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By Visvapriya Sathiyam, SAP Labs India – April 20, 2010
This review takes a personal look at Janine M. Benyus' book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
Janine M. Benyus
Benyus has authored six books on biomimicry, including Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. In this book she develops the basic thesis that human beings should consciously emulate nature's genius in their designs.
In 1998, Benyus co-founded the Biomimicry
Guild, the Innovation Consultancy, which helps innovators learn from
and emulate natural models in order to design sustainable products, processes,
and policies that create conditions conducive to life. She is also President
of the Biomimicry
Institute, a non-profit organization whose mission is to naturalize biomimicry
in the culture by promoting the transfer of ideas, designs, and strategies
from biology to sustainable human systems design.
Humanity needs a vision of an expanding and unending future. This spiritual craving cannot be satisfied by the colonization of space….The true frontier for humanity is life on Earth, its exploration and the transport of knowledge about it into science, art and practical affairs.
- E.O. WILSON, author of Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic
Every global brand today has a green-bent to its products. While some of them are genuine, others use their advertising and marketing tactics to grab some limelight for their contributions to a sustainable planet. While much is known about their little contributions, we seldom know of people who contribute their entire life to the research activities that could (or have) become most useful to the green future of the planet. It is their work that Janine M. Benyus brings to light through her book Biomimicry. An accomplished writer of biological science, she uses her charming narrative style to make a subject that is so scientific into a very engaging tale.
In a nutshell, Janine points out that these scientists base their work on the fundamental ideals that nature follows:
The last principle is most noteworthy of explanation as it contradicts everything that we as humans believe in. We regard limits as a challenge. We have a notion that they are something to overcome and we continuously try to break this barrier with inventions that really cannot co-exist with nature’s way of functioning. While other earthlings take these limits more seriously and live within the limits of what nature provides – functioning within a tight range of life-friendly temperatures, harvesting within the carrying capacity of the land, and maintaining an energy balance that is not self-depleting. It is from these earthlings we must learn. We must try to echo their wisdom, rather than inventing new methods and techniques. What the world requires now is not invention, but discoveries of the innovative methods that these earthlings found long before us. And this becomes the fundamental theme on which the author orchestrates all her stories, echoing nature as a model, as a measure, and as a mentor in all facets of life.
The author categorizes her stories and interviews into six primary goals of life for which we need nature as a tutor, mentor, and model to follow:
Though I am tempted to write about all the schemes of nature I learned from this book, I will leave you with a couple of stories that most fascinated me, hoping this will entice you to buy, beg, borrow or steal the book and read it yourself.
There is a fascinating chapter on how primates make the smartest eating choices in maintaining a healthy state and sustaining their species. These wild connoisseurs practice a method of stringently sampling plants before they eat, and they always do this as a group activity. Every member takes a turn as a sampler, so that the risk of falling sick due to a wrong choice is distributed equally. Thus it is speculated that ‘sociability’ could have been an outcome of survival challenges. Also, not all members in the group offer to sample. For example, lactating, pregnant, and juvenile monkeys do not offer. Anthropologists who observed this behavior in several species of monkey also did a nutritional analysis of the plants the monkeys chose to eat and the ones they rejected. In the study, they found that these animals not only rejected the poisonous and harmful plants, they also carefully selected plants based on the nutrients they would need to maintain a balanced diet. Sometimes they would even complement their plant-diet with mud supplement to get enough minerals for their body. It is surprising that a similar mud-eating behavior has been observed even in some (human) African communities today. This behavior is called geophagy. The monkeys sometimes use plants they reject as food to heal themselves of infections or fight the germs inside them. Trying to answer the question of how these primates learned to self-heal, it becomes obvious that they look forward to biofeedback and cultural learning. One study even reveals that these monkeys control the sex of their to-be-born babies, intelligently determining if it should be a male or female by selecting plants that favor one or the other. They seem to be better gene manipulators than us! The choice of sex of the to-be-born is not based on individual preferences (as we humans would imagine) but on implicit group wisdom that can smartly balance the male-female ratio in their community. Social interdependence and the fundamental assumption that the knowledge of the group is more than the individual is the biggest lesson we have to learn from these primates.
