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Lecture/Discussion Topics

William James on Nonhuman Nature

At the end of the nineteenth century, when psychology was emerging as a scientific discipline, William James (1842-1910) published his dense text The Principles of Psychology (1890), in which he drew from philosophy, biology, and psychology to explicate his original — and influential — ideas about human self and experience. James’s understanding of experience was informed by his appreciation of the natural world. According to biographer, Daniel Bjork (1997), James ” found natural settings indispensable to his creative life” and once “attributed creative insight to the natural scene and mood that catalyzed his thinking in an isolated wilderness camp high in the Adirondacks” (p. 67). Bjork tells the story of James’s adventures on a scientific expedition in Brazil in 1865 with anti-Darwinian Harvard professor Louis Agassiz. During the expedition, James wrote to his brother from a rainforest glade that he dubbed the “Original Seat of the Garden of Eden,”

I almost thought my enjoyment of nature had entirely departed, but here she strikes such massive and stunning blows as to overwhelm the coarsest apprehension… The bewildering profusion and confusion of vegetation, the inexhaustible variety of its forms and tints… are literally such as you have never dreamt of. [Bjork, 1997, pp. 61-62]

More than thirty years later, and a decade after he published Principles, James (1899) wrote an essay entitled, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” James begins the essay with the statement, “OUR judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us.” He goes on to address the lack of empathy humans exhibit regarding the feelings of “creatures and people different from ourselves.” He claims that recognizing the connections between all living things is a means to finding significance in life. He refers to the Romantic poets Wordsworth and Shelley and transcendentalists Emerson and Whitman as he makes the argument that rapturous sessions spent reflecting on the natural world are not the waste of time that they might seem when viewed from the abstract perspective of the highly educated class, or when evaluated in terms of commercial value. James claims that by reconnecting with nature on a primal sensory level, humans are able to tap into a profound appreciation of the meaningfulness of all forms of existence,

The remedy under such conditions is to descend to a more profound and primitive level. To be imprisoned or shipwrecked or forced into the army would permanently show the good of life to many an over-educated pessimist. Living in the open air and on the ground, the lop-sided beam of the balance slowly rises to the level line; and the over-sensibilities and insensibilities even themselves out. The good of all the artificial schemes and fevers fades and pales; and that of seeing, smelling, tasting, sleeping, and daring and doing with one’s body, grows and grows. The savages and children of nature, to whom we deem ourselves so much superior, certainly are alive where we are often dead.

B. F. Skinner on Environmental Degradation

In 1982, B. F. Skinner gave a presentation to the American Psychological Association entitled, “Why we are not acting to save the world.” The talk was published in his 1987 book Upon Further Reflection. As students learn about Skinner and behaviorism, instructors can include information about Skinner’s take on the environmental crisis. In his talk, Skinner criticized efforts of environmental (and other) social activist groups as not consistent with operant learning principles.

Many organizations are dedicated to the prevention of nuclear war, overpopulation, and the exhaustion and destruction of a livable environment, but their protests are necessarily directed toward governments, religions and economic systems, and there they stop. Moreover, the principal modus operandi of these organizations is to frighten people, rather than offer them a world to which they will turn because of the reinforcing consequences of doing so (Skinner, 1987, p. 13).

Skinner titled his 1948 utopian novel about a world based on behaviorist priniciples, Walden Two, after transcendentalist nature writer Henry David Thoreau’s (1854) Walden; or, Life in the Woods, an autobiographical account of his two-year experiment in “simple living.” Students may be interested in visiting the websites of two intentional communities inspired by Skinner’s novel: Twin Oaks in Virginia and Los Horcones in Sonora, Mexico.

