We live lives of convenience and ease. Our forefathers and mothers would be astonished at the technological and scientific advances we have made in the last 100-plus years. Diseases have been cured and communication has become instantaneous. In this short time, we have gone from using horses and boats for transportation to cars, trains, airplanes, and even spaceships to take us even further. It is unprecedented that we can now get to the other side of the world in less than a day. If we could go back in time and show people in the 1800s what life is like today, we would probably be laughed out of town. Yet all these achievements have come at a cost. Much of our planet’s flora and fauna have become endangered, and in many cases extinct, because of the depletion of natural resources and environments. Even our medicines today are becoming less and less effective as viruses are building resistances to them. The tide of thinking has changed for the better, recently, in solving tomorrow’s problems as the idea of using the natural world as our teacher has replaced our drive to contain and alter it. We call this “new science” biomimicry, and it is undoubtedly going to be the next major element toward shaping our future in a sustainable and responsible manner.
The idea of using certain desired characteristics of plants, animals, and organisms is not new. In fact, if you go back in history you will see many examples of this, from using palm fronds, which repeal water, as roofing on shelters to Leonardo da Vinci observing birds in flight and developing his concepts of “flying machines.” Even today such simple examples of biomimicry exist, and we probably don’t make the connection to the natural world. Just look at football and baseball players on sunny days: many of them put black grease under their eyes to protect them from the sun, as the black color absorbs the sunlight, giving them better vision. Dark colors around eyes can be observed in many diurnal animals, most famously the meerkat. Meerkats need this protection, for they spend a good part of their days with their eyes to the sky on the lookout for predatory birds; in southern Africa, where they are from, the sun is plentiful.
Looking back, we have a clearer picture of the damage we have done to our environment. The common consensus is that we need to move in a different direction toward tomorrow or lose everything. Using the natural world as our classroom makes perfect sense. Plants, animals, and organisms have been hard at work for a few billion years, perfecting solutions for problems. Why would we need to look anyplace else? Biomimicry offers us a whole new world of possibilities and answers. It is a step in the right direction; actually, it’s the “natural” choice.
Seth Menser is a senior horticulturist at the San Diego Zoo. He will be contributing periodical blogs on biomimicry, with an emphasis on the botanical world. Read his previous post, Caudiciforms: Botanical Camels.