Biomimetics: A marriage of science, nature and… philosophy?

Ayesha Hashim explores how the interplay of science and nature might accommodate a philosophical dimension

The application of optimised, interdisciplinary and evolved systems, ideas and principles found in nature to facilitate the creation of products and materials: a textbook definition of biomimetics (also known as biomimicry). Whilst this suffices as a description of the general methodology, the broader essence of the term is better encapsulated as follows: a design and engineering philosophy that seeks to capitalise upon, and in some respects influence, the human powers of observation and perception.

Biomimetics, as a field, came to fruition in context of the study of nerve propagation (the way nerves transmit electrical impulses) in squid, at the hands of American biophysicist Otto Schmitt during the 1950s; this research engineered the ‘Schmitt trigger’, a device that converts analogue input into digital output. However, the very first product attributable to biomimetics is possibly the aircraft developed by the Wright Brothers in 1903—it remains uncertain the extent to which the technology was due to observing eagles in flight, but the connection is certainly compelling: four centuries earlier, da Vinci had produced illustrations of ‘flying machines’ modelled on bird anatomy and flight.

Past applications of biomimetic principles have been as transformative as they are fascinating: the creation of Velcro fasteners was inspired by the hook-like arrangements in cockleburr seed casings; certain bacteria-repelling materials used in hospitals and restaurant kitchens mimic patterns found on shark skin; the UV-reflecting property of silk spun by spiders to protect ensnared prey features on the exterior of certain buildings, helping to reduce bird injury. However, perhaps more notable is the evolution of biomimetics, from the imitation of desirable isolated features to utilising advancing science to create entire systems and structures. Current research within localised contexts (primarily drug delivery, tissue regeneration, medical imaging) is suitably advanced, reflecting this evolution, but the expansion of biomimetics to architecture and the management of environmental resources is a relatively new occurrence (consider Japanese bullet trains modelled on the aerodynamic kingfisher’s beak, the Helix Bridge mimicking DNA structure, artificial photosynthesis). This is a product of cumulated progress across the sciences and engineering.

As biomimetics weaves ever more intricately into the everyday and into pragmatic conceptualisations of the future—emphasising the gold standard of functionality and efficiency set by natural selection (a standard unsurpassable by human intelligence)—pertinent philosophical questions arise: how far does the appropriation of nature’s design principles increase our duties of earthly stewardship? I four anthropocentric approach to life (humans as the most important creatures of evolution) is no longer justifiable, does it threaten the right to self-determine? Discussion of such questions in Freya Matthews’ intriguing paper, ‘Towards a Deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry’, results in a proposal for achieving ‘biosynergy’ that urges a reconfiguration of our fundamental desires to align with those of environment. No doubt a radical suggestion, but it is one that highlights the part incredible, part devastating potential of biomimetics to supervene on human society and thought.

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