By Giles Hutchins
Biomimicry is an exciting discipline which explores how we can learn from nature to solve human problems.
Humans have been gaining inspiration from nature for many thousands of years, yet biomimicry as a formal concept is more recent. The word itself, “biomimicry,” was coined by Janine Benyus (author of the book “Biomimicry” published in 1997) and originates from the Greek bios (life) and mimesis (imitation). For Benyus, biomimicry is the conscious emulation of life’s genius.
The Biomimicry Institute, founded by Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister, is actively involved in nature-inspired innovations. Over the last few decades, across the globe, there has been a steady increase in biomimetic innovations helping design and deploy products and services in more sustainable ways. One only has to Google ‘biomimicry’ to find 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 behavior to overhaul its phone network, by example. Such scientific innovations inspired by nature are an important part of our transformation to a more sustainable future.
Underlying our scientific extrapolations of nature is a deeper – often remaining largely unconscious – participatory mode of understanding and relating with more-than-human life. The Western scientific ‘Cartesian’ paradigm, with its approach of rationalism through deductive logic, reductionist empiricism and objectification, tends towards marginalizing our inter-subjective resonance with the natural world, supressing our empathic and participatory relation of self-other-nature. In our desire to understand, define and categorize life, we have tended towards a logic that sets things apart from each other; we create an illusion of separation which pollutes how we attend to ourselves, each other and the wider world.
By example, there has recently been much excitement in certain circles about the potential human benefits of utilizing spiders’ silk. One article proudly illustrates this work with photos of spiders lined up and pinned down alive in a laboratory while silk is extracted from them for examination. Is this really the ‘conscious emulation of nature’s genius’? It smacks of anthropocentric hubris and separateness — the flawed logic that got us into this mess in the first place. Such logic encourages an over-analytic, over-exploitative, unbalanced attention which seeks to grasp, define and extract: Enter the take-make-waste socio-economic paradigm in our midst.
To apply these extrapolations and imitations of nature to the challenges we now face without adequately rooting them in the deeper wisdom nature affords us, is to deal with symptoms (carbon emissions, waste-to-landfill, ocean dead zones, social inequality, etc.) while leaving the underlying cause (our relation with reality) gapping. Put more bluntly, scientific rationalism – biomimetic or not — will not solve our dysfunctional way of life unless it becomes grounded within a deeper participatory way of life: scientific, sensuous and spiritual.
Peter Drucker once famously said, “In times of turmoil, the danger lies not in the turmoil, but in facing it with yesterday’s logic.”
Yesterday’s logic is one that sets humans apart from each other and from the rest of nature viewed through the lens of competition. The scientific convenience of isolating complexities into neatly packaged definitions for us to get our heads around has led to a flawed logic which we then project on to our societies and economies. It is this flawed logic that is at the heart of all our crises — world poverty, climate change, biodiversity loss, social inequality, etc. And yet many of today’s solutions apply this logic without stepping back to question it. If we have any hope of rectifying the error of our ways, this logic needs to be put right at its root otherwise all we can hope for is merely delaying the inevitable endgame through efficiency tweaks to an inherently carcinogenic modus operandi.
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 empathic identification, we can share in what another feels; in-so-doing transform what we perceive into what we experience. This is primary to our education and evolution as Homo sapiens rooted in our ability to love. With our heads, hearts and hands we can consciously emulate nature’s genius through our dynamic, participatory and co-creative embodying of our lived-in reality.
We do not need to impose another ideology or set of beliefs onto reality. Instead, we need to hold space for opening and heightening our attention individually and collectively – this way we can allow the truth to co-creatively emerge free from dogma.
Giles Hutchins is author of The Nature of Business, he blogs at www.thenatureofbusiness.org