Morpho butterfly. Photo by Eddy Van 3000

Morpho butterfly. Photo by Eddy Van 3000

Sometimes, people suggest that biomimicry should include all of nature, including abiotic or non-living things. While we recognize that “nature” does include water, stars, air, and rocks, focusing on life is where the important lessons lie for surviving and thriving on Earth. While there may be nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from the wider view of nature, there can be dangers of doing what we term “geomimicry.”

Recently, green chemist Mark Dorfman wrote a good explanation that he agreed to share with the Biomimicry Education Network:

The reason mimicking strategies used by living organisms is a such a rich vein of inspiration for a sustainable technological society, is that living organisms develop strategies that are life-friendly and create conditions conducive to life. Phenomena in the inanimate natural world are under no such constraints.

For example, the inanimate natural world creates brilliant colors in the minerals cinnabar, vanadanite, and realgar using mercury, lead, and arsenic, respectively. On the other hand, butterflies create brilliant color with chitin and air spaces.

The inanimate natural world has given us fire-resistant asbestos fibers. On the other hand, trees resist fire with thick, insulating cellulosic bark.

Where there are valuable phenomena in the inanimate natural world, chances are, Life has figured out a way to leverage these phenomena in a controlled, life-friendly way. Take the assembly of ordered crystals. The inanimate natural world uses extreme heat and pressure to trigger the assembly of ordered crystals of inorganic carbon. On the other hand, abalone use proteins to trigger the assembly of ordered crystals of inorganic carbon under life-friendly temperatures and pressures.

The flow of energy and arrangement of materials is optimized by systems characterized by the Fibonacci series. In the inanimate natural world, it manifests itself in the destructive spiral energy of tornadoes and hurricanes. On the other hand, organisms incorporate the Fibonacci series in myriad ways including the arrangement of seeds in a sunflower, the branching of veins, be them on leaves or in our arms, and for the efficient movement of schools of fish.

To do biomimicry as we define it, you have to be mimicking strategies from life. After all, that’s where the “bio” in the term comes from. If we’re looking to create conditions conducive to life, we need to learn from the living world how it’s been doing that for 3.8 billion years.

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