Biocentrism Breakdown: Debunking the Dogma

Written By Viktor Jovanoski

In 1871, in the first chapter of his second landmark (albeit less popular) book on evolutionary theory, The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin—hailed as “the single most important figure in the history of ecology over the past two or three centuries” by American environmental historian Donald Worster—penned the following paradigm-shifting words:

Man, and all other vertebrate animals, have been constructed on the same general model. […] We ought frankly to admit their community of descent; to take any other view, is to admit that our own structure, and that of all the animals around us, is a mere snare laid to entrap our judgment. […] It is only our natural prejudice, and that arrogance which made our forefathers declare that they were descended from demigods, which lead us to demur to this conclusion.

In the wake of such assertions, the world of ethics experienced a seismic shift, as certain deeply entrenched religious beliefs about human dominion and stewardship over nature were profoundly unsettled. The traditional Christian perspective—emphasizing humanity’s unique status as “created in the image of God” and given control over the Earth—was confronted by the notion that human beings were not a distinct and separate creation but rather intricately interconnected with all living organisms. Before too long, this sparked a growing awareness of the importance of recognizing and respecting the inherent value of all life forms, leading to the development of a more inclusive and ecologically conscious ethics, known as biocentrism.

In essence, biocentrism advocates for viewing all living organisms as possessing intrinsic worth, independent of their utility or instrumental value to humanity; it encourages embracing the interconnectedness of all life and promoting harmony and respect for the natural world; it values the preservation of biodiversity, the conservation of ecosystems, and the acknowledgment of our shared place within the intricate web of life; and it is, well, inherently flawed. But we are getting way ahead of ourselves.

Indigenous and ancient roots of biocentric ethics

Bust of Pythagoras, the earliest Greek philosopher to advocate vegetarianism, reflecting his belief in reincarnation and—quite possibly—influence from unknown Indian sages. (Credit: Wikimedia)

The idea of considering all living beings as valuable and interconnected is present in many indigenous cultures around the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that many indigenous communities, ranging from the Australian Aboriginal communities to diverse tribes across Africa, South America, and Asia, nurture a profound spiritual bond with nature and view themselves as an integral part of the environment, not separate from it.

The same holds true for many ancient Eastern philosophical traditions, especially those rooted in Dharmic thinking such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. In both Hinduism and Jainism, the concept of ahimsa (nonviolence) extends not only to humans but also to animals and the entire natural world. Meanwhile, Buddhism, in alignment with this biocentric outlook, elevates the importance of compassion by placing the avoidance of harm or taking the life of any sentient being as the foremost among its five fundamental ethical precepts.

Potentially drawing inspiration from Indian philosophy, several ancient Greek thinkers, including Pythagoras and Empedocles, embraced protobiocentric ideas that emphasized the interconnectedness of all life forms. Pythagoras’ belief in the transmigration of souls proposed an eternal cycle of life, intertwining human beings, animals, and plants through a shared essence. Similarly, Empedocles’ elemental theory saw all life arising from the union of earth, water, air, and fire—an early acknowledgment of nature’s interconnected interdependence.

A photograph capturing a man and a vase in a biocentrism context.
Chief Seattle, his only known photograph, made a full decade after his most famous speech by E.M. Sammis. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Across the vast expanse of the Ocean, amidst the indigenous tribes of North America, the Native Americans‘ belief in the sacredness of nature echoed in their intimate connection with the land. The concept of mitákuye oyás’iŋ (“we are all related”) permeates their cultural fabric to this day, underscoring an interrelatedness that extends beyond human kinship, encompassing the entirety of the Earth’s living inhabitants.

This prevailing notion of interconnectedness and reverence for all living beings finds perhaps its profoundest expression in the words of Chief Seattle, a revered leader among the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes, after whom the city of Seattle is eponymously named. In his moving address to the American governors, delivered in 1854, he eloquently articulated the essence of this premodern biocentric perspective:

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

Darwin’s ethical awakening: rediscovering the intrinsic value of the natural world

A painting portraying a man in a chair.
George Richmond, “Portrait of Charles Darwin” (late 1830s) (Credit: Wikimedia)

Less than two decades before Chief Seattle delivered his memorable speech to an indifferent audience (which included the first Governor of Washington Territory, the resolute and military-minded Isaac Stevens), a young, 28-year-old Charles Darwin intimated a strikingly similar idea in one of the earliest entries in his private Notebooks on Transmutation:

If we choose to let conjecture run wild, then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, diseases, death, suffering and famine—our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements—they may partake [of] our origin in one common ancestor—we may be all netted together.

