In Cats’ Paws and Catapults (1998), Steven Vogel compares the mechanics of nature and human technology. He acknowledges the crucial differences between these two “schools of design,” but still draws attention to a list of similar factors shaping and constraining both innovation processes. For instance, he mentions incremental progress as being a common feature:
“Natural selection…is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary process, one building on small changes. Of course we humans can make major technological revolutions. But what do we really do?”
The recently posted video offers an illustrative answer to this question with an interesting example of how human designs evolve. Even though nothing is mentioned about the relative importance of the inventor’s culture, historical knowledge, and creativity for invention of this drilling design process in particular, the video still shows how technology adapts to available resources while having a self-replicating and self-enhancing potential. A tool can be created to improve the tool itself: drilled components constitute a better drilling device. One can easily find here an analogy to simple cells making use of what the environment provides, self-organizing and assembling into more complex organisms, potentially more adapted to environmental changes.
To assess the meaning of these analogies, we could scope such processes under the light of complexity theory. How does complexity emerge (naturally?) from simpler, interacting entities? For a novice on the subject such as myself, there are accessible and lighter reads to start with:
Evolutionary processes are a hot topic in philosophy. Life as “negative entropy” is not a new idea; it was introduced by the renowned physicist Schrödinger in his book What is life? (1944). Intelligence also seems to systematically build order from chaos, no matter if expressed by humans, ants or computer code. Researchers are finding new ways to tackle the biological versus technological evolution problem. This paper highlights: “if biological evolution is always occupied with adapting to spatiotemporally local conditions, then it will fail to make progress toward any globally optimal design.”
These comparisons provide relevant insights on how biomimicry can become a useful design / creativity tool. Personally, I believe there are still many unforeseen, undesirable by-products of our technological evolution that will challenge us. We are most likely closer to our primitive roots than to a “globally optimal” version of humanity. Albeit the many theories out there about how human technology will transition to a so-called “post-biological evolution,” free from life constraints, I don’t think our current realm justifies much skepticism about learning from biological designs. If life around us has been struggling and evolving for the sake of its own sustainability for the last 3.8 billion years, we might gain more from keeping the same open-mindedness as the first drill makers in the world. Underestimating the prevailing limits of human progress would limit us even more!