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Paper Digest: Biomimicry Uses the Design of Biological Organisms to Improve Human Technology

Photo credit: camilo jimenez, via Unsplash.

In biology, organisms have elegant and sophisticated reliability and safety strategies that may be mimicked to produce better human-engineered systems. This has been a subject of study for more than 20 years. In 2002, engineering professor Stuart C. Burgess published a review article in the Journal of Process Mechanical Engineering titled, “Reliability and safety strategies in living organisms: potential for biomimicking.” He catalogs over 32 such strategies among organisms ranging from deep-sea fish with their unique body structures to humans (and of course other creatures) with our self-healing of skin. 

His paper explores these incredible mechanisms from the perspective of potential biomimicry. Intelligent design (ID) is the theory that organisms have been optimized by the intelligent processes of a mind. Accordingly, compared with evolutionary theory, ID provides more justification for emulating biological design. By contrast, evolutionary thinking has pointed to numerous seemingly poor designs as examples of evolution working as an unguided process that can only tinker. Interestingly, many claims of poor design — junk DNA, the human appendix, the human ankle jointthe reverse wiring of the human eye, the GTP hydrolysis mediated proofreading step, and more — have been proven incorrect, when the engineering constraints placed upon these systems were taken into account. 

Back to the Paper

Stuart Burgess has published extensively in the field of biomimetics, showing how the complex designs we find in nature can help inspire and improve human technology. Throughout this paper, he emphasizes the supremacy of natural systems over human-engineered ones:

[T]he human heart can function as a self-maintaining subsystem for 75 years or more. During this time it beats the order of 2.5 billion times and pumps the order of 150 million litres of blood. This performance is superior to any man-made pump working in similar conditions, and indeed, it is very difficult to design a man-made replacement heart with anywhere near the same capability as a living heart.

However, the fail-safe systems in engineering are relatively simple compared with those found in nature.

Analogous Systems and Processes 

Burgess begins by discussing similarities between biological systems and engineering systems. In the paper, Tables 1 and 2 provide a list of analogous systems and processes. For example, hearts are like positive displacement pumps, muscles are like actuators, and both biology and human-engineered technology exhibit things like gas exchange systems or data acquisition and control. The paper then turns to reliability strategies in nature. Table 3 provides a list of 17 such strategies that are used by both nature and engineering. For an example, planned inspection. For this entry, Burgess includes flight feather inspection as the biological example and crack or fissure detection as the engineering example. Burgess goes through all 17 strategies, beginning with those commonly used in engineering and then moving on to those not currently used in engineering. He also discusses the use of a minimal number of parts, or simplicity in the engineering of organisms, to reduce the risk of failure. He notes that “simplicity is a design goal that must be carefully defined by design engineers.”

Next, Burgess outlines 15 safety strategies used in nature. One example he gives is visual warnings. In biology there are color codes indicating poison, and in engineering there are warning signs, too. He notes:

Since human beings are biological systems, it is worth taking particular note of the warning signals used in nature. The natural warning patterns and sounds used in nature may provoke an instinctive and fast reaction within humans. If this is indeed the case, then the warning signals used in nature may be more effective in engineering systems than randomly chosen warning signs.

Unexpected Results for Darwinian Evolution

The goal of this study is to show how engineered systems are similar to biological systems, and thus to improve the reliability of engineered systems. Burgess mentions that the extensive use of reliability strategies in nature supports their continued and increased application in engineering. He concludes by predicting that as engineering develops, the application of biological dependability and safety techniques will likely become more common. Some of the technologies used by biological organisms will find their way into human engineered designs — something that, from a Darwinian perspective, you probably wouldn’t expect.