Biomimicry: What About the Why?

In her article, “Towards a Deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry,” Freya Mathews argues that biomimicry is philosophically under-developed. The current objective of biomimicry is to reorganize what and how we make things, instead of why we make things. Focusing on the what and how presumes a shift in why (i.e. a shift in the maker’s mindset) will follow. It presumes that the act of emulating natural forms and processes delivers increased consciousness of the principles of natural systems, and eventually, behavioral alignment with those principles. But it is dangerous to presume a shift in why. Given the current state of our environment we assume far too great a risk by delaying attention to the why. To accelerate a mindset shift, we must address the following questions: Why do we make things? What optimal future state are we pursuing through biomimetic innovation? Answers to these questions will help us develop a more robust biomimicry philosophy.

If we derive inspiration for what and how we make from biological models, we should also derive inspiration for why we make by looking at principles of organization in biological systems. In her article, Mathews identifies two such principles. First is the principle of conativity, according to which biological beings strive to prolong their existence. Second is the principle of least resistance, whereby biological beings expend the least amount of energy in pursuit of conative ends by avoiding energy-intensive actions that impede the conativity of others. Most biological beings follow the path of least resistance instinctually, but humans, as uniquely reflexive beings, must make a conscious decision to pursue that which is beneficial to us in the short term AND conducive to life on Earth over the long term. We must choose NOT to pursue what is beneficial to us in the short term but threatens the livelihood of our biological brethren. Our choices cannot solely be based on strategic, market-driven imitation of natural forms and processes (current tenet of biomimicry), but also a commitment to ecological integration (future tenet of biomimicry), through alignment with the two principles of organization in biological systems that Mathews identifies. Generally speaking, our current behaviors embody the principle of conativity, but not the principle of least resistance, so the latter should be our focus.

Eastern philosophies like Taoism revere nature as mentor, and thus are a logical source to pull from as we devise a behavioral code of ethics that will support eco-integration. Taoism encourages alignment with natural energy flows – in other words, adherence to the principle of least resistance. Some modern Western environmental philosophies, like deep ecology, could also inform further development of biomimicry philosophy. Deep Ecology prescribes a widened concept of self, to include nature. When the concept of self includes nature, the principles of conativity and least resistance are inseparable, because caring for yourself is caring for nature as a whole, which implies avoiding actions that impede the conativity of others.

Permaculture is an example of an approach that adheres to both the principles of conativity and least resistance. Permaculturalists codesign with the land, creating resilient, self-sustaining agricultural systems that harmonize with the sun/shade, wind, and weather patterns of a particular place (least resistance). Permaculturalists facilitate biotic exchanges that lead to incredibly productivity (including food productivity – conativity), all without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. A scene in the documentary Inhabitat: A Permaculture Perspective shows one permaculturalist growing shitake mushrooms from the branches of a fallen tree. As he explains, the fallen tree will decompose anyway, so that decomposition process might as well be orchestrated in such a way that it produces a nutritious food source.

For biomimicry to make its greatest impact, it is essential that we begin approaching its practice with a deep understanding of and sensitivity towards the interconnectedness of humans and the rest of nature. Can we borrow from the realms of Taoism, Deep Ecology, Permaculture, etc. to develop this capacity so that our actions better embody both the principle of conativity and the principle of least resistance?


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