As Donald Worster elucidates in Nature’s Economy, this “wild thought” of 1837 blossomed over the subsequent four decades to become a central theme in Darwin’s writings. According to Worster, the crux of Darwin’s evolutionary revelation was not only ethically profound but also unapologetically unchristian, posing a formidable challenge to the prevailing ethical theory of his era. Darwin’s moral awakening shattered the notion that humanity was uniquely fashioned in the image of God, instead revealing a profound interconnectedness, “a universal brotherhood of living and dying, which man denies only at the risk of cutting himself off from his psychic and biological roots.”

A black and white photo capturing a bearded man.
A 1906 portrait of Edward Payson Evans by an unknown photographer. Largely forgotten today, he was one of “the first professional philosopher in the United States to look beyond anthropocentrism.” (Roderick Nash) (Credit: Wikimedia)

Worster goes on to enumerate a host of influential turn-of-the-century figures who, following Darwin’s lead, wholeheartedly embraced “a similar biocentric perspective.” Anglo-Argentine ornithologist William Henry Hudson, for instance, though initially critical of Darwin’s ideas, found comfort in the message of evolution, realizing that humanity is no longer isolated—”standing like starry visitors on a mountain-top”—but an integral part of the grand tapestry of life.

John Muir, often lauded as “The Father of National Parks,” publicly rejected the traditional Christian belief that nature existed solely for human benefit, suggesting it should be the other way around. Edward Payson Evans and J. Howard Moore, two of the earliest proponents of animal rights and animal welfare (now all but forgotten), launched a systemic attack on anthropocentric psychology and ethics. “The theme of evolution has overturned our attitude toward nature,” declared American horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey, at the beginning of the 20th century. “The living creation is not any more exclusively man-centered; it is biocentric.”

From anthropocentrism to biocentrism: the slow shift in environmental ethics

Now, a man-centered world does not automatically translate to a complete absence of environmental concern. It’s just that in this case, moral queries such as “Why should deforestation be stopped?” find their (oftentimes still positive) answer in relation to the wellbeing of future generations and the survival of the human species. Biocentric ethics, on the other hand, take a broader view that transcends human interests and focuses on the intrinsic value of all living beings and ecosystems. For proponents of biocentrism, the protection and preservation of nature are moral imperatives in themselves, regardless of their direct benefits to humanity. This perspective recognizes that every species, from the smallest microorganism to the grandest mammal, plays a vital role in the intricate web of life and contributes to the resilience and stability of ecosystems.

As already suggested, the origins of anthropocentrism in the Western world can be traced back to the biblical notion of human dominion over nature, as expressed in Genesis 1:26:

And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

This perspective reached its zenith during the Renaissance, as giants of the era, such as Copernicus, Galilei, Montaigne, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, challenged prevailing beliefs and ushered in an era of intellectual awakening. Their groundbreaking contributions revolutionized scientific thought, dethroning even God of his dominion over human beings, and shifting the focus from Theocentrism (a god-centered world) to anthropocentrism; this pivotal shift elevated human achievements and knowledge, imbuing humanity with a newfound sense of mastery over nature. The Enlightenment further solidified this human-centric worldview, emphasizing human reason and dignity as the only sources of moral authority, thereby leading to the rampant exploitation of the environment for the benefit of humankind.

A painting portraying two individuals in a forest, exploring the concept of biocentrism.
Caspar David Friedrich, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (c. 1824). “Can mankind be understood divorced from nature, and is it so very different from other manifestations of nature?” famously asked Friedrich Schlegel, a seminal Romantic philosopher. “No, never,” solemnly say, to this very day, the sublime paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, a contemporary of Schlegel. Here, the central human pair—in the words of art critic Robert Hughes—”in their ‘Old German’ clothes, are scarcely different in tone or modeling from the deep dramas of nature around them, the leaning rocks and the half-uprooted, venerable tree in silhouette.” (Credit: Wikimedia)

The emergence of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century pushed anthropocentrism to new heights. But in addition to bringing about unprecedented economic growth, the rapid advancements in technology and manufacturing unleashed environmental havoc as well. William Blake’s evocative portrayal of the “satanic mills” built in lieu of a New Jerusalem “upon England’s mountains green” poignantly captured the destructive consequences of unchecked industrialization on the natural environment—and, by proxy, the human spirit too. Soon enough, amidst the shadows of the smoke-filled skies of Europe, as the magical creatures of times past began departing their dwelling places, a countercultural movement known as Romanticism emerged as a response to the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. Romantic poets and artists celebrated the beauty and power of nature, expressing a yearning for a deeper connection with the environment.

