Nature's Beauty, Its Beasts, and Our 'Crocodile Brains'
By BILL BLAKEMORE
Steve Irwin was driven to bring humans -- as we really are -- ever closer to nature as it really is.
If there was any mystery to his success, it may have been in his unabashed and good-natured abuse of what scientists call our "biophilia."
Biophilia is much more than the natural human "love of nature," scientists say.
Biologist Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term, told ABC News that "biophilia is the instinctive attraction to nature and all forms of life and even life-like processes."
Biophilia helps explain many aspects of human behavior, says Wilson, from why so many have cats and dogs to why people who can afford to so often buy property with lots of nature on it -- trees and lawns and, if they're really rich, a stream running through it.
Hospital patients recovering in rooms with windows looking out onto nature -- trees and fields and cloudscapes -- have been discovered in several studies to heal much faster and get home sooner than those with a view of a brick wall or highway.
TV News producers know that one sure way to spice up a show is a good animal story.
We naturally evolved biophilia because survival depended on it, Wilson says. Where else but in "nature" (as we now call it -- back then it was all there was) did we find food, love and reproduction, shelter, diversion and necessary relaxation -- and also the negative thrill of extreme danger.
Steve Irwin's shocking death at 44, leaving behind a young wife and two children, reminds us of that danger.
So did "Grizzly Man," the recent documentary about the young wildlife activist Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers living among the great bears, only to be killed and partially eaten by one of them.
Treadwell, a loner, and Irwin, gregarious in the extreme, were each controversial: Treadwell was advised repeatedly not to get so close and Irwin was dismissed by some as little more than a colorful TV character. Irwin, despite the boyish enthusiasm that came through so clearly, was in fact, say colleagues, a deeply serious naturalist and protector of wilderness who was trying to familiarize great urban audiences with nature.
But biophilia takes many forms, not all as academically disciplined as that of Professor Wilson.
Wilson, who has roamed the world's wilderness for more than half a century, explained to us in his Harvard lab that biophilia is a genetically based "gravitational pull that nature has for people -- and even [has] a calming effect and esthetic effect." Because of it, "novelty and diversity of life are esteemed," he said
Steve Irwin reached far beyond the numbing TV clichés of the overused panda story, which play to the cute and cuddly moments in nature -- media cousins to those adorable cheetah kits and big eyed bush babies peering balefully at the late night TV host's proffered dead cricket.
He found a way to bring viewers into the very live nature of tooth and fang -- and do so in a remarkably personal way.
After all, a crocodile whisperer would have to be a little rough. Crocodiles are not cute and cuddly and don't respond like horses.
Neither do humans.
Irwin's viewers were gathered in by the way he appealed to what psychologists sometimes literally call "our crocodile brains," which anatomists locate in our brain-stem, most immediate to our spinal chord. It is the brain's oldest structure, evolutionarily speaking.
Get, grab, bite, run, lurch, feint, twirl, flinch. All those instincts served the crocodilians and other reptilian lines very well, helping them survive from the age of dinosaurs. The sharpness of those instincts in humans are clearly on view in the movements of football half-backs, tennis champs and the most graceful and lightning-fast fencers.
Steve Irwin's body language in front of the camera naturally reflected such instincts -- it had to, given his co-stars.
And it excited the same animal movements in the minds of his viewers... just as a graceful dancer we're watching might lead our minds into vicarious leaps and swirls.
It wasn't only crocodiles Steve Irwin was whispering to -- even as he kept educating his fans with the insights in situ of the biologist and conservationist.
Jack Hanna, often seen on ABC explaining the remarkable differences between species far more interesting than any space alien the movies ever dreamed up, spoke with moving grief of Steve Irwin's depth of zoological knowledge and conservationist passion.
And yes, several commentators have now reviewed how in the past couple of years, Irwin seemed to be losing touch with the very dangers he had been so successful in showing us. He was greatly criticized for walking his infant son within a few feet of an enormous crocodile -- to the horror of those watching.
His millions of fans -- who may be more than will admit to it -- couldn't help but like the guy because of his enthusiasm, his blatant desire to teach, and his urgent love of life.