Biomimetic Humanities?: Some thoughts

Patterns in Sand. Courtesy of Martyn Gorman via a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Hello All,

The last few weeks have seen a lot of activity and intellectual engagement, and the inevitable catalyst of such interactions has comingled, percolated and vigorously hybridised many ideas within my head. Today I would like to talk about one of these ideas, or more precisely about a meeting point between ideas that has started to coalesce.

While at the recent ANZAMEMS conference in Melbourne, I gave a talk based on some work I have previously presented, but with an increasing emphasis on the relationship between historical (primarily pre-modern European) engagements with the world of materials and interactions that surround us and intersect with life, and the shaping of the inner environment, the world of ideas. This is the principle focus of my thesis, focusing upon the role of water as a Medieval Intellectual Entity, a creator of ideas through materiality and structure as well as a repository for those very ideas. In my talk, entitled Waves in Translation: Our Once and Future Emotional Relationship with the Ocean, I attempted to bring the medieval shaping of thought-space and affect in co-composition and non-composition with the ocean into dialogue with some of the problems of modernity.

This project has given me some ideas for a new project that combines some of the inchoate trends in Ecomaterialism and New Materialism emerging within medieval studies literary criticism and ecocriticism, the growth of Environmental Humanities, the Elemental Philosophy of David Macauley and others (a topic i’ve put into dialogue with the work of Gaston Bachelard in this article), and some interesting intellectual history and anthropology work on the natural world (books like Jamie Linton’s What is Water? or the work of Tim Ingold come to mind). What is the focus of this new project? As the title of this post implies, I am interested in exploring biomimicry, defined as follows by the biomimicry institute:

“The core idea [of biomimicry] is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with.”

~Biomimicry Institute – What is Biomimicry?

This definition, usually applied to the design of technology, challenges us to study nature based on three criteria:

Nature as model: Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then emulates these forms, process, systems, and strategies to solve human problems – sustainably.

Nature as measure: Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the sustainability of our innovations.  After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned what works and what lasts.

Nature as mentor: Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature.  It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but what we can learn from it.

This is quite vague, but I am interested in the following question: If we live in a world of non-human agency and scope, dense interactivity, profound affective entanglements and vast challenges or failures, then how might we adapt the model, measure and mentoring capacities of nature? Although I have a lot of problems with with word ‘nature’, and would perhaps replace it with Timothy Morton’s ‘ecological thought’, I feel that there is opportunity to draw from material across discipline (literature, historical source, philosophy), across culture (how are imaginings of ecological pattern and form culturally constructed?), and across time (how does a historical perspective offer cases that can be compared or contrasted with modernity?).

We face so many conceptual problems in the 21st century: climate change, environmental degradation, water crises, population growth. Can we develop an adaptive humanities that draws on the standards and patterns of the inhuman world to redefine or advance humanism? What could we shape within our methodologies, patterns of research and choices of arrangement from a study of nature? There are so many possibilities emerging: new temporalities, new scales, new ethics, new standards, new forces. How can we learn from these across the myriad planes of inquiry upon which our discourse is based? Although I feel that a detailed study of the complexities of life beyond human exceptionalism has started to unlock so much, perhaps a study of the process by which we reshape ourselves could teach us more. Some food for thought in the coming months.

I must away to start on the strenuous path to thesis completion, but will post more soon. Until then, take care.




4 thoughts on “Biomimetic Humanities?: Some thoughts

  1. Hi James, I really liked this post. I found it while doing some research for my masters dissertation. I’m exploring the significance of approaching the study and practice of biomimicry from the humanities perspectives and and I’d be very interested to talk with you via email. I fully understand if you would consider it an imposition, or if you suspect me of being a weirdo who hassles people on wordpress. I only ask because you are obviously very intelligent and have touched on some things I’m looking at for my dissertation. I’d appreciate any thoughts you have to offer. Thanks anyway for your post 🙂

    1. Hello KC. Many thanks for your kind words. I’d be happy to talk to you by email, if you’d like to get in touch. I’d love to hear about your dissertation! You can email me at james.smith at graduate dot uwa dot edu dot au.

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