By Tamsin Woolley-Barker
Biomimicry saved my life, and brought sunlight to me in a very dark place. It began in a place of intense scarcity––a deeply finite world. I was struggling. There wasn’t enough of anything––not enough time, not enough money, not enough hope. I’d lost a daughter, a husband, a business, and I had three small boys to care for. Dear friends worried, and persuaded me to try an online meditation program. Not my kind of thing, but I was willing to try. It was a New Year, after all, and I desperately needed a fresh start.
Day One began with an eye-rolling mantra. “I come from a place of infinite abundance.” There was fifteen minutes of talk, all about sunlight and cosmic stardust, streaming down endlessly upon us. This I could manage.
As an evolutionary biologist with a degree in botany, I knew it was true. Sunlight is infinite, as far as we small beings are concerned, and ultimately, it’s the source of most value on Earth. The plants gobble it all day long, using it to smash endless molecules of carbon dioxide and water together into the sugar fuel that powers us all. It is literally streaming down somewhere, all the time, and the plants can’t even begin to use it all. Sunlight is, indeed, the source of infinite abundance. Then followed fifteen minutes of silent meditation, where this seed took hold and grew within me. As the final gong sounded, signaling the end of the meditation, I thought––“I’m going to write a book about this. People need to know that scarcity is not the way things really are. It just doesn’t have to be this way.” I immediately began scribbling, and wrote fifty pages right then and there. And so began Teeming, the book I spent the next three years working on.
Plants smash endless molecules of carbon dioxide and water together into the sugar fuel that powers us all.
Sadly, Day Two of the meditation made no sense to me at all. It was New Age gobbledygook after all, and the sunlight was gone. I just kept writing instead.
I also went back to school to pursue my passion for all things evolutionary. I’d heard a radio snippet on something called biomimicry––innovation inspired by nature. It was like thunder and lightening in my heart and in my mind. I pulled over on the freeway. This is what I had to do, and I’ve done it every day since. I started writing a blog, “BioInspired Ink”, and a column for Inhabitat.com called “The Biomimicry Manual.” I did biological research for Biomimicry 3.8, and edited biological strategies for the Biomimicry Institute. In 2015, I had the greatest honor of being part of the very first graduating cohort for the Master’s degree in Biomimicry at Arizona State University. Slowly, I rebuilt my life. Biomimicry truly saved me. But the best and most surprising thing was that I stumbled on a deeply wonderful community of caring and talented people, and reconnected with wilderness and growing things. The most important discovery has been connection.
Today, I find abundant hope. Meandering along the nearby creeks and threading among the giant boulders that dot the chaparral, rekindles the spirit like nothing else can. But for me, optimism springs from something much deeper than this beautiful scenery. It stems from the knowledge that every creature I encounter on the trail is a survivor. Living things have always faced shifting climates, dwindling resources, deceptive predators and parasites and competitors, and after nearly four billion years of life, natural selection has sculpted tens of millions of winning solutions. The answers are here, and we can freely observe them if we take the time and look closely.
After nearly four billion years of life, natural selection has sculpted tens of millions of winning solutions.
Biomimicry is the art and science of observing nature’s strategies, finding deep and ancient patterns that work, and applying them to our own challenges. Bumps on the leading edge of the humpback whale’s flippers minimize turbulence––wind turbine blades that mimic them are 40% more efficient. Lotus leaves are completely water-repellent––Lotusan Paint mimics the way water beads up and rolls off, cleaning dirt from the surface in the process. A chip in your smartphone copies the way your ears and brain work together, separating signal from noise.
In the tidepool and the rainforest and every place between, nature’s ancient R&D labs offer us transformative, surprising, and radically disruptive solutions. Each one is a compelling story of survival, hope, and resilience. We’ve all succeeded despite the odds, just by being here.
