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Biomimicry | Page Crimps
Key takeaways from Biomimicry by Janine Benyus
Biomimicry is a book about what we can observe in nature to then apply in useful application. I don’t just mean abstract modes of being, although as you’ll see below some of these less tangible ideas are certainly addressed.
I mean the types of types of observations that may help us cure cancer, build better machines and maybe even understand quantum mechanics in such way where we could put it to use.
Biomimicry humbles the reader by offering examples where nature has outpaced us in innovation, and leaves clues for where we can continue the journey in step with what we’re already trying to achieve in our human endeavors.
Why do I call this ‘Page Crimps’?
Readers who’ve been with me for a while may remember the pattern language description from my first entry to this series on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I add this blurb to all my Page Crimp posts to loop in new subscribers as to the name and format of these editions of my newsletter.
When I'm reading a book, I crimp the corner of pages that include ideas or passages that stick out to me. When I finish reading, I then write out those passages and ideas in a notebook, generally including why they stuck out to me. To extract further value out of this practice, I aggregate the most broadly valuable ideas for consumption on this newsletter, once a month. My notes here are no substitute for a good book. My highest hope is not that this series be used as an alternative too engaging in a good read, but as a tease to pickup the book and enjoy the ride yourself.
On to it —
p9 | Introducing the subjects of the book, the author speaks to the value of learning from nature vs about nature.
The real survivors are the Earth’s inhabitants that have lived millions of years without consuming their biological capital, the base from which all abundance flows.
p46 | The author while critiquing reductionism, shares a quote that I appreciated:
We have convinced ourselves that the universe is comprehensible in small, separate pieces that there is always more frontier, that any new technology is adaptive. - Wes Jackson
p55 | In talking about what the patterns of nature have to offer their observer, the author draws an analogy to how these patterns she looks for are like eddies in a river.
An eddy is —
A pocked of calm water that forms as water passes around a rock, leaves the downstream current and curls back upstream to form a magic haven in the rock’s shadow.
p68 | A battery in its most abstract form is a positive and negative charge at opposite poles. Nature’s rechargeable battery is the membrane of a plant cell, storing and utilizing the sun’s energy to create work.
p108 | Under a section titled ‘How will we make things?’ the author gives a novel example about how scientists have begun to program colonies of e-coli to produce certain proteins. These proteins are then harvested and combined with other proteins or materials to create substances, offering the potential for a more renewable manufacturing process of materials where it makes sense.
p146 | We can make just about anything in a lab these days. That said, the author makes the argument for why it is still worth studying nature to discover new chemicals.
Nature is a supreme chemist. With all due respect to the brilliance of chemists, I don’t think a chemist could dream up a molecule like Taxol. [Taxol, a promising new cancer drug is found in the bark of the Pacific yew tree in the pacific northwest.] - Gordon Gregg.
For further context, Taxol is the most effective and widely used natural cancer remedy in the United States, specifically in regards to breast cancer.
p153 | Geophagia is the urge to eat dirt. The author tells a story about how when studying Rhesus monkeys, researchers were initially baffled by why they would regularly add dirt to their diet. Was is color, taste or smell that attracted them?
It turns out that after further studying their diets, the Rhesus monkeys were lacking some core nutrients in the ‘normal’ food that they were eating. When combining their regular diet with the nutrients found in the dirt samples, researchers found that the monkey’s goephagia was just a matter of them seeking out a perfectly balanced diet.
Just to be clear, this is not a push for you to eat dirt. Try a Flinstone’s vitamin instead.
p171 | More on monkey diets — when studying Howler monkeys, it was found that the females would increase the intake of certain foods when the troop’s gender diversity was skewed too far towards male and different foods when skewed towards female.
Upon a closer look it was discovered that these specific foods being eaten for each imbalance were increasing the female Howler monkey’s odds of conceiving an offspring in line with which gender the troop’s numbers were lacking.
Over time, these studies have been used to come to similar conclusions in humans.
p186 | Maybe someday I’ll do a Page Crimps for Jorge Luis Borge’s Collected Fictions. In this section of Biomimicry when talking about what evolution can teach us about engineering, the author references one of Borge’s short stories called "The Library of Babel".
In it, there is a near infinite library containing all possible variations of a 410 page book. The goal in this library is to find a version of the book that is coherent enough to contain wisdom. Evolution and engineering are like searching this library says the author. This is because in both, bits and pieces of wisdom may be captured here and there, but the iterative process towards complete wisdom is one that may never end.
p210 | Still talking evolutionary style iteration applied in engineering, the author references an ‘evolvable art project happening on the world wide web’ where users could choose photos to merge together over time to see what sorts of images come to be.
To users’ and researchers’ surprise, over time compelling images that resembled items recognized in the real world would emerge through this random selection process. However when users were tasked with evolving bred images into a specific form such as a butterfly or a lamp, they would find it much more challenging. A computer program was eventually developed with the same goal, to choose images to merge together to a specific end or to choose images randomly.
To researchers’ surprise, the random selection process was proven to produce more human recognizable images than the selection process that was aiming to evolve a specific item.
I wasn’t able to verify, but she is almost certainly referring to Picbreeder, an experiment referred to heavily by past VCP guest and artificial intelligence researcher Ken Stanley in his book: Why Greatness Cannot be Planned: The Myth of the Objective. For the abbreviated version, I would highly recommend this talk.
p226 | What is it that gives us a sense of a unified self? In a reductionist’s view, where our consciousness is the product of a deterministic machine acting under the laws of physics, the fact that we have a unified sense of self at all violates special relativity. This is because information should not be able to move faster than light, that is, unless we get quantum mechanics involved, where particles of the universe can be said to exist in an ‘entangled state’, allowing them to transfer information instantaneously.
The author, referencing work done by Sir Roger Penrose, questions whether or not the fact that we do have a unified sense of self is an indicator of a quantum process at work in our brains. If this were the case, then we may sooner be able to manipulate quantum mechanics to our advantage by discovering the biological processes at work rather than building our tool kit from scratch through the domain of physics.
I picked up this book because I thought it would reaffirm, or at least add further context to my intuition of the multidisciplinary nature of the way things work. I wasn’t disappointed.
Next week, I’m going to talk about a hunt for historical information.
Just act natural.