Biomimicry Misconstrued

From “Fight Science: Fight like an animal”

This blog post relates to some of the content of my last post, “Biomimicry Book Translated in Traditional Chinese.”

When discussing biomimicry, we hear these kinds of questions a lot:

“What is biomimicry?”

“Is it a philosophy, a paradigm, a mindset, a methodology, an innovation tool, a thinking process, a science?”

“What is it, really??”

I would like to offer another possibility here…biomimicry could be all of the above (and more).

“But how could that be?” you ask

Well, depending on how and to what degree you apply biomimicry in your personal or professional life, it becomes different things. This answer will frustrate some.

“That makes biomimicry a parametric snake oil…a pseudo science!”

“Biomimicry can’t be everything to everyone.”

A pseudo science is a practice mistakenly believed to be based on a scientific method. For me, biomimicry’s intrinsic properties can’t lead to its categorization as a pseudo science. The way people present/describe/discuss the concept is what leads to that determination. Besides, it’s not uncommon for a term to have different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. Biomimicry’s newness causes people to overthink it.

If biomimicry is used in the context of scientific research, then of course it’s a science, and biomimetic research should be held to the same standards as any other scientific research. But biomimicry is not only used in the context of scientific research. For a mechanical engineer who builds robots, biomimicry might just be another innovation method/tool. Biomimicry may lead them to study the locomotion of a particular natural model, but fundamentally, the “science” guiding their work is physics. For some architects, designers or artists, biomimicry might just be a way to find inspiration. The concept might be treated more loosely in this case, as a thinking process rather than a hard science. For others, biomimicry is a philosophy or a mindset, a lens through which to view the world that can have a profound impact on an individual’s lifestyle or society’s perception of the natural world.

The bottom line is:

Biomimicry, like anything else, can only be rightly categorized as a pseudo science if the person applying biomimicry claims to be using it as a science, in the strict sense of the word, but in actuality, is not basing their work on the scientific method.

I’m going to dedicate the rest of this post to telling you a short story (and it’s a real story) that will elucidate my point. Following my last blog post I received the following message from one of my Facebook friends.

Friend: “What a coincidence, my sister and I just watched a TV program on National Geographic channel that was also about the use of biomimicry in Chinese Martial Arts!

Immediately, I smelled something fishy. I never claimed in my post (nor do I think) that Chinese Martial Arts are biomimetic. So I asked my friend which program it was, and I watched it. It’s an episode in the series “Fight Science” called “Fight Like an Animal.”

Many TV show are purely for entertainment. But the problem is, National Geographic channel is a science channel, so the audience expects to learn about science. And, the name of the series – “Fight Science” – suggests it’s about “real” science.

But it turns out, at least this particular episode, is complete pseudo science. Sure, it features some top professional Chinese Martial Artists (I even recognized one of them), professors from top research universities, and fancy equipment to record and analyze data. But the “science” experiments conducted on this show are poorly designed, and subsequent data analysis completely flawed.

This show basically uses high speed camera tracking/analysis and sensor technologies to compare the performance between the animals and the Kung Fu that imitates those animals performed by professional Kung Fu athletes.

Flaw #1. Arbitrarily assigned testing attributes with the animal style Kung Fu.

For example, snake for testing speed, crane for balance and counter strike, praying mantis for accuracy and timing, monkey for agility. Those are totally random assignments without proper justifications.

Flaw #2. No control group, no repeating experiments and the sample size is too small.

Tanglangquan (Praying Mantis Kung Fu) on the left vs. The real praying mantis capturing a fly on the right. – From “Fight Science: Fight like an animal”

This is a major flaw throughout the whole episode which is particularly apparent in the praying mantis experiment. Assuming the goal of the experiment is to test “accuracy and timing,” it doesn’t make sense to put a man trained in martial arts in an enclosed space with 1,000 flies and see how many he can catch. Where’s the control? I bet if you put an ordinary person with no training in martial arts in a space densely packed with flies he’ll also be able to catch some flies just by waving his cupped hands! Instead, they should have put maybe 10 flies in an enclosed space and recorded the amount of time testing subjects need to catch one fly. And if I were designing the experiment, I wouldn’t collect data for just one attempt by one person, but rather many attempts by many different people, who each perform the test several times.

Flaw #3. Misused words. Overstated findings. Drawing conclusions without enough supporting evidence.

This show misused words like “emulate.” Really this show was just about imitating animals’ movements, not even accurately mimicking, and nowhere near emulating. Emulating implies, not mimicking, but abstracting a design principle from a natural model and applying it appropriately to a human context. The conclusion of the show left people with the false impression that with enough practice, watching and imitating animals’ movements will allow people to achieve performance levels that are equal to or even exceed the animals’ performance levels.

I hope this story makes my point about how biomimicry can be misconstrued as pseudo science. This happens everywhere, not just in biomimicry. Common sense and critical thinking is necessary to pinpoint when and where pseudo science happens. If all your understandings about biomimicry are derived from sources like this show, filled with false advertising, I won’t blame a person for thinking biomimicry is “parametric snake oil.” However, there are lots of “real deal” biomimicry examples out there, so I encourage you to defer judgment for a while, keep an open mind, and take a look at those examples; then maybe your opinion of biomimicry will change.

P.S. As a Chinese Martial Art practitioner with over 20 years experience, I can assure you that the exaggerated animal-like movements demonstrated in “Fight Like an Animal” are for performance only, with little or no practical value. In a real fight, the animal form is concealed. We don’t take on the shape/appearance of the animal in our movements; we just apply the principles we learn from animals about how to achieve speed, balance, etc. That’s the real animal style Kung Fu.

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