Biomimicry and Philosophy
The biomimicry movement is highly practical in orientation. And yet, underlying and motivating the practices of biomimicry, there lies a distinctive philosophy–a profound way of understanding and relating to nature that challenges many of the core assumptions of contemporary thought.
When asked what I do, I often say I am a “philosopher of biomimicry.” Just as philosophers of biology work on biology, I am a philosopher who works on biomimicry, so in that respect the label makes sense. But in another respect, the label is problematic, for biomimicry, at least as I see it, is not just another object of philosophical reflection, not simply another thing about which we may develop a “philosophy of.” On the contrary, biomimicry is itself a philosophy — a profound and even revolutionary renewal of ancient ways of understanding and relating to nature. As such, it does not only present a challenge to today’s mainstream practices of design and innovation, but also, more generally, to how we think about such fundamental issues as where knowledge comes from, what nature is, and how we ought to inhabit the earth. In doing so, it also calls into question much of the Western philosophical tradition, opening up the possibility of a renewed dialogue with Indigenous and Eastern philosophies around the inclusive and unifying idea that we may learn from nature how to inhabit the earth.
The central philosophical claim of biomimicry is epistemological; it is a claim about knowledge. Traditional epistemology holds that the knowledge humans possess is generated either by themselves, through the senses, reason, introspection, or memory, or by other humans, who pass it on to them, generally in the form of testimony (Audi 1998). Nature, from this perspective, is only ever an object of human knowledge, something we learn about.
The revolutionary claim introduced by biomimicry–and one that it shares with ancient Greek thought, Indigenous thinking, and Daoism — is that knowledge may also come from nature, that nature may be not only an object of knowledge, something we learn about, but also a source of knowledge, something we learn from.
But biomimicry does not claim simply that nature is an additional, currently overlooked, source of knowledge. According to Janine Benyus, the idea that we may learn from nature is of sufficient import that it may even introduce a new “era” (Benyus 1997). Learning from nature, and designing in concert with nature may, in other words, become mainstream practice for a new generation of designers seeking to achieve a sustainable mutualistic way of living.
This paradigm shift in epistemology has profound implications for ontology: the study of “what is.” It is well known that modern philosophy divided the world in two, with nature being conceived as material or bodily, and mind or spirit — and therewith also knowledge — being reserved for humans. But if we are to learn from nature, it follows that mind and knowledge are also present in nature.
This is not to say that the entirety of the living world is conscious, or that the knowledge present in nature — of how to photosynthesize, for example — is understood by the beings in which it is embedded. What is required, rather, is a perspective that recognizes mental and epistemic processes in nature, while also recognizing their difference from mental and epistemic processes in humans. To the extent, then, that some sort of dualism may remain, it would not be the traditional one between body and mind, matter and spirit, but rather between different forms of mind and knowledge, different modes of thinking and knowing.
The most obvious way in which we may learn from the adapted strategies present in nature concerns human making and producing. For over two thousand years it was assumed that what the ancient Greeks called technē — a word covering the production of both aesthetic and functional artefacts — was imitation of nature. Then, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, this long-standing view was explicitly called into question by the first “philosophers of technology.” Max Eyth defended the “spiritual autonomy” of technology, which he saw as emerging from the “pure life of spirit” (Eyth 1924, 1 my translation). Friedrich Dessauer argued that where we had for millennia been going wrong was in trying to imitate nature; technology only works, he thought, when it abandons natural models (Dessauer 1983, 334). And Ernst Cassirer claimed that the “basic principle that rules over the entire development of modern mechanical engineering” was that it “no longer seek[s] to imitate the work of the hand or nature” (Cassirer 2014, 302).
But this is not to say that biomimicry calls for a new “philosophy of technology.” What first made philosophy of technology possible was the radical separation of human making and producing from the natural models on which it formerly rested. And, if this is true, then the very notion of “philosophy of technology” becomes problematic and an alternative way of thinking philosophically about human making and producing — one which bases it once again in nature’s ways of making and producing — must be developed.
It is also important to consider the possibility that the knowledge we acquire from nature may not all be strategic or technical knowledge of the “how to” variety. Consider the dictum, “[l]ife creates conditions conducive to life” ). Now, this is not some sort of strategy or technique we could imitate; it is what the various strategies and techniques present in nature — from photosynthesis to pollination — collectively achieve. Emulating nature in seeking also to create conditions conducive to life (all Life) would thus be better thought of as underpinning a new ethic — a new conception of how we ought to inhabit the earth.
Taking all the above into account, a strong case can be made for saying that, at its deepest level, the Biomimicry Revolution is a revolution in philosophy. And yet, it is not an understatement to say that philosophy and biomimicry have barely heard of one another.
Perhaps it is above all this state of affairs that needs to change. If biomimicry is to become more than just an unorthodox approach to design and innovation and bring about the sort of profound changes the movement dreams of, perhaps it can only be through greater awareness — in both biomimicry and philosophy — of its revolutionary philosophical potential.
Dr. Henry Dicks is a lecturer in environmental philosophy at University Jean Moulin — Lyon 3. He also teaches specialist classes on the philosophical aspects of biomimicry at design and engineering schools, has published numerous articles in academic journals on this topic, and has authored a recent book with Columbia University Press to be available in March 2023: The Biomimicry Revolution: Learning from Nature how to Inhabit the Earth.
Audi, Robert. Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. London: Routledge, 1998.
Benyus, Janine.Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.
Cassirer, Ernst. “Form and Technology.” In The Warburg Years (1919–1933): Essays on Language, Art, Myth, and Technology, translated by S. G. Loft and A. Calcagno, 272–316. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.
Dessauer, Friedrich. Technology in its Proper Sphere.” In Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Technology, 2nd ed., edited by Karl Mitcham and Robert Mackey, 317–34. New York: Free Press, 1983.
Eyth, Max. Lebendige Kräfte: Sieben Vorträge aus dem Gebiete der Technik, 4th ed. Berlin: J. Springer, 1924.