The art of biomimicry

Benyus thinks our drift away from nature started with the advent of agriculture: "When we broke free from the vicissitudes of hunting and gathering and learnt to stock our pantries, we fooled ourselves into believing that we didn't need other organisms at all," she says. Since then, the Scientific, Industrial, Petrochemical and Genetic Engineering Revolutions have repeatedly reinforced the idea that we're free from biological constraints.

Velcro — invented by de Mestral in 1948 — is probably the most famous example of 'biomimicry' or 'biomimetics', where technologists turn to nature for inspiration. It's certainly not a new idea: from Icarus' feathers to da Vinci's avian-inspired flying machines and the Wright Brothers' habit of studying vultures, people have long tried to emulate evolution's most spectacular outcomes.

But as the Earth heats up and we hurtle towards an energy and water crisis, there's a new imperative to taking notes from nature. "After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival," says Janine Benyus, U.S. biologist and author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Published in 1997, the book set off the latest wave of technology modelled on nature: its forms, processes and ecosystems.

According to Benyus, our ancestors were practised in the art of biomimicry. "I think it's an old impulse for humans to take their cues from other organisms," she says, referring to the native Inuit of Canada who copied the snow houses of polar bears to make igloos, and African tribes that found edible plants by observing the dining habits of chimps. "But lately we've become very enamoured of our own synthetic abilities."

In recent years, however, that illusion has been shattered by the spectre of global warming and the looming end to fossil fuel supplies. Since few of us would be willing to forgo the products and services we've grown accustomed to — food, water, shelter, lattes, plasma screens — the challenge becomes meeting the complex demands of civilisation within the bounds of sustainability.

Along with Benyus, a growing band of scientists, designers and engineers thinks that might be possible, if we turn back to nature for advice. "Life has learnt to fly, circumnavigate the globe, live in the depths of the ocean and atop the highest peaks, craft miracle materials, light up the night, lasso the Sun's energy and build a self-reflective brain," writes Benyus.

Then one day in the early 1940s, Georges de Mestral was walking his dog through long grass. Cockleburs attached themselves to the Swiss inventor's trousers and his dog's fur and — a consummate scientist — de Mestral became curious rather than annoyed.

Under the microscope, he noted the hook-and-loop system the seed cases had evolved for dispersal on the fur of animals. Bored to tears by the zipper, he was inspired.

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