For more than twenty years, in a context marked by an ecological crisis, the idea has been developing that technological innovation and social organizations should « reconnect » with the living in order to better preserve the environment. This recent promotion of biomimicry should not, however, make us forget that many societies, past and present, identify in the observation of nature a source of inspiration to carry out very diverse projects. In order to better understand this diversity, it is interesting for Techniques&Culture to look at the variety of techniques used and the intentions at work in this type of operation.
Call for contributions for a special issue of the journal Techniques & Culture
(to be published in spring 2020)
Biomimicry. Imitating the Living, Modeling Life
Preceded by the Techniques & Culture workshop
on September 24-25, 2019
Since Janine Benyus’ pioneering work (1997), the term « biomimicry » has wielded an increasing influence and gathered researchers from various disciplines who promote and rely on this relationship with nature in their activities (Vogel 2003, Pawlyn 2011, Bejan & Zane 2012, Harman 2013). Researchers are invited to observe nature in order to find solutions or even “look” for advice (see the Asknature website). Inventions such as Velcro, inspired in its shape by the hooks of burdock, or self-cleaning paints reproducing the hydrophobic properties of the surface of lotus leaves, are thus termed as biomimetic innovations. Whether we consider this inspiration, imitation or modelling, whether we refer to the simple duplication of forms or movements or the search for operating principles, there is a set of practices and artifacts that attest to the aspiration to reproduce phenomena observed in nature, especially in living beings and ecological systems.
The legitimacy that biomimicry is currently gaining in scientific circles and, beyond, in the general public, should not obscure the fact that it is neither new nor limited to mere scientific practice, that human societies reproduce or adapt the mechanisms that they observe in their environment. It is therefore relevant to examine the complexity of the technical activities involved in the phenomenon of biomimicry, present in very different forms, in all human societies, present and past – even though it may not always be denominated explicitly. Through this prism, the aim is to highlight the diversity of the techniques used, taking into account the variations, in time and space, of the conceptions of life and nature.
RoboLobster, Johnson (U.S. Navy photograph by John F. Williams – 3/2/2006)
First, this shuns considering imitation as a universal mechanism and allows us to understand the diversity of techniques involved when humans reproduce living systems: techniques du corps, cognitive techniques, manufacturing and using artifacts and machines, creating artificial environments. By opening this black box in order to restore operating chains, we have better insights into the operations involved in the hybrid processes that combine observation, conceptualization, accounting, figuration, schematization, manufacturing, experimentation, etc. Thus, the imitation of a lobster in view of the production of underwater mine detection robots by the US Army required phases of observation, selection of morphological characteristics, abstraction of its motor functions, and several years of laboratory and open sea testing before the RoboLobster could be designed in the 2000s (Johnson 2011).
Several approaches in the field of anthropology question the relationships between imitation, techniques, and conceptions of nature (Pitrou, Dalsuet & Hurand 2015; Fisch 2017; Kamili 2019; Meyer & Pitrou 2019). In particular, research in the anthropology of life (Pitrou 2014, 2017) suggests that links between imitated life processes (growth, morphogenesis, adaptation to an environment, regeneration, etc.) and artificially produced processes should be clarified. What is the meaning of the prefix « bio- » in the term « biomimicry »? Is the purpose that of imitating living beings (their forms, their behaviors, etc.)? To model life, understood as a set of causes that constitute the necessary conditions for these processes, by developing systems? These questions aim to identify the links between techniques and theories of life that prevail in human societies; they also lead to identify the various conceptions of nature and the social organizations associated with them.
The idea that nature may well serve as an engineer or a teacher to be imitated is grounded, for example, in a very naturalistic vision if not in theological representations as a matter of fact (Chansigaud 2011). By prompting collective reflection on the analysis of the diversity of techniques used to imitate the living and model life, we wish to show that a rigorous analysis of biomimicry – and the practices that it involves – cannot be limited to studying how humans observe or draw inspiration from nature: it must decipher the « techniques and culture(s) » that provide the foundation for this type of relationship with the environment (Johnson 2011, Fisch 2017). Rather than making Biomimicry (Benyus 1997) a reference text that sets standards for what biomimicry is and what it should do (Mathews 2011, Dicks 2016), it would be preferable to consider this work as an incentive to continue exploring the diversity of projects and methods from which living systems are perceived and designed as phenomena to be imitated and modelled.
