November 17, 1997
I think often lately of what I’ve come to call “the secrets hiding in plain sight,” the answers to challenges of both business and personal life that seem so hard to see because they are so obvious, so familiar. Central among them: that industrial society can learn invaluable lessons from the 3.8 billion year experience of living systems in evolving complex, efficient, resilient and adaptive systems. Why should industry re-invent the wheel, I wonder, when the R&D has already been done?
So imagine my delight to come across Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (William Morrow and Company, NY), a new book by science writer Janine M. Benyus, echoing this theme, and others I explored in a column eighteen months ago (NBL 5.04, Ecomimesis: Copying ecosystems for fun and profit;).
Biomimicry explores the quietly gathering trend toward what Benyus calls “doing it nature’s way,” — using nature as model, or inspiration, for design to solve human problems; as measure of what works, what’s appropriate, and what lasts; and as mentor, focusing us on what we can learn from nature, rather than extract from it. Biomimicry, Benyus suggests, “has the potential to change the way we grow food, make materials, harness energy, heal ourselves, store information and conduct business.”
There is of course a long lineage of literature groping to link human endeavor with its biological underpinnings. Gerardin’s Bionics and other books tended to focus on specific material engineering analogs. Dresser’s Landscape for Humans and McHarg’s Design with Nature looked at patterns of human settlement. The hundred year legacy of organic agriculture — from Howard’s An Agricultural Testament to Jackson’s Altars of Unhewn Stone — probably came closest to explicitly bio- or eco-mimicry. Rothschild’s Bionomics sought economic principles in the ordered chaos of ecosystem, while Holmberg’s and Robert’s Natural Step went so far as to look at the physics that underlies the chemistry that underlies the biology that of course underlies the ecology that underlies the human economy.)
Benyus attempts to bring coherence to these threads, finds that “…we can begin to divine a canon of nature’s laws,” and echoes the design principles that have been identified by Tibbs, McDonough, this author and others…. “Nature runs on sunlight. Nature uses only the energy it needs. Nature fits form to function. Nature recycles everything. Nature rewards cooperation. Nature banks on diversity. Nature demands local expertise. Nature curbs excess from within. Nature taps the power of limits.”
The exciting thing about Biomimicry is that it is chock full of practitioners, not mere theorists — people putting these ideas into practice in a broad range of fields. The examples Benyus draws on are diverse and fascinating:
“How Will We Feed Ourselves?” ranges from the Land Institute’s perennial prairie-grass polycultures to Masanobu Fukuoka’s “do nothing” farming in Japan, from New Alchemy Institute aquaculture to Australian Permaculture; these and other food producing strategies characterized by their biomimetic design and local adaptability, offering low input, high output, stable systems.
“How Will We Harness Energy?” probes the “solar alchemy” and molecular design of learning to “gather energy like a leaf,” and explores surprisingly diverse efforts to develop technical systems that match — or exceed — the elegance and efficiency of photosynthesis.
“How Will Me Make Things?” explores the material science guiding development of alloys, ceramics, plastics and other “high-tech organics” that follow nature’s “tricks of the trade” when it comes to manufacturing materials: “Life-friendly manufacturing processes; Ordered hierarchy of structures; Self-assembly; and Templating of crystals with proteins.”
“How Will We Heal Ourselves?” considers not only the race for “rainforest cancer cures” between biodiversity mapping and biodiversity decline, but also explores how “animal pharmacists” may guide humans in “smart eating” and “biorational drug discovery.”
“How Will We Store What We Learn?” explores the neurochemistry of mind; the prospect of computers that evolve at their own, um, hand; and molecular computation that uses DNA’s nucleotide alphabet in place of semiconductor information storage.
“How Will We Conduct Business?” (the chapter with content probably most familiar to regular readers of NBL) explores the challenges, principles and emerging practice of industrial ecology, in industries as diverse as consumer goods, automobiles and finance, among others.
And in “Where Will We Go From Here?” Benyus quietly muses on what she has seen, and offers “four steps to a biomimetic future.”
Each chapter tells a facet of the tale with style and clarity. An accomplished author, with five other biology related titles under her belt, Benyus’s technical savvy, writing skill and fascination with the subject show through–since, in contrast to most business and environment books, this one reads like Story. Which I maintain is far and away the most powerful human technology…one which is perhaps not “biomimicked”…but then honeybees danced long before our bards began to sing.
# # # NOTE: You can now order Biomimicry online — along with other interesting books on business and environment — directly from the Natural Logic/Amazon.com Bookstore.