Humans have been gaining inspiration from nature for many thousands of years, yet as a formal concept “biomimicry” – which explores how we can learn from nature to solve human problems – is more recent.
The word itself was coined by Janine Benyus (author of the 1997 book Biomimicry) and originates from the Greek bios (life) and mimesis (imitation). For her, biomimicry is the conscious emulation of life’s genius.
Across the globe, there has been a steady increase in biomimetic innovations helping to design and deploy products and services in more sustainable ways. There are ample examples of such innovations: the Shinkansen Bullet Train of the West Japan Railway inspired by the Kingfisher’s beak, the Eastgate Building in Zimbabwe taking inspiration from termites’ self-cooling mounds, and British Telecom using a biological model based on ant behaviour to overhaul its phone network. Such scientific innovations inspired by nature are a vitally important part of our transformation to a more sustainable future.
Our western scientific paradigm underpins our worldview of nature and is rooted in rationalism. Rationalism seeks certainty in an uncertain world – repeatable experiments under controlled conditions. Within this science, parts of nature are extracted from their environment and examined in isolation. This approach has its merits and is a powerful tool of analysis, yet (like everything in life) it has limitations.
In separating content from context, the organism under analysis becomes an object of examination in a way that marginalises any relationships it has within its natural environment. Our quantification brings clarity of definition but in doing so overlooks the embedded qualities and relationships inherent throughout nature.
An overly-rationalistic approach to biology has led towards a way of viewing nature where the unit of evolution is seen as a discrete building block – “the selfish gene” – de-emphasising the interplay of relationships. The more we delve into nature beyond the confines of rationalistic science, the more we find all aspects of life – cells, organisms and their ecosystems – are continually sensing and responding to eac other. Far from the object of examination being separate and definitive from its context, we find that it is in a continual dialogue.
Recently, a growing number of ecologists have been exploring the relationships we find throughout nature. What may have seemed like competitive or selfish relations between one organism and another, when viewed within the wider context can be seen as fostering resilience at the ecosystem level, which benefits the whole and the parts.
Ditto for us, as humans are very much a part of this participatory way of life. Our mind-body-environment relationship is in a continual dialogue between sensing and responding; improvising and participating beyond any pre-determined rationality. As the former president of the British Mycological Society, Alan Rayner, explores in his book NatureScope, evolution involves the continuous attuning of content and context, much like an improvisational dance. Dog-eat-dog individualistic competition is, at best, an oversimplification; an incomplete assumption which is certainly unwise to found our global socio-economic model upon.
Through our practical desire to understand scientifically the interplay of nature, we extract and define things in an abstract way which separates things from their lived-in context. This serves us well in our exploitation of nature, yet if we don’t think about both content and context we may see separation within nature that is not actually there.
So often in today’s busy humdrum life we become too confined to purely rationalistic processes as we seek to analyse, define and extrapolate the world around us. This analysis has led to great scientific and socio-economic advancement from medicine to mechanisation; yet it can also mean we overlook a deeper feeling and perception of life.
There are of course many scientific explorers who are intuitively attuned to nature’s ways, yet traditional scientific thought has encouraged people to prioritise the separation of nature at the expense of attuning with it.
In this regard, we often find our scientific explorations lack empathy for the “objects” of their examination. For instance, recently there has been excitement about using spiders’ silk for human benefit. One article proudly illustrates this scientific endeavour with photos of spiders lined up and pinned down alive in a laboratory while silk is extracted from them. Is this really the “conscious emulation of nature’s genius” that Benyus described? It’s the kind of hubris that got us into this unsustainable mess in the first place.
Mimesis within the context of its original Greek meaning requires the imitator to embody that which is being imitated. This goes to the heart of what makes us human: through perception, imagination and empathetic identification, we can share in what another feels and in doing so transform what we perceive into what we experience. It’s wisdom sourced from our ability to love.
It is true that our analytical examination of nature is important, but only as part of a deeper, richer participatory engagement. If the deeper resonance of our nature is overlooked, such biomimetic transformations fail to address the root cause of our unsustainable way of life. We deal with symptoms (carbon emissions, waste to landfill, ocean dead zones, social inequality, factory farming) while neglecting the underlying cause (attuning our self-other-nature relationship).