The Force of Words

“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more.”
Confucius

The University of Akron’s Integrated Bioscience (IB) Biomimicry program is at the forefront of a new discipline. However, the principles of biomimicry have been practiced long before humankind had a spoken language. Examples of early biomimicry can be seen in primitive tools shaped like teeth and man copying hunting tactics of pack animals. Biomimicry continued to be practiced after humans civilized the planet but the act of looking to nature as inspiration was not assigned a specific name.   The works of Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci is a prime example of biomimicry driving invention and art but we do not call him a biomimicist. The University of Akron will release the first Biomimicry PhDs to the world in the near future and in order to give meaning to this degree, we must know how biomimicry is defined.

People can agree that the principles of biomimicry have been practiced for a long time and most people can recognize examples of biomimicry in action. Even though people are familiar with the idea when presented to them, the majority of people cannot state a definition of biomimicry. The idea of biomimicry has been in and out of fashion over time and different regions and existing disciplines assign different names to the practice.   The general idea of biomimicry is really a simple concept but the application can look differently across existing disciplines and at times, can be quite difficult to recognize in practice. No wonder the public has difficulty understanding what biomimicry means! This post is a compilation of efforts conducted by biomimicry fellows in the University of Akron’s IB Biomimicry program to record the history of terms used for looking to nature for inspiration and to define biomimicry for today.

Bionic or bionik is an early term for looking to nature for inspiration in engineering. In America, bionic was coined in 1960 by Jack E. Steele during a seminar at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Soon afterwards, bionik came to be used in Europe merging the words biologie and technik and is still in popular use today. Bionic was traditionally an engineering-focused term in the United States whereas bionic had a broader scope of application with the transfer of biological ideas to technology as a core element.

Biomimetics, as defined by bioengineer and biophysicist Otto Schmitt in 1969, is the study of the physical principles of biological systems in order to produce an artificial mimic. This definition is biomimetics is narrow and does not encompass the broad scope of applications that are not just an artificial mimic. Nature can inform invention and the inspiring element may not be directly mimicked. Chimpanzees were observed to seek out specific trees when ill and researchers found chemical compounds in the trees that may treat parasites in humans.

Bio-inspiration is used in many disciplines, and is especially popular in design. Bio-inspired as a term took off in the 1990’s and the definition was slightly different depending on which discipline used the term. Engineers saw bio-inspired as design or operation based on or inspired from the engineering principles underlying its biological counterpart whereas biologists draw on E.O. Wilson’s concept of biophilia, or the tendency to focus on life and life-like processes.

Janine Benyus brought biomimicry into current popular use with the publication of her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in 1997. In a Center for Biologically Inspired Design interview, Janine Benyus states “biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a new science that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. Studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell is an example. I think of it as innovation inspired by nature.” (The Center for Biologically Inspired Design. Biomimicry Defined: Interview with Janine Benyus. Web. 12 Oct. 2015). Her definition embraces cross-discipline thinking and application of inspiration from nature. People can have a common understanding of the broad concept of biomimicry. When society understands the force of biomimicry, our knowledge will see no boundaries.

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