« Danse imitant le bétail chez les Dinka », Godfrey Lienheadrt, Divinity and Experience.
Submitted proposals may come from all disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, provided that they are based on methodologies involving the analysis of empirical data (ethnographic, sociological, technological, scientific) from which perspectives will be proposed on technical activities and the concepts of life making them meaningful. Submissions from natural sciences, engineering, and design are welcome as long as they seek to take such a reflexive look at their practice.
Since the aim is to examine the anthropological foundations of a set of practices, case studies involving traditional or low tech techniques as well as high-tech techniques (Lévi-Strauss 1962) are expected. The key point is to focus on practices that do not simply aim to « represent » living beings or systems, but to produce technical devices and processes that have an operational character – in order to experiment, innovate, objectify – which should be made explicit, in particular to highlight their connection with social organizations.
In order to examine the diversity of techniques and conceptions of life and of the living, papers may rely on case studies, at the various levels where imitation of living beings and modelling of life can be carried out:
- Imitation, which concerns the reproduction of signs (sounds, colors, smells, etc.), behaviors or functions that humans may perceive in living beings. From ceremonies (dances, masks, body ornaments) to robotics, through to agricultural, therapeutic and camouflage techniques used in hunting practices, a wide variety of techniques of the body and of artifacts are selected to recompose morphological, physiological, and functional characteristics observed in organisms. For example, during the ceremonies preceding the hunting of the casoar, the men said to be possessed by the spirit of this animal make masks portraying it, put them on, and reproduce the bird’s behavior by hopping around and voicing brief shrills (Godelier 1982). In hunting practices, techniques aimed at imitating game sometimes go beyond camouflage aimed at « deceiving nature » (Artaud 2013). In doing so, Yukaghirs imitate the animals they hunt by reproducing specific body elements and behave like them to avoid becoming animals themselves (Willerslev 2004).
- Modelling ecological systems involves identifying systems of relationships between the biotic and abiotic elements of an environment in order to build artifacts that can reproduce the conditions making life possible. For example, many science laboratories in Europe and the United States have for many years sought to model and reproduce the process of photosynthesis. From the ritual miniaturizations of the Andes and Mesoamerica to devices such as Biosphere 2, and from forest imitation in Achuar gardens (Descola 2005) to Maya (Ford & Nigh 2015), there is a great diversity of « cosmograms » (Tresch 2015) that can be documented.
- Techniques involved in imitating the living or mobilizing life are based both on the selection of perceived characteristics and on the intellectual capture of functioning principles, which invites us to take account of the technical devices aiming to reproduce models in the analysis. The reiteration of mythical actions carried out in technical practices (gardening, architecture, etc.), the composition of pleasure gardens and forest gardens inspired by the Garden of Eden (Crawford 2010), or the conception of economic models based on forest ecosystems (McDonough & Braungart 2002, Chapelle & Decoust 2015) are some of the examples worth studying.
Conditions of submission
An abstract of a maximum of 3,000 characters, with about ten illustrations. Three forms of articles may be submitted:
- an article for the online version available for immediate access, with a maximum length of 50,000 characters (including spaces) and in which all kinds of illustrations (photos, video, audio) are possible. It will also be presented in the frame of 4 pages in the paper version (with the announcement of the http link; 5,000 to 6,000 characters + 2 HD images).
- an article for the paper version of the journal, ranging from 25,000 to 30,000 characters (including spaces) in its length along with a maximum of 10 HD images (300 dpi) in which the author will endeavor to reach out to readers outside their own field, an exercise involving a dual requirement of scientificity and readability (the journal being of interest for interdisciplinary readers in the human sciences and being published as a « journal book » to an extended audience).
- an article which, on the contrary, relies on fieldwork and documents, in which the author, based on precise corpuses, will analyze 15 to 20 images, in a format of 15,000 characters (max.).
Authors will need to contact the coordinators of the issue, Perig Pitrou, Lauren Kamili and Fabien Provost, through the journal’s editorial secretariat (firstname.lastname@example.org) to submit their project (title and abstract, iconography project) with their name, contact details, institutional affiliation before 15 May 2019.
A meeting of the selected contributors is scheduled to take place in Marseille on 24 and 25 September 2019. The proposal and the full text can be sent in French or English; the paper volume will be published in French, but online articles can be published in English.
