By Anastasia Lawson, Andrew Meador, Beth Remmes, and Daniel Simons
Group Project for Biology Taught Functionally, ASU Biomimicry Master’s Program
The essential elements of biomimicry Ethos, (Re)Connect, and Emulate are often the pathways into practice. These elements do not follow a linear progression, rather they mutually reinforce and strengthen biomimicry as a whole.
The element most immediately associated with biomimicry is Emulate, which seeks to replicate nature’s genius. While the end goal of the emulation element of biomimicry is to create innovative products or social transformation, a large amount of time and energy is spent in an information-gathering phase where we explore questions like, “What would nature do here? What wouldn’t nature do here? How does nature…?” Hours of research uncovers organisms with diverse survival strategies, including functions and adaptations that contribute to their success and reveal time-tested strategies present across taxa.
For example, there is much we can learn from trees. They clean air, create homes for smaller creatures, and can outlive most other organisms. These features exemplify every organism’s use of biological traits and strategies to realize its inherent potential as a living entity. Furthermore, the study of these features enhances our understanding of what is currently known about nature’s genius and reminds us that genius is not reserved for humans alone. In fact, many of our most successful designs occur when we quiet our cleverness, engage our curiosity, and focus on knowing an organism especially well.
A true emulation design spiral requires deep knowledge of an organism’s strategies. These strategies cannot be fully understood without recognizing the abiotic and biotic context in which the organism thrives. Imagine trying to develop a branch-like, wind-resistant design while ignoring root structures and local weather conditions— focusing solely on a feature without its context restricts the effectiveness of the design and results in weak biomimicry. And even the most rigorous research can fall short of fully comprehending nature’s genius if we fail to acknowledge that many features are multi-functional and many organisms have mutualistic, intertwined relationships with others. This teaches us to appreciate the intrinsic value of the living entity regardless of their instrumental use to humans. From this lesson, we also learn to respect the underlying powers of the universe that nurture this life into existence.
The second essential element, (Re)Connect, is the strengthening of our connection to and positive engagement with nature. Trees cannot live on sunlight and water (abiotic factors) alone; they also rely on other organisms to facilitate nutrient distribution and pollination. Similarly, humans rely on trees for shelter, warmth, food and critical environmental services. These interdependencies quickly reveal a complex web of natural relationships and connectedness that creates the foundation for human life. This reminds us of our own biological nature, connectedness to other living entities, and the system upon which all life depends. Like Indra’s Jeweled Net, seeing the beauty of life in one organism reflects the beauty of the world and inspires the inevitable realization that all life is connected in this cosmic matrix.
The third essential element of biomimicry is Ethos—our motivations, intentions, and the spirit with which we approach learning from nature’s genius. An incredible amount of harm is wrought by the built environment and our unnatural approaches to many facets of manufacturing and design. This element ensures that the emulation phase does not just end at the mechanics, but rather it is a holistic approach that includes life’s ability to operate at ambient temperatures and pressures and does not create toxic byproducts. Authentic biomimicry presents an opportunity to learn from nature as a mentor, model, and measure, to assess how well we are “fitting in” with the rest of Life.
As Taylor discusses in The Ethics of Respect for Nature, in the human-centered view of life, the value of animals and plants is considered exclusively in terms of their satisfaction of human needs or interests. There is no evaluation or questioning of whether humans were promoting the well- being of other creatures when they felled old growth trees for lumber or burned forests for farmland. Through biomimicry’s Ethos, we are challenged to reflect and act upon the harmful ripples of our present designs. We learn that we must evaluate our actions, and their consequences, against the aim of promoting the well- being of all creatures.
With so many complex, modern challenges, humanity must work for the good of the biosphere to ensure the survival of all species [where “good” is marked by the ability to maintain itself through generations, and the average good is at an optimum level for the given environment (Taylor, 1986)]. Just as the acorn is encoded with the potential to become an oak, we too have the potential to follow a life-enhancing trajectory. The practice of biomimicry, arising from the three essential elements of Emulation, (Re)Connect, and Ethos, holds the tools and promise of helping us rediscover our role in the community of life and to create a lasting, positive impact as a keystone species for the good of all living organisms.
Taylor, P. (1986). The Ethics of Respect for Nature. Available from: https://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil308/Taylor.pdf