The Evolutionary Perspective and Environmental Problems

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and other evolutionary theorists had a significant impact on the field of psychology. In 1909, the journal Psychological Review published four articles commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. James Rowland Angell’s essay in the volume, “Darwin’s Contribution to Psychology” suggests that Darwin’s “radical theories” were easily accepted by psychologists and had a “potent influence” on the functional and genetic approaches in psychology. Angell highlights Darwin’s contributions to three primary content areas in psychology: the interaction of instinct and intelligence, the evolution of the “mind of civilized man,” and the expression of emotion. The field of psychology witnessed a resurgence in interest in the evolutionary perspective in the 1990. This revival proved controversial and provocative because some critics saw it as representing a potential return to unpopular ideas such as Social Darwinism, biological determinism, eugenics, and the like. Supporters of the evolutionary perspective suggest that it is progressive, not regressive, in that an acceptance of the fundamental biological nature of human beings and their evolved predispositions will allow us to better understand behavior in all its complexity (e. g., Pinker, 2002). This includes understanding of human behaviors that contribute to environmental problems (e. g., Penn & Mysterud, 2005; van Vugt, Griskevicius, & Schultz, 2014; Wilson, Daly, & Gordon, 1998). The American Psychological Association hosts a searchable electronic database of important dates in the history of psychology compiled by Professor Warren R. Street. Some of the relevant dates to be found in the database include the following:

  • February 14, 1766: Birthdate of Thomas Robert Malthus, whose observation that the food supply does not keep up with population growth stimulated theories about sociobiological competition, including Darwin’s.
  • February 12, 1809: Birthdate of Charles Darwin.
  • April 27, 1820: Birthdate of Herbert Spencer, the man who coined the phrase ” survival of the fittest. “Spencer applied evolutionary theory to a variety of human behaviors and mental phenomena.
  • September 28, 1838: On this date, Darwin read Malthus’s essay on population and the concept of natural selection was illuminated for him.
  • June 18, 1858: Darwin received Alfred Russel Wallace’s manuscript, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type,” and realized that Wallace had discovered natural selection.This prompted Darwin to publish his Origin of the Species (which he had been withholding) before Wallace publicized his theory.
  • May 19, 1869: Psychiatrist and amateur photographer James Crichton Browne sent the first of a series of photographs of mentally ill individuals to Darwin. Darwin used these photos as evidence in his book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.
  • February 11, 1911: On this date, the Mormon General Church Council warned Joseph Peterson, an instructor and the only Ph.D. holder in the psychology department at Brigham Young University, that he and two offending colleagues would be dismissed if they continued teaching Darwinian theory. Peterson left the school and eventually became the president of the American Psychological Association in 1934.
  • July 10, 1925: This date marks the beginning of the Scopes “monkey trial.”
  • October 29, 1988: This date marks the founding meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.

The Intellectual Roots Of Ecopsychology

“Matter in the wrong place is dirt. People got dirty through too much civilization. Whenever we touch nature, we get clean.” – Carl Jung

Ecopsychology emerged in the early 1990’s as a theoretical perspective and applied approach focused on the psychological implications of the bond between humans and nonhuman nature. A fundamental tenet among ecopsychologists is that the disconnection between humans and nonhuman nature that is typical in modern industrial cultures is unhealthy for humans and, subsequently, harmful to the planet. For overviews of ecopsychology, see the original text by Roszak, Gomes, and Kanner (1995); see also Boston (1996), Fisher (2002), Schroll (2003), and Scull (2008).

Ecopsychology is a rich topic to address in a history course or unit because it is an example of what can happen when scholars within our discipline are inspired to break out of the dominant paradigms and infuse their work with ideas from other intellectual and cultural traditions. Ecopsychological theory and practice is informed by philosophical perspectives such as deep ecology and phenomenology, spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, the transcendental writings of authors such as Thoreau and Emerson, and the life practices of indigenous cultures around the world. Within the discipline of psychology, the first generation ecopsychologists connected primarily with the work of Carl Jung (e. g., Aizenstat, 1995; Sabini, 2002; Yunt, 2001), Gestalt psychology (e. g., Cahalan, 1995; Swanson, 1995 ), and the Humanist and Transpersonal traditions (e.g., Davis, 1998; Kuhn, 2001; Reser, 1995). Today there are some empiricists among the ranks of ecopsychologists. Their work can be found in the journals Ecopsychology and European Journal of Ecopsychology.

Historical Changes in Worldviews

Consider the following examples of major cultural paradigm shifts (e.g., Weinert, 2009):

  • The Earth is not the center of the universe (Copernicus, 1543).
  • Humans were not “created;” rather, the human species evolved according to the same physical mechanisms as do all other organisms (Darwin, 1859).
  • Humans aren’t as “rational” or conscious as we might think (Freud, 1938; Gazzaniga, 2004).