- 18 March 2019: Call for contributions
- 15 May 2019: Deadline for receiving proposals and pre-selection
- 10 September 2019: Submission of contributions (v1)
- 24 to 25 September 2019: Workshop at Marseille
- 22 November 2019: Feedback from evaluators
- December 2019: Submission of contributions (v2)
- Spring 2020: Issuing in bookshops
Artaud, H. 2013 « Leurrer la nature », Cahiers d’anthropologie sociale 9. Paris : L’Herne.
Bejan, A., & Zane, J. P. 2012 Design in nature : how the constructal law governs evolution in biology, physics, technology, and social organization (1st ed.). New York : Doubleday.
Benyus, J. 1997 Biomimicry : Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York : William Morrow & Co.
Chapelle, G. & Decoust, M. 2015 Le Vivant comme modèle: La voie du biomimétisme. Paris : Albin Michel.
Chansigaud, V. 2011 « Analyse : Biomimétisme de Janine Benyus », Pour la science 406.
Crawford, M. 2010 Creating a forest garden: working with nature to grow edible crops. Totnes : Green books.
Descola, P. 2005 Par-delà nature et culture. Paris : Gallimard.
Dicks, H. 2016 « The philosophy of biomimicry », Philosophy & Technology 29(3) : 223-243.
Fisch, M. 2017 « The nature of biomimicry. Toward a novel technological culture », Science, Technology, & Human Values 42(5) : 795-821.
Ford, A. & Nigh, R. 2015 The Maya Forest Garden : Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands. Left Coast Press.
Gleich, A. V., Pade, C. & Petschow, U. 2010 Potentials and trends in biomimetics. Heidelberg : Springer.
Godelier, M. 1982 La production des grands hommes. Pouvoir et domination masculine chez les Baruya de Nouvelle-Guinée. Paris : Fayard « L’espace du politique ».
Harman, J. 2013 The Shark’s Paintbrush. Biomimicry and How Nature is Inspiring Innovation (1st ed.). Ashland, Ore. : White Cloud Press. Johnson, E. R. 2011 Reanimating Bios. Biomimetic Science and Empire. University of Minnesota.
Kamili, L. 2019 « Biomimétisme et bio-inspiration : nouvelles techniques, nouvelles éthiques ? » Techniques&Culture « Varia ». [En ligne] : journals.openedition.org/tc/9299.
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1962 La Pensée sauvage. Paris : Plon.
Mathews, F. 2011 « Towards a deeper philosophy of biomimicry », Organization & Environment 24(4) : 364-387.
Mc Donough, W. & Braungart, M. 2002 Cradle to Cradle. Remaking the Way We Make Things (1st ed.). New York : North Point Press.
Meyer, M. & Pitrou, P. (dir.) « Anthropologie de la vie et des nouvelles technologies », Techniques & Culture « Varia » [En ligne] : journals.openedition.org/tc/8795.
Pawlyn, M. 2011 Biomimicry in Architecture. London : Riba Publishing.
Pitrou, P. 2014 « La vie, un objet pour l’anthropologie ? Options méthodologiques et problèmes épistémologiques », L’Homme 212(4) : 159-189.
Pitrou, P. 2017 « Life as a making », NatureCulture 4 : 1-37.
Pitrou, P., Dalsuet, A. & Hurand, B. 2015 « Modélisation, construction et imitation des processus vitaux. Approche pluridisciplinaire du biomimétisme », Natures Sciences Sociétés 23(4) : 380-388.
Tresch, J. 2015  « Choses cosmiques et cosmogrammes de la technique », Gradhiva 22 : 24-47. Traduit de l’anglais par Josiane Massard-Vincent [« Technological World-Pictures: Cosmic Things and Cosmograms », Isis 98 (1) 2007 : 84-99]. doi : 10.4000/gradhiva.3019.
Vogel, S. 2003 Comparative Biomechanics. Life’s Physical World. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press.
Willerslev, R. 2004 « Not animal, not not‐animal: hunting, imitation and empathetic knowledge among the Siberian Yukaghirs », Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10(3) : 629-652.
The journal Techniques&Culture focuses on the pragmatic, social and symbolic dimensions of technique, ranging from the most “traditional” to the most concrete. Material culture and materiality contribute to revealing and assigning concrete meaning to relations between people, or between people (societies) and their environment. The journal creates and co-publishes theme-based issues that provide an overview of the latest developments on major anthropological questions, targeting both scholars (rank A journal) and the public at large (available online and in bookstores).