The Difference between Ecopsychology and Evolutionary Psychology

From the Lecture Series: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Evolutionary psychology describes how people have become what they are through evolution and how they inherited characteristics and psychological abilities. On the other hand, ecopsychology explains how people have lived for 2,38,000 years as part of nature and how they are still a part of it. Ecopsychologists believe in a nature-bound way of life for psychological health. Read on to see what they build their beliefs on.

Young happy woman laughing in a bed of grass with arms outstretched
Ecopsychology explains that humans can enhance their psychological and physical well-being through respecting their connection with nature. (Image: asife/Shutterstock)

Humans are altruistic because caring for the group they lived in was an efficient way of surviving. Out of the 2,50,000 years that humans have been around, they have lived 2,38,000 years of it in nature, as a part of its interconnected network.

Ecologists see evolution as a foundational principle in a systemic sense. Combining this approach with evolutionary psychology has created a new branch called ecopsychology.

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Bases of Ecopsychology

Ecopsychologists believe that the human brain did evolve into what it is today, but it is not centered on a selfish notion of survival. Humans do not want to pass on their genetic code at any cost because the brain evolved as part of an ecosystem and the complex web of interconnected species in nature.

Why do we feel so good when we are in nature? Ecopsychologists explain that it is due to the human mind inherited from our ancestors. What we see and feel is a connectedness to the universe and nature. No wonder why people escape from their homes in the cities to nature to get restored and rejuvenated.

Two men and a dog sit along a river, enjoying the peace.
We feel good when we are in the nature and we enjoy hearing the sounds of nature even if it is the first time we encounter them. (Image: Pratyush_singh/Shutterstock)

The sounds of nature are also soothing, even if the person has never been in the source of the sounds in reality. Theodore Rozsak’s famous book, called The Voice of the Earth, is built around the same notion.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Neural Wiring in Humans

The connection to nature does not mean a natural love of hiking and camping. Rather, it means our neural system is a part of a universal neural system, where hurting nature would be reflected back on us. The ecological damage around us affects us on a cognitive level.

Ecopsychologists argue that a deeper pre-cognitive effect results from damaging the environment. Physical harms, such as asthma and cancer, are results of the harm to nature, just like the psychological ones, such as lower mental stability.

The idea was the foundation of the 1982 film Koyaanisquatsi: Life out of Balance by Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke. The film is an aesthetic realization of the ecopsychology beliefs, with not even a single word and only interspersed landscapes and time-lapse footage of both natural and human-made surroundings.

What is the difference between ecopsychology and evolutionary psychology in practice? It seems like they both have the same foundation.

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Planet of the Apes

The 1968 classic, Planet of the Apes, is a good example of evolutionary psychology. Three astronauts crash land on a planet 2000 years after a long space voyage in deep hibernation. The planet hosts different kinds of apes, including humans. However, it is the gorillas that have evolved to have language, culture, religion, and government.

Only one of the astronauts survives what they go through, and the gorillas are surprised by his capability of speech and complex thought. The apes believe in a Great Chain of Being where humans are lower than them.

However, the human astronaut began to prove everything wrong, and the apes did not want the society’s beliefs to rattle. They have even taken a region of the planet that holds provocative remains of an old human culture and placed it off-limits, even to the scientists. They punish those who would hypothesize different worldviews and reserve even harsher sanctions for those who produce empirical evidence.

A big hairy ape waits at the edge of the jungle to welcome any intruders into his densely forested realm.
Unlike Planet of the Apes, Avatar is based on ecopsychology and how humans are a part of the universal network of nature. (Image: Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock)

George Taylor, the astronaut, eventually manages to escape. He then finds out the planet 2000 years away from Earth is, in fact, Earth itself in 2000 years after a thermonuclear war. Almost all humans are dead, and the apes reign. The entire film is based on the notion that psychological aspects are features of evolution.

Humans in the movie need to evolve into what their pre-Stone Age ancestors were like to survive. In the meantime, apes find the opportunity to develop complex thinking and psychology.

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The Case of Avatar

In another movie, Avatar, humans also travel to another planet. This time, they want to take resources and destroy the network of nature there. The inhabitants of the new planet, Pandora, are called Na’vi and have kept their deep connection to their home planet, or mother goddess Eywa. In the end, the human hero, Jake Sully, connects to the natural system of Pandora and defeats humans with human violence. He adopts their ecopsychological viewpoint to do so.

Ecopsychology believes that people’s physical and psychological health are bound to nature. If we hurt the environment, we hurt us.

Common Questions about Ecopsychology

Q: What is the central belief of ecopsychology?

Ecopsychology believes that people are a part of nature and should live as part of it to be healthy and happy.

Q: Which movie was based on ecopsychology?

Avatar was a modern movie based on ecopsychology. It showed how humans are a part of the network of nature and how they are bonded with it.

Q: What do ecopsychologists believe about hurting nature?

Ecopsychology believes in a deep pre-cognitive effect that damaging the environment has on humans. We harm ourselves when we harm the Earth, and this harm is inflicted both physically and psychologically.

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