Convergence: Biomimicry before it was cool

Hello Germinature,

Thank you to those who are returning readers and I would welcome newcomers interested in this thing we call biomimicry. This being my first post I realize that many of you do not know who I am. My name is Stephen Howe I am an incoming fellow and I will be working with Bendix. For the moment that is all I will say about myself but I would encourage you to read my contributor bio.

Given enough creativity Biomimicry can be applied to any facet of one’s daily life. I encountered this first hand when considering what would be the topic of my first post. I have just moved into a fixer upper in the Akron region and have been working to improve it. At the DXY Tangent event I was talking about my projects with the other fellows. I had asked them what should I write about, Daphne looked at me and said “anything you want…you could talk about how biomimicry interacts with your yard work.” I wasn’t sure how serious she was but the next day I found myself working closely with this tool in my yard. The marine biologist in me couldn’t help but connect that tool with this fish.

Copyright 2013 Simon Fraiser University CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

I wondered if in fact the person who invented the hedge trimmer was inspired by the sawfish? The short answer is no. Hedge trimming has been necessary ever since hedges were used as fences in the middle ages. Mechanical trimmers first used spinning blades and then single sided reciprocators followed by the final form the double bladed reciprocator. If you want to know more here is a link to an article outlining the history of the hedge trimmer. I was not observing biomimicry per se but in fact an example of convergence.

Convergence is an evolutionary phenomenon in which a similar adaptation is derived independently in unrelated groups of organisms. The textbook example of convergence is the torpedo shaped body plan seen in fish and aquatic birds and mammals. In order to escape predators and acquire food these organisms need to efficiently move through water. Because water is much denser than air the properties of fluid dynamics will bear heavily on how these organisms are shaped. Being fusiform reduces drag allowing the body to cut efficiently through the water minimizing the energy required and maximizing the speed of the organism.

My favorite example of convergence is the camera eye. The camera eye, a complex light bending information gathering structure, is found in some species of jellyfish, annelid, snail, spider and cephalopod. Not to mention all of the vertebrate clades. Each of these clades independently developed this kind of eye to effectively utilize light as a means of information gathering. What’s more is it seems that in each phyla these types of eyes first were developed by active hunters giving them a much greater visual acuity than other types of eye. To get the full story of the eye and to read about a plethora of astounding examples of convergence I would highly suggest reading Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris.

The natural world has physical laws and constraints and the biotic world will always strive to live within those constraints in the most efficient way possible. In many cases, there are only one or a few adaptive paths available that conform to these physical laws and so we see many different lineages arriving at the same solution. This in essence is convergence.

Humankind has managed to push our way against these currents by implementing massive amounts of energy and using exotic processes, we put people on the moon, split atoms, and moved mountains. But in doing so we have exhausted many important resources and generated huge quantities of harmful byproducts. However, if we work within the cosmic system we can do things sustainably and efficiently. Fortunately we have a vast databank on how to solve our problems. We live on planet earth and face the same challenges that every other organism on the planet faces. These lineages have been perfecting their adaptations for countless generations. We, observing the world around us, can emulate these living road maps on how to navigate the physical laws of the universe. In essence, Biomimicry is applied convergence; we use it as a lens through which we seek solutions to the challenges we face.

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