Are we in the midst of another significant paradigm shift (e.g., The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (Korten, 2006))? If so, what would this new worldview look like? For instance, the class could discuss the concept of moving from “domination to cooperation” that is emerging in some sustainability circles.  Discuss the concept that, 

  • Humans are not exempt from natural laws, that are circular rather than linear; promote diversity; and limit growth (Scott, et al., 2016).

Further discussion could focus on the relationships between manifest destiny/contemporary conceptions of “progress,” and the prevalence of war and income and social inequalities. Instructors may point out historical efforts to conquer or “civilize” (i.e., oppress) other cultures; differential distributions of power, wealth, prestige, possessions, etc., and organizing society through hierarchy and violence. For instance, Korten (2006) argues that corporate consolidation of power is just one manifestation of “Empire.”

Exploring Cultural Dualisms

The values reflected in the Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP) of Western cultures reflect a number of dualisms, some of which are exemplified in this table.  Ecofeminists argue that a particular logic of domination and dualism (rather than a strictly patriarchal logic) runs like a fault line through Western cultures (Eaton, 2005; Plumwood, 1993).  Once this logic has been unmasked, it’s apparent that the over-use/abuse of natural resources mirrors the oppression of women, indigenous cultures and genocide, people of color (e.g., slavery), and the poor. As Plumwood (1993) noted, the elements on the “superior” side of the dualism can be represented as forms of reason, whereas the “inferior” elements can be represented as forms of nature.  Instructors could present the list on the left, and invite students to fill in the right side.  Alternatively, the instructor could present a few examples from the table and have students generate others.  

Some additional points instructors might want to include in lecture, or offer for discussion:

  • Dualisms are rigid; people generally don’t know how to embrace both as equally valuable;  
  • Dualisms may be distinguished from softer, less hierarchical dualities that are characteristic of many indigenous and traditional cultures;
  • Dualisms reflect existing power structures, including political structure;
  • The DSP includes systems of cultural denial and shaming (e.g., historical European attitudes toward communities of color).

(Contributed by Reverend Dr. Janet Parker; printed with permission).

Historical Attitudes Toward Animal Research

Donald Dewsbury (1990) described how the contemporary conflict between animal researchers and animal welfare advocates can be traced back almost 200 years. Specifically, the Victorian era anti-vivisectionist movement developed from, and in response to, the humane movement in England that had spurred the creation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Similar movements and legislative efforts to restrict animal research arose in the United States shortly thereafter. Dewsbury noted the conflicted position of many British evolutionists, including Charles Darwin, who simultaneously held a deep love for animals and also a strong belief in the benefits of animal research. Darwin was a staunch opponent of animal cruelty but a supporter of vivisection. William James had similarly complex attitudes, referring to vivisection as a “painful duty.” Dewsbury provided several examples of researchers and university administrators who were attacked by the media during the anti-vivisection movement, just as they are today by animal rights advocates; early targets included G. Stanley Hall, John Watson, Ivan Pavlov, and Edward Thorndike. The APA Committee on Animal Experimentation was formed in 1924. Dewsbury suggested that although the animal rights movement today is much broader than the anti-vivisection movement of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, the criticisms voiced by animal advocates are very similar: animal research is unnecessary because alternatives are available; animal research involves pain and suffering; and animal researchers are more concerned about career ambitions than animal welfare. In both time periods, scientists have argued against these claims. See Baldwin (1993) and Bowd and Shapiro (1993) for essays for and against animal research in psychology. See Saucier & Cain (2006) and Knight, Vrij, Bard, & Brandon (2009) for research on the roots of attitudes about animal research.

Establishment of American Psychological Association Division 34 (Society for Environmental, Population, and Conservation Psychology)

Division 34 of the American Psychological Association is also known as the Society for Environmental, Population, and Conservation Psychology (SEPCP). The APA Council of Representatives admitted Division 34 on August 30, 1973. At that time, and for three decades after, it was called “Population & Environmental Psychology.” The name was changed in 2011 to reflect the growing field of psychology applied to environmental sustainability. In addition to environmental, population, and conservation psychologists, SEPCP members include ecopsychologists (see Ecopsychology). For the early history of Division 34, see Richards (2000). For current news and events, visit the division’s website.