For Gilbert White, an English naturalist and clergyman, this connection was a source of profound, life-long fascination. Often considered Europe’s first real ecologist, he was much more a poet than a scientist, with a keen eye for observation and a deep appreciation for the intricacies of the natural world. His pioneering work, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne—wherein White recorded his meticulous observations of the flora and fauna of his village in Hampshire—is still described as “the solitary classic of natural history” in English literature. In American literature, such status is reserved, of course, for Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau, White’s most formidable spiritual descendant. Thoreau took the concept of ecology to new heights, infusing it with a subversive spirit and inspiring generations to reconsider their relationship with the world. His work laid the foundation for future environmental movements and the development of modern ecology, making nature appreciation not just a scientific pursuit but a revolutionary call for societal change.

A brief history of modern biocentrism and biocentric ethical theories

As the Industrial Revolution subsided, the ecological consequences of anthropocentrism became increasingly evident. The depletion of natural resources, the loss of biodiversity, and the degradation of ecosystems were stark reminders of the need for a more sustainable approach. These realizations, coupled with the insights of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, set the stage for the emergence of biocentric ethics, the objective of which was outlined nicely by English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy as early as 1910, in a brief letter he sent to the editor of The Humanitarian:

Few people seem to perceive that the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of species is ethical; that it logically involved a readjustment of altruistic morals, by enlarging, as a necessity of rightness, the application of what has been called ‘the Golden Rule’ from the area of mere mankind to that of the whole animal kingdom.

This distinct moral concern for the wellbeing of all living beings prompted a profound shift in environmental philosophy, leading to the rise of several influential thinkers who would influence prevailing environmental attitudes of our age, and slowly shape the modern understanding of biocentrism.

The early 20th century witnessed the emergence of Albert Schweitzer, an Alsatian theologian, philosopher, and medical missionary, whose influential concept of “Reverence for Life” called for a universal ethic that encompassed humans, animals, plants, and the entire ecosystem. “Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life,” Schweitzer stated in his 1923 magnum opus, Civilization and Ethics. “Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”

The pioneers of biocentrism
The precursors and pioneers of modern biocentrism (from left to right): Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) (Wikimedia), Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) (© Britannica), Arne Næss (1912-2009) (via Pinterest), and Peter Singer (1946) (Wikimedia). (Collage by OddFeed)

In the mid-20th century, Aldo Leopold, an American conservationist, and ecologist, further advanced this biocentric perspective. In his seminal 1949 collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold articulated the idea of a “land ethic,” positing that humans were not conquerors of the land but rather citizens of a larger community that included the land, animals, and plants. As Leopold famously announced in the book’s final essay, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Capturing the essence of “the first genuine environmental ethics developed in Western philosophy,” this powerful sentence signaled another transformative shift in humanity’s ethical relationship with the environment.

The shift was further propelled by the contributions of three prominent 20th-century figures: Rachel Carson, Arne Næss, and Peter Singer. Carson’s landmark 1962 work, Silent Spring, exposed the detrimental effects of pesticides—particularly DDT—on the environment, wildlife, and human health, raising public awareness about the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the need to consider the well-being of all species. Directly inspired by Carson, in 1970, Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss introduced the concept of “deep ecology,” urging a reevaluation of human values and a harmonious coexistence with nature. Finally, Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation extended the biocentric philosophical framework to include nonhuman animals, challenging speciesism and promoting veganism as the most ethical dietary choice.

The zenith of these shifts was reached with Paul W. Taylor, an American philosopher, who gave the world “perhaps the most comprehensive and philosophically sophisticated defense of biocentric ethics.” In his 1986 book Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics, Taylor introduced the concept of “biocentric egalitarianism,” asserting that if life is the main criterion of moral standings, then all life forms must possess equal value and deserve equal respect and moral consideration. Taylor’s book shaped modern environmental ethics and provided a solid philosophical foundation for protecting all sentient beings. Well, then again, maybe not so solid.

Biocentrism debunked: or, the inherent value of human beings

A painting showcases the dynamic battle between men and lions.
“Jahangir on a lion hunt,” c.1615. In this pen and ink depiction on buff paper, Mughal Emperor Jahangir courageously rides an elephant, his spear poised to defend against a ferocious lion attacking his comrades. In the midst of this portrayal of power and nature’s balance, one might wonder: Does this scene reflect a worldview aligned with biocentrism? Who’s the one acting in self-defense here? And against whom? (Credit: Wikimedia)

The very foundation upon which biocentrism rests—its assertion that humans share an equal status with all other life forms in nature—inadvertently paves the way for a troubling revelation: that human behaviors must be considered as “natural” as those of any other species. As banally obvious as it might seem, this idea—eloquently brought forth by Richard A. Watson as early as 1983—poses a thought-provoking intellectual challenge that cuts through the core of even the most radical biocentric environmentalist attitudes (or perhaps especially those). Namely, if biocentrism demands from humans to change their ways so as not to interfere with nature, then isn’t biocentrism implicitly singling out humans as distinct entities, the alleged sin of anthropocentrism? And isn’t it inherently hypocritical to set humans apart through the very framework that aims to dissolve boundaries between humans and other species?

