Biomimicry: Bridging Technology, Nature and Our Need for Control

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Biomimicry

Chaos – what a discomforting word. Place 50 objects of various shapes and colors in front of a human and with due time a pattern will arise; A story that removes the entropy the system once had and replaces it with a comfortable narrative. There is nothing more fundamental in human nature than the concept of control. To predict the unpredictable has been a tenet of survival, from cloud seeding to stock market models, creating a niche of existence for our species within a personalized ecosystem where nature’s arbitrary events can be somewhat controlled. Control – what a comforting word.

But to what extent do we control nature? Has humanity successfully entered a phase of existence where we can claim we are the true masters of our world? Does humanity crack its brandishing whip and command nature’s call? Civilization has been perfecting the art of isolation, harnessing nature’s resources to erect a bubble of humanistic ‘gaiacentricity’ (or an ecological, community centered way of thought). A system has risen where concrete jungles flourish, waste becomes nutrition for animals and people alike, and arbitrary events have been modeled from technological intellect. It seems that nature is migrating into our dome with a one-way ticket to oblivion.

Observing the natural world in all its connotations and scientifically boiling down its elements into building blocks is how we do things. Sticking Legos together to create monoliths of human endeavors is what we do best. In this respect we are becoming the masters, and nature is our slave. We can now artificially disseminate seed-like structures into clouds to spark a torrential miracle, trickling down water onto barren lands or scatter a crowd of protestors as exhibited by the Greek government in the Athens Riots. Colliding tectonic plates can be monitored and analyzed to prepare the masses from an otherwise surprising event. Unnatural and seemingly capricious events, such as economic markets, are equally subject to these analyses. Michael J Burry expressed his concerns over the wide-held belief that human constructed systems are said to remain unpredictable and ferociously vacillate in chaotic ways. His UCLA economics commencement in 2012 gives insight into the controlling nature of the human system, claiming that he profited off of the financial crash due to his extensive research and intuitive predictions in a crash that was ‘inevitable’.

This master-slave dialectic is only reinforced by our strategic reign over the predator-prey evolution. Remove humanity from existence and all the consequences we bring to our environment, and you will undoubtedly witness population capacities in all motile organisms. The explosive increase in populations of a single species is a highly unlikely event not permitted under natural laws in such relatively short periods of time. An organism will hunt and will eventually be hunted, or in the wise words of Qui-Gon Jinn: ‘there’s always a bigger fish’. This is natural; waves must enter into existence and crash into subordinance for another wave to follow. We are consistently pushing the Malthusian limit to the size of human population on Earth due to technological advancements that extend and expedite human survival. We are not hunted, we only feast.

While it might seem like humanity has earned the epithet of master, this is a concept I am willing to challenge. We tend to forget that history is cyclical, metaphorically speaking; it may seem like humanity is losing its roots, but perhaps civilization and Mother Nature are approaching a confluence. I will focus on a bridge that connects both realms; biomimicry.

To do this I will first propose an amendment to a common phrase: ‘We discover something new everyday’. I propose ‘We discover something old everyday’ for any technological advancement which has occurred has essentially been discovered and honed to perfection by nature millennia before humanity first laid its eyes on existence.

So what is biomimicry? It is the emerging field of science that gets inspired by the marvels of engineering and science that nature has already kept hidden in its undergrowth of knowledge. Biologists and engineers unite in awe at animals’ and plants’ innovative genius, mimicking the discoveries rather than starting from scratch. Popularized by Peter Forbes is the bioinspirative genius of the Gecko’s Foot. To summarize, a Gecko sticks to a wall by having thousands of split ends per hair on its ‘hand cells’, inducing adhesive properties via intermolecular forces between the surface and the gecko’s foot. This allows the gecko to comfortably scale vertical walls with ease. Technological interest immediately piqued the curiosity of the US military for reconnaissance, but more importantly, the Gecko’s Foot inspired an avenue of science that hasn’t been considered since Leonardo Da Vinci. Humans of the past often looked to nature for answers, but as we made our environment less natural we began to think of ourselves as above the constraints of nature.

At first glance, biomimicry seems like an extension of exploitation rather than suggestive evidence for the dismissal of human mastery. The premise for humanity believing it has become exempt from its natural environment stems from the belief that we are innovating concepts and products that are brand new in their conception. For example, the Internet is such a revolutionary consequence of human genius that it is embraced as the architect for a new age of humanity: The Information Age. Information is essentially freely available to all those who have access to an Internet café or Wi-Fi hotspot. The cornerstone of our generation is praised as something essential to many people’s survival, with satirical images of apocalyptic worlds portraying the world without the Internet.

But is this new? Has humanity created a totally unique product that we can parade as an effigy of our independent universe? The answer is no. Fungal mycelia have made the transfer of information prevalent due to overlapping networks and chemical codes whizzing about in its magnificent ‘ethernet’. Earth’s natural Internet has always been associated with a denizen of a dark and gloomy corner of undergrowth, but fungi are highly evolved organisms that have beaten us to our greatest achievement.

Let us consider an abstract phenomenon then: human compassion. Perhaps what truly distinguishes us from nature is our species’ need to be compassionate to one another, allowing humans to populate every corner of Earth. Putting aside the obvious conflagration of wars, our communicative skills allow us to unite against common enemies, like virulent diseases. Nature itself must rely on natural selection and Darwinian ideals to filter out the ‘weak’ and unfit. Humans are more compassionate.

But what if I told you plants are capable of similar behavior? That a plant can tell another plant to raise its defenses because danger is approaching? An eerie analogue of our own behavior is present in nature, or more specifically, in the Acacias of Africa. Acacias have been proven to communicate through the air via ethylene, stimulating nearby acacias to increase their chemical defenses. The mechanism is simple: An herbivore munches on the leaves of an acacia, breaking the membrane of the cells and releasing ethylene in the air. This ethylene travels to nearby acacia and ‘tells them’ that there is a predator nearby. Just like any organism, survival is the only ultimate agenda in the wild, and so corpses of herbivores are sometimes found, poisoned by other Acacia plants, slain by the harsh reality of nature. Although nature seems to possess no anthropocentric equivalent of grammar, it is proving to be extremely efficient in communication, resulting in phenomenon eerily similar to ours without the jargon of idiosyncratic complications.

Humanity is under the impression that it is pinning new medals to its chest, and that if organisms could see our achievements they would stare in awe at us, the Promethean innovators. But, as we are rest on nature’s laurels everyday, aren’t we one of its trophies? Nature has constructed a perfect environment that is entropic in nature but self-sufficient. Our innovations seem to be discoveries rather than creations. We are still in the phase of creating things in the image of our true master, nature; still painting a scene we are part of rather than envisioning abstract environments unknown to nature.

Biomimicry allows humanity to marry technology with the natural world. Imagine bringing the natural intelligence and brilliance of the ages into the minds of the masses, unifying the resonating knowledge of its eternal scholars with that of humanity. Nature is nurturing us to maximize our rate of survival. The tools of information and experience are at our fingertips, but the animalistic need to create a hierarchy is imminent and toxic. Can humanity exist independently of nature then, or can we firmly claim we can slay a titan with the blunt stiletto of juvenile egocentricity?

 

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