way our minds relate to our surroundings today may be heavily influenced by the origin and evolution of our species, way back when we were the hunters and the hunted. That hypothesis is the basis for habitat theory, which postulates that primeval human habitat, our evolution into upright primates, and our natural selection for survival for thousands of generations predispose us even now to prefer types of landscapes that we preferred those eons ago.

This hypothesis was proposed in 1975 by Jay Appleton in The Experience of Landscape and has been applied to planning and designing landscapes and paths, for instance, by the environmental psychological researchers Steven and Rachel Kaplan in their 1998 book With People in Mind.

The logic is understandable: Since we evolved from primates that swung from tree limbs, we developed large, contortable hands that have been used in turn to shape and hold all of the tools that our evolved intellect has been able to imagine. “Hands are levers of influence on the world that make intelligence worth having,” notes linguist Steven Pinker.

But hands can only carry out the brain’s devises if they are freed from the demanding task of supporting half the body’s weight. Bi-pedalism, walking upright, is what frees the hands to shape the world as we humans have shaped it. Our species picked habitats where our hands could grasp everything we needed for survival while our upright walking allowed us to gather them in one place.

As a result, for us humans, habitat selection is the same as environmental aesthetics. We enjoy being in areas our brains instinctually prefer. Since until recently in evolutionary terms, humans were nomads on savannas, we still have a preference for grasslands. Native peoples of North America and Australia burned large woodland tracts to favor the establishment of grasses, much as homeowners now do with brush cutters and lawn mowers. The instinctual human preference for these aboriginal landscapes is so strong that pictures of savannas are preferred even by children who have never seen one.

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