Biomimetics Mailing List Discussion on Biomimetics Case Studies

A recent discussion on the Biomimetics mailing list showed the challenges not only of assessing the merits of individual biomimetic case studies but also the diversity of perspectives on definitions and approaches to doing biomimetic/bio-inspired design.  The lack of a comprehensive and verifiable record on past biomimetic innovations is a challenge that many other disciplines face.  Paleontology and archaeology come to mind: much can be inferred from a fragment of bone or pottery but only based on a body of sound research, an understanding of the context and a willingness to explore other hypotheses.  A strength of the discussion was its grounding in specific examples rather than taking a theoretical/philosophical approach. 

Julian Vincent started the Ghosties thread to list and categorize some well known biomimetic examples.  Although a few were generally accepted, a number appeared to be of questionable validity.  An interesting category involved discoveries apparently made without the benefit of biological insight but were related to biological phenomena after the fact.  Although these cases demonstrate the potential for biomimetic inspiration, they provide little insight into the effectiveness of the biomimetic approach.

The thread at BIOMIMETICS Digest - 17 May 2013 to 28 May 2013 (#2013-29) explored what distinguishes a valid biomimetic example: 

  • "based on an understanding of a mechanism or principle underlying a particular biological function" (Marc Weissburg)
  • "seeks to interrogate the mechanisms by which biological systems directly, evolutionarily respond to adverse forces applied to them in order to function and survive" (Philip Durkin)
  • biological model + abstraction + transfer to technical application (Manfred Drack, from The Association of German Engineers' VDI 6220)

Marc expanded on the subject in Re: BIOMIMETICS Digest - 29 May 2013 to 30 May 2013 (#2013-31), using Velcro® as an example where a sub-function (adherence to allow transport and ultimately seed dispersal) was abstracted to satisfy a technical requirement that was unrelated at the higher level of functionality.  In Ghosties2, Julian gave an example of a fiber supposedly inspired by polar bear fur.  An innovation based on a poorly understood biological phenomenon not only may miss important insights but cannot point to adaptive benefits based on evolutionary evidence.

In Identifying cases of biomimetics, Marc emphasized the importance of having access to a convincing record of the biomimetic process to identify “biologically-explained” or “biologically-justified” cases where biology is used after-the-fact to help communicate the concept to a diverse audience.  In de Mestral, Julian pointed out the importance of having a plausible ‘logical chain’ without major gaps (the ‘then a miracle occurs’ phenomenon).    

In Cognition, Analogy and Biomimetics, Ashok Goel relates the discussion to research in cognition and analogical reasoning in terms of the depth and complexity of the process: “matching, abstracting and transferring a deep function-mechanism pattern at some level of system decomposition” vs. “matching on the superficial appearance”.  In Re: Ghosties, he points out the difficulty of finding a defensible middle ground between accepting claims at face value and being overly skeptical of biomimetic inspiration.

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