So this week, I picked up watching chef documentaries in my free time. Inevitably, in the course of the documentary, the chef goes to a farm, a boat, the forest, or a market to find ingredients which comprise a part of one of the stunning dishes shown in a montage later in the documentary. The chef in the scene searches for only the most remarkable ingredients. During the scene, the supplier will usually discuss the ingredient in some amount of detail to help the audience better appreciate the care which goes into producing that ingredient. One which really caught my attention was a discussion on mescal. The producer collects the agave and separates them not only by species, but also by growing location and age. Context is key in making the best possible product. This led me to think about the role of context in seeing what we can achieve in biomimicry.
Quite a bit of the biomimicry research that I have seen relies on the deep research of one particular species that someone either easily found, or found interesting. The designer begins examining the desired trait from a particular species, and this species becomes the model from which the designer creates a new technology. Some of the more famous examples do not provide the necessity towards understanding the broader evolutionary context of the system which they examine. In one such common example, the designer of the Shinkansen based the design off of the Kingfisher beak for noise reduction.1 Of course, there is an array of beak morphologies, from toucans to hummingbirds to sparrows. Each morphology was tuned through the context in which it exists. What drove the choice that the Kingfisher was the correct system to abstract from as opposed to some of the other beak varieties? Would studying the diversity of systems and their evolutionary histories have helped to come to a better understanding of the abstracted principle?
The difficulty of the way people utilize systems for biomimicry lies in a challenge to the people trying to abstract the trait. How wide a diversity of species does the scientist need? Just one other species? Perhaps from different families or orders? Should they go back to the evolutionary development of the trait and see how it branches out? For traits dependent upon a general structural form, the process might prove to be a bit easier, but for chemical analyses, taking the time to study a wide variety of natural systems may very well take a number of years. I believe that deciding the necessary evolutionary context requires a bit of finesse and discretion from the person abstracting the trait. Spending too much time on the details of many particular species may lead the scientist to forget the larger picture for the abstraction process. On the other hand, diving in from one particular species might cause the designer to miss something key from other species. The balance between these two must be handled in order to meet time restraints and provide a justified solution. Just giving the quick thought to check and see a broader range of the trait in related organisms before abstracting the principle may help the designer to arrive at a more informed conclusion.