Janine Benyus on Biomimicry in Design on TH Radio (Part Two)

TreeHugger: Are there design flaws in nature?

Benyus: Absolutely. I mean, to the extent that what you are seeing is not a finished story. You are seeing a story in progress. The organisms that you see that you are pretty wowed by, it is because they represent one percent of all species that have ever been on Earth. So 99 percent are extinct. The one percent that you see here have gotten through some amazing bottlenecks because they are good. But that evolution process is still in play. And species are still getting tested, including us, by the way.

So I laughed when you said, “Are there design flaws?" because I think the big brain has great things going for it. But, I think it has some serious design flaws as well. Some things that are maladaptive. There are maladaptive traits that are constantly being edited out of the population through natural selection. And really, that is how I look at us. I see all of our technologies as natural. I look at a building and I say, "Oh my gosh. That is totally natural." Because it is like a nest. That is a product of a biological organism: us.

But, when I go into a building and I start getting a headache, because there is some off-gassing or whatever, I think, this is something that natural selection will eventually edit out.

If a hive of bees built something that had a toxic gas leaking out of whatever material they were using, the propensity to use that material would be edited out. Because reproduction would not be that great in that hive. So there is immediate feedback.

Thankfully, we have what Paul Hawken calls an immune system. We have all kinds of nonprofit organizations, NGOs and civil societies saying, protesting, about the fact that they are getting headaches in buildings.

That is our immune system. That is our feedback system. I think the substitutions for those kinds of flawed designs are going to be increasingly inspired by the ones that have evolved a little bit longer in life's R&D; lab.

TreeHugger: It would appear that you have somehow appropriated the biological ability not to sleep. The amount of things that you have got yourself involved in these days is astounding. One of them is an education program that goes from kindergarten all the way up through university, trying to get bio-mimicry into classrooms. How is this happening?

Benyus: The Biomimicry Institute started a couple of years ago. We had a tremendous team. On the Guild side we work with practitioners. We work with people who are proactive system designers, engineers, architects and chemists. What about the next generation of biomimics? You can't keep doing this remedial approach of saying, “oh by the way, look to the natural world.” You see all these architects who we deal with going, "Oh my God, if anybody had told me to just do that, that would have been my design methodology. It would have been part of my design methodology." That is what we are trying to do.

We are introducing this idea of look to the natural world all the way. And K through 12 kids love it, of course. They are really good designers too, by the way, because they are not hampered by convention.

At the university level, it is really kind of neat. What we realized—and this is kind of shocking, actually—is that the people who make our world, most of them, do not have to take a biology class. They really never touch biology, expect once in high school.

So, we said, "Wow. Let's remedy that first." What if engineers, architects and designers were to take one biology class? And it was taught not the way that you remember biology being taught: here are all the fungi—all of the rote memorization— but rather biology taught functionally.

One week would be ‘how does nature communicate?’ ‘How does nature play with light?’ ‘What are optics like in the natural world?’ You would learn about cuttlefish and how they make these amazing displays on their bodies. Week after week after week you would be looking at design through the lens of the natural world.

The biggest thing to understand is that these things are possible. Once you know that the electric eel, for instance, can create 600 volts of electricity, and there is no lead or mercury or things that are in our batteries. You know?

Once you realize that it doesn't fry itself with that electricity. And then somebody tells you, "Well, you need PVC for insulators on wires. It is the only thing that will insulate." You might say, "Well, you know, there is an electric fish in the Amazon. The electric eel doesn't need PVC to insulate itself. Let's check." So, it is a matter of knowing that it exists.

We are working with 20 universities right now, with biology taught functionally as a class. In some of the universities, that class has both biology students in it and, say, architecture students. And then they go onto another class. At the University of Minnesota they spend a whole year in a biomimic studio, and you've got an architect and a biology student side by side. And they try to create a biomimic building project.
We're doing that, and now we're working on three universities that will have actual minors in biomimicry. That's exciting. That's the next generation of biomimics.

Tags: Alternative Energy | Biomimicry | Conservation | Solar Energy | Technology | TH Interview | TreeHugger Radio

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