Another interesting story is how females in any primate society have the disadvantage of being less mobile (due to long pregnancy and child-rearing periods) and therefore need to develop special skills to find the right food that is rich in calcium, protein, and vitamins. Anthropologists predict that this could have forced them to use hand-held tools for the first time, like using ant wands to dig into holes, stone hammers to crush insects, and digging sticks to find tubers. Thus, tricky food choices may also have contributed to developing intelligence: an interesting thought that reflects our age-old proverb – necessity is the mother of invention.
In this chapter, Janine tells the story of how the industrialization of farming, the Green Revolution, gave quick, high-volume yields from hybrid seeds and homogenization of fields. But little do we know what harm it caused to our society.
The traditions of seed saving were replaced by an additional expense on buying hybrid seeds. Crop rotation was replaced by acres of mass production of a single crop variety to chase economies of scale. Fertilizing with animal manure was replaced by artificial nitrogen fertilizers (powered by natural gas, a by-product of petroleum) and the livestock were sold. Weeds were killed using herbicides and pests were controlled by chemical pesticides. Suddenly we all started relying on oil, instead of soil. Petroleum and chemical companies sprung in every corner of the world. Numbers show that only in USA, pesticide consumption has increased by 3,300 percent since 1945 and despite this, the crop losses have increased by 20 percent – a fact that shows this model is clearly not working. And what’s worse despite robbing the richness of our soil and traditional farming, we also denied existence of the small players in the game, farmers who vanished overnight selling their lands to corporate and big investors.
There are a few who turned towards nature to solve these issues at the grass roots. One promising area of research is The Land Institute’s perennial grain cropping strategy. Agriculturalists from the institute promote growing perennials instead of annuals (which they claim was a wrong turning our ancestors took many generations ago) and adopting polyculture (growing varieties of perennials and legumes side by side), as distinct from monoculture. The other strategy is to get dairy farmers closer to crop growers, leveraging the synergy between livestock and crops that nature has already mastered. ‘Grass farming ‘ not only helps the dairy farmers who bring their cows to the fields to make them healthier with a slimmer bill, but also benefits crop growers with natural animal manure for their crops. This could be a whole new way of farming where conservation is a consequence and not an alternative to the growing needs of food production. But the skeptic in us might begin to question: Can a perennial yield stay as high as that from mass-produced annuals and meet the growing demands of population? Can polyculture sponsor its own nitrogen fertility without the need for chemicals? And of course the biggest challenge remains: How will these experts be able to sell this idea to farmers and industrialists who are culturally and economically entrenched in a certain way of doing things? Perhaps this requires a fundamental change in the way we think, act, and make life choices. And what’s beautiful is that this book takes the first step towards this change: sensitizing us readers to the problems and challenges of our lifestyle and offering a possibility and maybe even a promise of a more sustainable cooperative society between humans and nature.
In this chapter are some fascinating ideas and concepts from leaders in the field biotechnology and computer science on neural nets, molecular biology, artificial intelligence, and quantum mechanics that might interest technologists and designers like us. When asked what desktop computers would look like in the next era, Michael Conrad, one of the pioneers of molecular computing, said:
The last thing the world needs is another device. As an aesthetic thing I can understand technology. But except for some medical technologies, I don’t really see technology as a human need. Our perceived need for technology is mostly generated by the competition of countries for export. I think it's economies, not people, that need devices in order to grow.
The view of the organism as a digital computer has flattened biology, and I’d like to unflatten it. When I build a tactilizing processor, I hope it will make people stop and consider that there is more than one way to compute. Nature’s computers don’t work the way we do. To think that they do is very bad for society – it makes us use digital computers for tasks we ought to be asking our brains to do – tasks to which digital computers are not suited.
In response to this, Janine muses poignantly:
Conrad’s insistence on unflattening biology reflects biomimicry’s ultimate goal – to learn more respect for nature and to recapture our sense of wonder. At its best, biomimicry should take us aback, make us more humble, and put us in the learner’s chair, seeking to discover and emulate instead of invent.
And she concludes her book with an even more charming and philosophic thought:
A species shaped to echo:
After meeting so many elegant beings produced by evolution, we ask at last what is noteworthy about ‘us’ as a species. How do we contribute to the continuation of life? By virtue of asking this question, we partly answer it. We whom Thomas Berry calls “the universe become conscious of itself” are self-reflective, and therefore uniquely in a position to seek nature’s counsel, to learn, to echo and to give thanks for the wisdom we acquire… Deep inside, we still have a longing to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our language, our song and dance, and our sense of the divine.