To solve this paradox, some biocentric philosophers—or, “ecosophers,” as Watson calls them (not without a hint of sarcasm)—have gone beyond their traditional positions to support their ethical views, even going as far as to reinterpret and redefine the four basic tenets of biocentric ethics: nonmaleficence (avoiding harm), noninterference (respecting autonomy), fidelity (honoring intrinsic worth), and restitutive justice (repairing harm). For example, ecosophers would argue that if it is a sacred duty for humans not to hurt other animals, then a reciprocal principle must similarly extend from animals to us. In other words, as ethically reprehensible as it might be for a hunter to shoot a lion, it is equally unacceptable for that same lion to kill the hunter. By accentuating the fact that preserving life is a moral imperative independently of species, this kind of reasoning aims to do away with the previously mentioned paradox of human exceptionalism, inherent to biocentric thinking.

To provide a moral basis for instances of killing in self-defense—such as when a hunter faces an attacking lion—certain ecosophers have introduced a division between basic and nonbasic interests. Seemingly unambiguous—e.g., killing is allowed for self-preservation (basic interest), but not for fun (non-basic)—this distinction carries substantial implications. Because, well, what does self-preservation entail? For example, deficiency in vitamin B12 may lead to severe forms of anemia and even neurological damage; bearing in mind the fact that this vitamin is not present in plants, are vegans and vegetarians ethically justified in eating animal meat? Even better, imagine (with Joseph R. DesJardins) weighing the interest of a malaria-infected mosquito, hungry for human blood, against that of a sleeping 7-year-old child. Is the survival of the former really equally as important as the survival of the latter? Should human beings be protecting non-human organisms to their own detriment? If not, isn’t this a silent admission that not all lives are equal in the grand biocentric equation?

Shifting perspectives: biocentrism to ecocentrism and the intricacies of valuing life

Upholding a uniform moral standard across species extends beyond reshuffling hierarchies of importance or discerning basic from nonbasic needs. Consider the example of the Burmese python in the Florida Everglades—an invasive species that has wreaked havoc on the delicate ecosystem. Introducing these pythons, likely through the exotic pet trade, has led to a surge in their population, resulting in the decimation of native wildlife such as birds, mammals, and reptiles. Given its focus on individual organism rights, biocentrism might struggle to endorse, philosophically, the eradication of the Burmese python, particularly if it means harming individual organisms.

Consequently, some biocentric philosophers have embraced a more holistic offshoot of biocentrism, called “ecocentrism”, which centers on slightly different environmental values and distinct moral concerns. In essence, ecocentrism holds that it is not individual organisms, but ecological collections (such as ecosystems) that should be our main environmental concern. An ecocentrist, prioritizing ecological integrity and resilience, would advocate for eliminating invasive species despite individual costs, emphasizing the broader health of the ecosystem.

A large python coiled in the grass.
A captured Burmese python in the Florida Everglades; should exterminating it be considered an act of biocentric behavior? (Credit: Wikimedia)

However, the very notion of the ecosystem—including the idea that there exist such things as “invasive species”—is inherently human: as far as the Burmese python is concerned, it is simply following its self-preservation instincts. The “invasiveness” label emerges from human-defined boundaries and perceptions. In essence, it is yet another reflection of our inexorably human-centric interpretation of the world around us. This highlights the intrinsic anthropocentrism embedded even within ecocentrism—a reminder that while we strive to extend moral consideration to all forms of life, our perspective remains entwined with our human experience and understanding of the environment.

The argument that all life is valuable seems tantalizing, but it is met with the counterargument that this very idea can only be a product of human contemplation, thereby enhancing the significance of human life within the same philosophical framework. As a result, at least as a philosophical system, biocentrism is just as challenging as it is incoherent. However, as a meaningful starting point for investigating our place in the universe—that is, as DesJardins says, “an attitude with which to approach life”—it does open a gateway to profound contemplation, encouraging us to ponder our ethical responsibilities toward the intricate tapestry of existence. True, that may not be a lot, or, it may be more than enough.