Michael Garfield's Love Without End Tour Newsletter: Biomimicry: Breathing New Life Into Design

18 May 2009

Biomimicry: Breathing New Life Into Design

One of the oldest truisms in design has to be, “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” And yet, the wheel itself was a reinvention – a microscopic, electromagnetic motor, complete with hub, spokes, and axle, is fundamental machinery deep within every cell of your body. When human beings stumbled on the relationship between a round disc and a flat surface, we were only recapitulating the “discovery” of these principles by evolution over three billion years before. If fact, the history of human ingenuity can be read as a book of rediscovery (and in many cases, direct plagiarism).

It should come as no surprise. Human beings, after all, have only had about 100,000 years to figure out what we know; the planet Earth is almost five billion years older than our species. All things considered, we’ve done an admirable job of arriving at what we know in the time we’ve had. However, most world-shaking inventions didn’t appear through mere trial and error, but through a careful study and imitation of natural form and function. It was common sense, to give one example, for us to solve the mystery of flight by first “hacking” the avian wing and feather.

On the other hand, the world is full of good ideas that appeared independently of one another in both the human and nonhuman world. The camera, with its lens, aperture, film, and theatre is nearly identical to the mammalian eye – and even its development and elaboration over the ages mirrors the eye’s evolution. In the wild world, the eye evolved from a patch of cells that change color when exposed to light, to a cup of these cells that collect light more efficiently, to the emergence of a pinhole through which the light is focused, to the appearance of a lens and iris that can adjust focal length. In the human world, our understanding of light capture proceeded similarly, from bleaching/tanning/pigmentation, to the camera obscure, and finally to the modern camera with its adjustable lens and aperture.

The difference between these two examples isn’t in the end product – a superb fit between form and function – but in how long and gradually it took our species to figure it out. The principle of lift and the curvature of a wing emerged rapidly and holistically into human culture – as opposed to the intricate design of a camera, which was developed gradually and laboriously over hundreds of years. Had early scientists paid closer attention to the ways that nature has already accomplished what were then unimaginable tasks, we might be living in a world where both optics and air travel are ancient technologies. Everyone knows that it’s far quicker to copy someone else’s work than to arrive at the same conclusions from square one.

(Both of these instances, however, are noteworthy in that they have historically called into question the division between design and accident. The wing and eye are common examples in arguments for “Intelligent Design,” whose proponents mistakenly claim that these organs of “insurmountable complexity” could not possibly have emerged through natural selection. To the contrary, very thorough and rigorous arguments by evolutionary biologists have demonstrated how these features probably came into being through the gradual modification of the arm and skin, respectively. But it is noteworthy how thin the line really is between conscious and deliberate innovation, and the slow dumb grind of biological change over eons. This is especially true when we consider how some forms of natural selection, such as sexual selection, necessarily include conscious choice in the evolutionary process – and how no one really knows where ideas come from, except that the unconscious mind is a superb collator of information we normally ignore.)

The incredible effectiveness of copying nature’s “handiwork” has inspired scientists in every field to take a new interest in physiology and evolution, searching the natural world for answers to our most intractable design dilemmas. The 20th Century saw as much technological development as the ten thousand years before it – due in no small part to how Darwin’s theory of evolution by mutation and natural selection gave us a vivid and fruitful analog to our own process of creative discovery. Now, there is an explicit return to natural form as inspiration by researchers from all over the globe, in once-segregated disciplines like ecology and cybernetics, sociology and computing, civil engineering and advertising. This new integrative science, known as biomimicry or biomimetics (from the Greek worlds for “life” and “imitation”), is breathing novelty into applications as far-reaching as the development of new materials and surfaces, to the construction of more efficient transportation and communication, to the design of artificial intelligence and more humane economic and political systems.

Biomimicry studies nature at all levels – from the function and form of biological molecules, to the structure and process of tissues and organs, to the behavior and gross anatomy of entire organisms, to the dynamics of swarms and hives, to complex interrelations between the numerous species of an ecosystem. Every order of magnitude has something to teach us. Investigating the iridescent pigments in butterfly wings yields a new understanding of color and pushes the frontier of fashion design. Analyzing the behavior of bees and termites offers computer scientists clues about how to build self-organizing information networks and search engine algorithms. Puzzling over the bumpy nodes on the flipper of a humpback whale forces engineers to reconsider everything they know about turbulence and aerodynamics.

There is poetry in the popularity of biomimicry. As 21st Century human problems push us ever closer toward the specter of global catastrophe, we have opened our minds to what some people would call “natural wisdom” and found our greatest hope for a compassionate and sensible future in the incredible practicality of a world we long considered dumb and brutal. We are beginning to erode ancient and obsolete distinctions between “human” and “nature,” “intentional” and “accidental.” And in so doing, we are awakening to the incredible cumulative intelligence of the evolutionary process, allowing it to inform our quest for knowledge in every human endeavor.

Thanks to biomimicry, the very idea of design is being reimagined, and our place in “the grand design” radically revised. Much of the history of human design – especially over the last several hundred years, during which time we were incorrigibly isolated from our natural origins – has been one reinvented wheel after another. From here on out, however, the story of design looks like one of humility in light of something greater – at least older and wiser – than our selves.
(Written for d/visible magazine.)