[Book Review] Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, by Janine Benuys

Science and technology are a triumph of human ingenuity over nature. Or so we tend to think. Propelled by this idea, researchers and inventors of the past century have endeavored to subjugate the chaotic forces of nature to meet human needs. Their efforts have been met with such success that we now live in a time of arguably unprecedented technological prowess and copious material wealth. This has come at an enormous cost. Modern agricultural, industrial and energy systems all run on fossil fuels and mined materials, driving climate change and causing unspeakable environmental damage. Still we push on, unwilling or unable to draw up better alternatives.

In this context, ‘Biomimicry – Innovation Inpired by Nature’ stands as a vital call for a new scientific method and a redefinition of technological progress. By recognizing that the pressures of evolution have provided an answer to every conceivable problem, biomimetic sciences turn the tables by asking researchers in the field and lab to seek solutions in the time-tested innovations of nature. Plants and bacteria create storable energy from sunlight through photosynthesis, and have developed defense mechanisms against threats of all kinds. Mussels manufacture a glue that works in salty water. Spiders weave silk threads stronger and more flexible than any Kevlar or steel. Better yet, both species do this under life-friendly conditions, and without the astronomical energy expenditure of our industrial processes. Intense competition and resource scarcity have forced organisms into structures and modes of behaviour that are at once efficient and economical. Biomimicry’s bet is that if we can emulate these features even in the simplest of ways, technology will not only continue to progress, but it will be less wasteful and less damaging to the Earth and to our health.

Written nearly two decades ago by Janine Benyus, a biologist, science communicator and innovation consultant, the book remains an incredibly (and worryingly) up-to-date analysis of the faults in our current approaches. Through her book, we meet a wide array of researchers and innovators who are taking on the most challenging of questions: How can we replace pesticide-powered monocultures with an agricultural model that maintains the health of the land yet also feeds us all? How can we escape from our dependence on fossil fuels? Are there ways to build industrial strength materials, create effective medicine or conduct business in sustainable yet effective and profitable ways? Benyus’ answer is an emphatic yes. While pragmatically recognizing the limitations of contemporary biomimetic technologies (her main interlocutors are scientists after all), her clear and often elegant writing betrays a genuine passion for and belief in the power of nature. She covers a wide range of examples in a limpid style, allowing her to present scientifically complex processes clearly. Biology and organic chemistry had never been this fascinating to me. Her conviction is such that I quickly felt swayed and came out at the other end feeling more upbeat and hopeful about the state of the world than I had for months.

Granted, paradigm shifts of this nature don’t happen overnight. Most of the research covered in the book is still strictly in the early stages, so that real-world applications often appear only as faint possibilities. It will take time and effort, as small-scale or expensive applications slowly mature into viable alternatives. Even if the technology holds its promise, making biomimicry a reality will require us to overcome a wide range of hurdles, from vested interests to the psychological power of the status quo. In fact, what the book lacks is a discussion of how tech-centered solutions can be limited. A particularly striking example of the book’s limitations is how it presents research into synthetic rhino horns. The basic idea is to curb demand for the real thing, and hence the poaching of rhinos, by flooding the market with horns of our own fabrication. Benyus tells us this is “one of the best uses of biomimicry [she] can imagine”. While the intentions are indeed praiseworthy, would it not be better to focus on reducing demand in other ways, such as awareness campaigns? Authentic horns will remain rare and command the high price of scarcity, while the proliferation of fake horns will only make the work of already under-funded enforcement agencies harder as they try to sort one from the other.[1] Still, Benyus’ optimistic message is seductive and convincing: we live in highly “competent universe”. This competence has emerged from billions of years of trial and error. It thrives on diversity, which withholds as yet undiscovered and unthinkable solutions to the most intractable of problems. It’s about time we paid proper attention.

[1] Twenty years later, this discussion is still ongoing, with few signs to suggest that 3D-printed rhino horns (yes, that’s the current trend) will solve the demand problem.

Benuys, J. (2002) Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Harper Perennial, London, ISBN 978-0060533229.

Piece originally published on deciduous.in (now inactive) on October 6th, 2015.