Future Directions: Conservation Psychology

Contemporary developments in psychology will be tomorrow’s history of psychology. Students of psychology history benefit from considering the future trajectories of the field. One such development is the emergence of Conservation Psychology (CP). Carol Saunders’s (2003) pioneering paper on CP, and the numerous responses that followed it in a special issue of Human Ecology Review, brought up many interesting questions about what shape this discipline might take. Questions included whether the discipline would reside within psychology or would be a multi-disciplinary endeavor that includes psychology. These questions are not yet resolved. Conservation Psychology was addressed in the July/August 2005 issue of the APA’s Monitor on Psychology (“A closer look at Division 34: The call of the wild“), and in 2011, APA Division 34 added “Conservation Psychology” to its name. To see what is currently happening in the field, visit http://www.conservationpsychology.org.

The APA Addresses Climate Change

The American Psychological Association has a history of engagement in public policy and politics. In 2008, the APA’s Council of Representatives initiated the Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change. Chaired by Pennsylvania State University psychologist Janet Swim, Ph. D., the task force was comprised of members appointed by APA president Alan Kazdin, Ph.D.: Susan Clayton, Ph.D., College of Wooster; Thomas Doherty, Psy.D., Sustainable Self, LLC; Robert Gifford, Ph.D., University of Victoria; George Howard, Ph.D., University of Notre Dame; Joseph Reser, Ph.D., Griffith University; Paul Stern, Ph.D., National Academies of Science; and Elke Weber, Ph.D., Columbia University. At the August, 2009 meeting of the APA in Toronto, the task force presented its report, Psychology and global climate change: Addressing a multi-faceted phenomenon and set of challenges. For relevant documents (executive summary, policy recommendations, etc.), click here.

Class Activities

Presentation/Paper on an Environmentally Related Subdiscipline

Students of History of Psychology courses are commonly assigned to research a subdiscipline of psychology and present their findings in a formal paper and/or oral presentation. The areas of Environmental Psychology, Conservation Psychology, and Ecopsychology offer interesting histories with connections to schools of thought and historical figures that students are likely to encounter in the history course.

Environmental Biography Of A Psychologist

As described above, several prominent individuals in the history of psychology have interesting connections to the world of nonhuman nature and environmental issues. For this assignment, students write an ” environmental biography” of an individual addressed in their text or in class. Good choices for historical subjects include William James, Carl Jung, Edmund Husserl, Jean Piaget, B. F. Skinner, and others. (Good choices for contemporary subjects are the scholars who feature prominently on this website). Basic questions to guide students’ research could include the following:

  • Did your subject publish anything about the relationship between humans and nonhuman nature?
  • Do biographers describe nonhuman nature as an interest of, or influence on, your subject?
  • Can you identify life experiences or influences that may have shaped your subject’s interest in nonhuman nature?

Multimedia Resources

Website: Today In The History Of Psychology

  • This site is a searchable calendar hosted by the American Psychological Association.

Website: William James

Website: APA Society for Environmental, Population and Conservation Psychology (Division 34)

Websites: Walden Two Communities


Aizenstat, S. (1995). Jungian psychology and the world unconscious. In T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, & A. D. Kanner (Eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind (pp. 92-100). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

James, W. (1899/2001). On a certain blindness in human beings. In Talks to teachers on psychology and to students on some of life’s ideals. Mineaola, NY: Dover. Also available online here.

Richards, J. M., Jr. (2000). A history of Division 34: The division of population and environmental psychology. In D. A. Dewsbury (Ed.) Unification through division, histories of the divisions of the American Psychological Association, (Vol. 5, pp. 113-136). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Saunders, C. D. (2003). The emerging field of conservation psychology. Human Ecology Review, 10, 137-149.


Aizenstat, S. (1995). Jungian psychology and the world unconscious. In T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, & A.D. Kanner (Eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind (pp. 92-100). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Angell, J. R. (1909). Darwin’s influence on psychology. Psychological Review, 16, 152-169.

Baldwin, E. (1993). The case for animal research in psychology. Journal of Social Issues, 49, 121-131.

Bowd, A., & Shapiro, K. J. (1993). The case against laboratory animal research in psychology. Journal of Social Issues, 49, 133-142.

Bjork, D. W. (1997). William James: The center of his vision. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Boston, T. (1996). Ecopsychology: An earth-psyche bond. Trumpeter. Retrieved August 16, 2006 from http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/article/view/269/402.

Cahalan, W. (1995). The earth is our real body: Cultivating ecological groundedness in Gestal therapy, Gestalt Journal, 18, 99-100.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: John Murray.

