Evolution and Biomimetics

Summer weather has finally made its way to northeast Ohio, and with it, another semester of classes has drawn to a close. One of the classes which most of the fellows took this semester was titled “Evolution and Biomimetics.” In the class, we read and discussed the ramifications of two books on how we understand biomimicry. The first was The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, and the second was Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptional Foundations of Evolutionary Biology by Massimo Pigliucci and Jonathan Kaplan.

The first book centers on the idea that science has reached a point in its knowledge where it must begin to consider problems from a more holistic, systemic view. The paradigm presented speaks to a vastly different culture of thought than is currently employed. The first chapters explain reductionist thought, which states that a large problem can be split into smaller problems which when individually solved will add up to a solution to the larger problem. Capra and Luisi suggest that many problems are non-linear, and must be consider as a whole. “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” The authors then extend the idea to redefine the words life and cognition, and then examine how these new definitions changes the social sciences and economics.

With respect to biomimicry, the book prompts a question, which to me seems to be at the crux of how I personally define bioinspiration and biomimicry. To what degree must a practitioner adhere to the natural system which he or she examines in order to retain the benefit for the systemic problems which he or she solved? Nature solves the problems of material selection, processing, property optimization, and cradle to cradle sustainability. If we take an idea from nature but reduce it down to just one aspect, will we miss something very important? Not only on the matter of materials, but perhaps also from the standpoint of the function we are trying to mimic. The aspect which we study is part of the organism, which could have an interplay of structures and behaviors which produce the desired effect. This question leads perfectly to the discussion of the second book.

In Making Sense of Evolution, the authors claim that evolutionary biology is a much more complicated matter than the way it is currently treated, with respect to very common ideas such as G-matrices and fitness landscapes. The authors give the analogy of Indonesian Shadow Theater. We see the projection of shadows on the screen, but we do not know the shapes and structures which create what we see. We can create theories to describe what we see, but ultimately, we cannot look behind the curtain. The authors do not suggest that evolution is wrong. However, there are some specific aspects which need to be further examined so that the experiments and the knowledge derived from them can be properly understood.

One aspect of evolutionary biology which I learned about in the class was the idea of spandrels and “just so stories.” The spandrel is the flat decorated area of an arch in cathedral domes. We could claim that the spandrel was created to provide a place for more art. With the decoration that we see on all of the spandrels, that seems like a pretty likely answer. Of course, it could provide some structural factor as well, and would have been created as such. The analogy leads over to the complicated changing of traits over time. An organism is not one trait, but is the totality of all of its traits and the relations between its individual aspects. When we see a trait with some function, we could say that that trait was evolved for the function it currently has, but perhaps it was formed for something else first, and then began to be used for the function we see today.

The complicated nature of evolution leads to some questions which would be interesting and important for the biomimicry community to explore. For example, if we see a structure performing some function, does it matter if that structure was evolved by pressures selecting towards the function we see or by pressures which originally evolved the function for some other purpose? In other words, if that structure performs a function we desire, then we have an answer from nature on how to solve that problem. But it may not be the best solution to the problem if it was not originally selected for that function. Therefore, what examples from nature should we examine if we want to solve a problem? Should we look to the extreme examples from which we can hopefully be surer of the selective pressure? Or should we examine a local example for our application, which will see a similar environment? How does the interplay between informal selection (one trait interacting with one situation) and formal selection (the comparative growth rates of traits in a population) affect the solutions by which we should desire to examine? Would it be better to follow traits which grow faster in a population or choose traits which seem to better serve the function we desire (a single selective pressure), regardless of the growth rate in populations (a more systemic view)?

The questions go on and on. I will close with one more question which I think sums up the main idea from the class. Since we study 3.8 billion of years of R&D from nature in order to produce better solutions to the challenges we face, to what degree should we understand the process by which nature forms these traits and functions?

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