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Ten prejudges about Life

Ten prejudges about Life

People always dream to fly like birds, to swim like dolphins, to see at night like owls… As our bodies are not “designed” for this,  we use tools and machines - airplanes,  submarines, night-vision devices. With such tools we can go to places where humans are not supposed to feel comfortable  or survive at all - outer space, deep sea, micro world.  We fantasise about seeing invisible, hearing what we cannot hear, go to places where humans never been, to be capable of doing something incredible, what humans have never done before.  All science fiction books are about these dreams. Many new capabilities for us become achievable with the help of technology. But as our ambitions grow, even advance technology faces the limits to serve our curiosity and aspiration. 

Living nature is a great source of future capabilities of our technology and great source of ideas for engineers and designers. But some of the common assumptions  about living nature are either wrong or can be true or useful only in certain circumstances. Glossy pictures, lovely urban legends and nearly plausible myths garnish the pages of the popular science press in regards to biomimetic design. People expect the proffered miracles of this novel trend in science and technology, but can it deliver what it is proclaimed?  Let us consider some of these popular assumptions that are suggested widely as the basis for biomimetic research and development.  

1. “ Life is always perfect” or “Nature is always wise” – not always true. 

Mind the millions of died-out species in the course of the history of our planet and those which are dying out now. The whole reason for the origin and development of technology itself (tools, transport, agriculture, medicine, etc.) is to compensate for the imperfection of living Nature. And this is not a unique feature of hu- mans; many animals also compensate for their weakness by building nests, burrows, shelters, accumulating food for themselves or their off-springs, use various objects as tools. So: “Nobody is perfect!“ 

2. “Living Nature is energy efficient and uses only the energy it needs. Life optimises rather than maximises “ – not always true. 

Most organisms accumulate and deposit excessive amounts of food  or other substances. The amount of spermatozoa, the number of pollen grains and seeds, the size of mammoth’s tusks, the mass of dinosaurs are also beyond the optimal. So, living nature optimises, minimises and maximises – it can do everything according to the given challenges, circumstances and available means. 

3. “Living Nature recycles everything” – not always true. 

Often the surplus is so enormous that it cannot be processed or consumed and thus it is deposited – e.g., coal, turf, oil, limestone, etc. 

4. “Living Nature rewards cooperation” – not always true. 

Remember the competition, parasitism, cannibalism, commensalism and amensalism, which do exist alongside with mutualism (symbiosis). Too much cooperation and therefore inter-dependence affects the reliability of a society. 

5. “Life relies on diversity” – not always true. 

Northern ecosystems exist at a very low level of diversity. And not only northern ecosystems – consider for example grassland ecosystems – in Africa we see a great diversity of species of savannah antelopes, but in the similar environment of the North American prairie the same herbivorous function is performed by just one single species – bison. 

6. “All living systems are dynamic” – not always true. 

Dynamic processes are very much linked with static ones For example, corals and most plants are static but their reproductive strategy is dynamic. 

7. “All living systems operate in dynamic non-equilibrium” – not true at all. 

Biological systems are always integrated into larger living systems and non-equilibrium destroys the integration, while equilibrium of what system gets and what system spends supports its integrity. So, non-equilibrium is the way to death, which is also natural, we may aim this. If this is the case we can learn from nature how to achieve death in the most efficient way. 

8. “Living systems constantly change and adapt” – not always true. 

Societies create a comfortable artificial environment instead of adapting to a natural one (changeable and hostile). Any change is ex- pensive in life – re-organisation is not what living systems aim for, self- sustainable structures are the main focus in self-organisation in Life. 

9.”Living Nature fits form to function.” This is true sometimes, but not always.

Very often the same function is provided with sufficiently different forms and structures. Remember the shapes of fast-swimmers, whales and dolphins: the same effect is achieved with radically different shapes of the anterior part of the animals.  We say - sharks swim fast because their skin is rough like sandpaper. Shark skin is composed of placoid scales (also called dermal denticles), tiny tooth-like structures which give it a rough, sand-paper-like texture. An important effect of the skin denticles is to enhance thrust and reduce the drag. But we also say that dolphins swim fast because their skin is very smooth  and sleek which makes swimming through water more efficient. Skin properties of sharks and dolphins are opposite but the function of drag reduction and increase of thrust is achieved - both dolphins and sharks are fast swimmers in the ocean. Sharks skin  supports this function passively, while dolphin’s skin is doing it actively rippling the skin when faced with turbulence to suppress it. Moreover dolphin skin has circumferential ridges, perpendicular to fluid flow, present from the crest of the head until the tail. The ridges have a sinusoidal grooves which have been proven to induce vortices  in the cavities that can help control flow separation which can reduce pressure drag. Both dolphin ridges and shark scales are thought to increase swimming efficiency but the means of providing the same function are very different even in two creatures that live in similar environment. 

There are also cases when functions are delivered extremely inefficiently. This is hard to believe , but female hyenas give birth through an very narrow passage that goes through the… clitoris. It is an amazing example of the total disharmony of sizes, forms and functions. 

At the same time biology often confuses us by using the same objects or structures for different functions, which do not necessarily look to us as though such structures and the functions they provide should go together. Look at your own hands - how many functions they perform? How many functions are hidden inside your fingers  - blood vessel feed cell with nutritions and oxygen, muscles allow movement, skin protects, senses, evaporates, grows, etc. We also ave unique fingerprints…. does this mean that there are uniques functions  they perform? Sounds ridiculous, isn’t it? Very popular in engineering and architecture slogan “form fits function” appeared to be useless in biology and therefor in biomimetics.

10. “In Life everything is interconnected” – true, but useless. 

Interconnection of everything with everything creates an extremely complex environment to live in. Life deals with this complexity and ability to separate what is important from what is not vital. Values and goals reveal and “separate” the parts of the reality which are relevant to the particular purpose of action. 

So, what at the features of life that we need to take into the account in biomimetic design? Is there something fundamental to learn from biology? By analogy with physics we need to follow biological laws with perfectly defined range of conditions for their applicability. But are there any of them? Biology can be your best friend and,  at hte same time, furious enemy.   Everything  depends on curcumstances. Some effects seem very positive in the circumstances of biological environment but may cause harm  being transfered into human environment. To avoid this confusion, professional expertise in translation process and professional biologist with wide range of expertise is required in every biomimetic design project.

Read more in our book "Biomimetic management" and and express your interest in our next book of the series “Biomimetica” - "Biomimetics: designer's manual"   by e-mailing us


Olga Bogatyreva Posted by Olga Bogatyreva

Dr. O. Bogatyreva is a broadly qualified expert in the fields of creativity, innovation and advanced design, inventive problem solving. Her main interests are creative problem-solving techniques, psychology of invention, and teaching methods for different cultural environments.

Olga runs training courses in creativity, invention and bio-inspired design worldwide, consulting European Space Agency, UK Ministry of Defence and many other large companies. She also developed unique online course on creative problem-solving for industry with the original educational videos initially ordered by the University of Bath (UK).

Being Internationally certified expert in TRIZ (powerful technique for systematic invention process) Olga sold two patents on laboratory equipment, which was designed, manufactured, tested and widely used. 

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