Davis, J. (1998). The transpersonal dimensions of ecopsychology: Nature, nonduality, and spiritual practice. Humanistic Psychologist, 26, 51-67.

Dewsbury, D. (1990). Early interactions between animal psychologists and animal activists and the founding of the APA Committee on Precautions in Animal Experimentation. American Psychologist, 45, 315-327.

Eaton, H. (2005). Introducing Ecofeminist Theologies. London: T&T Clark International.

Fisher, A. (2002). Radical ecopsychology: Psychology in the service of life. New York: State University of New York Press.

Freud, S. (1938/1964). Splitting of the ego in the process of defense. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol 23, pp. 275-276). London, U.K.: Hogarth Press.

Gazzaniga, M. S. (2004). My brain made me do it. In W. Glannon (Ed.), Defining right and wrong in brain science: Essential readings in neuroethics (pp. 183-194). Washington, DC: Dana Press.

James, W. (1899/1912). On some of life’s ideals: On a certain blindness in human beings: What makes a life significant (pp. 3-46). New York: Henry Holt & Co.

James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt.

Knight, S., Vrij, A., Bard, K., & Brandon, D. (2009). Science versus human welfare? Understanding attitudes toward animal use. Journal of Social Issues, 65(3), 463-483. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.2009.01609.x

Korten, D. C. (2006). The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press Inc. </p

Kuhn, J. (2001). Toward an ecological humanistic psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 41, 9-24.

Parker, J. (2014, June 27). A Compost of Stories Will Lead Us Home. Part of the Lecture Series, Listening to Earth, Opening to God, presented at the Earth Honoring Faith Conference, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Penn, D., & Mysterud, I. (Eds.) (2005). Evolutionary perspectives on environmental problems (Evolutionary foundations of human behavior). Somerset, NJ: Aldine Transaction.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Viking.

Plumwood, V. (1993). Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge.

Reser, J. P. (1995). Whither environmental psychology? The transpersonal ecopsychology crossroads. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 235-257.

Richards, J. M., Jr. (2000). A history of Division 34: The division of population and environmental psychology. In D. A. Dewsbury (Ed.) Unification through division, histories of the divisions of the American Psychological Association, (Vol. 5, pp. 113-136). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Roszak, T., Gomes, M. E., & Kanner, A. D. (Eds.). (1995). Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind. San Francisco, CA, US: Sierra Club Books.

Sabini, M. (Ed.) (2002). The Earth has a soul: The nature writings of C.G. Jung. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Saucier, D. A., & Cain, M. E. (2006). The foundations of attitudes about animal research. Ethics & Behavior, 16, 117-133. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15327019eb1602_3

Saunders, C. D. (2003). The emerging field of conservation psychology. Human Ecology Review, 10, 137-149.

Schroll, M. A. (2003). Remembering ecopsychology’s origins: A chronicle of meetings, conversations, and significant publications. Gatherings: Journal of the International Community for Ecopsychology [online]. Retrieved August 16, 2006 from http://www.ecopsychology.org/journal/ezine/ep_origins.html

Scull, J. (2008). Ecopsychology: Where does it fit in psychology in 2009? The Trumpeter, 24(3). Retrieved September 20, 2018from http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/article/viewFile/1100/1429.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden Two. New York: Macmillan.

Skinner, B. F. (1987). Upon further reflection. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Swanson, J. (1995). The call for Gestalt’s contribution to ecopsychology: Figuring in the environmental field. Gestalt Journal, 18, 47-85.

Thoreau, H. D. (1854). Walden; or, Life in the woods. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.

van Vugt, M., Griskevicius, V., & Schultz, P. W. (2014). Naturally green: Harnessing stone age psychological biases to foster environmental behavior. Social Issues and Policy Review, 8(1), 1-32. doi: 10.1111/sipr.12000

Weinert, F. (2009). Copernicus, Darwin & Freud: Revolutions in the History and Philosophy of Science. West Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons. .

Wilson M., Daly M., & Gordon S. (1998) The evolved psychological apparatus of human decision-making is one source of environmental problems. In T Caro (Ed.), Behavioral ecology and conservation biology (pp.501-523). New York: Oxford University Press.

Yunt, J. D. (2001). Jung’s contribution to an ecological psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 41, 96-121.