As human beings, we lead with our brains. We imagine where we want to be, and reverse-engineer it. As primates, we are also deeply political––everything we do is negotiated. We’ve inherited a fantastic talent for bluster and persuasion and manipulation––we are good at getting what we want. Too good: if seven or eight billion people know what they want and how to get it, it’s easy to see why we suffer from scarcity. The brainy, political way doesn’t scale, and when you work with tens of thousands of people, and live on a planet with more than seven billion of them, our pyramids are bound to get wobbly. Chaos, instability, and scarcity are inevitable, as any child playing with blocks can tell you. We can only build so high before the tower falls.
That’s not how other biological societies work.
Ancient communities of ants, termites, and honeybees don’t rely on hierarchies of command. Their decisions emerge from the ground up. Any particular individual isn’t too impressive on its own, but together, these colonies are intelligent, agile, resilient, and innovative—everything we’d like our own organizations to be. Scientists speak of the dense webs of interconnected fungus underground as a kind of neural network—a subterranean brain. But this brain is no wobbly pyramid––it is flat. These ancient societies build their compounding wealth on infinite things—sunlight and carbon, diffuse specks of water and nutrients, complexity, diversity, connection, and trust. Their teams grow from the edges out, in modular, self-managed units that seek and respond to opportunity and risk on the front lines, leveraging symbiotic partnerships to unlock untapped value. By focusing systematically on shared purpose, building with infinite stuff, and spilling the value they create out into the larger ecosystem to feed the life that feeds them, these organisms have succeeded for hundreds of millions of years. They have to—it’s the only way to compound that value for the future, growing it from one generation to the next. Life creates conditions conducive to life (Janine Benyus), and always has.
Together, these colonies are intelligent, agile, resilient, and innovative—everything we’d like our own organizations to be.
For me, leading with my brain and working steadfastly toward a goal has always been my modus operandi. Sometimes it works––though it’s gotten me in some wobbly spots and rarely gets me paid. But as a primatologist (aka. human evolution), I also know we can do so much more. There’s been a very real and dramatic phase-change among us, and dominance hierarchies and pyramid schemes are no longer the way we like to work. We may share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos, but that two percent difference is a game-changer.
We are converging on the networked superorganism way of life, the same kind of society you see in ants and termites and honeybees, and even the mycorrhizal fungal networks underground. That happens a lot in evolution––when life hits on a good idea, it tends to show up again and again, because it works.
Other superorganisms have lived this way for hundreds of millions of years, while our parents lacked computers and cell phones. We have so much to learn––what do these ancient creatures know that we don’t? Can they show us the way to resilient, adaptive, regenerative success? I believe that they can. Their deep, simple patterns of collaboration feel right to us. Collective intelligence, distributed leadership, swarm creativity, natural resilience, and regenerative value––these are fundamental to our future success. We’ve always tapped this kind of networked intelligence in our communities and families––living as superorganisms feels natural––but the challenge is scaling it up, putting it to work in large companies and big governments. With Teeming: How Superorganisms Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World, I set out to explore these patterns, and translate them into practical actions we can take locally, in our own organizations and lives. It is a mirror––and a vision––of what the future could hold for each of us. It’s a vision I take to heart and strive toward in my own life. Connection and sunlight make good things grow.
We are converging on the networked superorganism way of life, the same kind of society you see in ants, termites and honeybees.
Michael Pollan writes that, “as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world,” and I know this is true. Wherever distributed networks of diverse and independent individuals come together around a compelling shared purpose, surprising things happen, and resilience prevails. Infinite abundance on a finite planet is real, and it is all around us. All we have to do is look––and teem on, together.
About the Author
Dr. Woolley-Barker is an Evolutionary Biologist and pioneer in the emerging discipline of Biomimicry. She serves as an independent ‘Biologist at the Design Table’ with organizations like Biomimicry 3.8, providing biologically inspired innovation for a global clientele. Her book TEEMING: How Superorganism Work To Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World is available from White Cloud Press.