From the earliest days of the Biomimicry Institute's history, it was clear that a tool was needed to serve as a translator of biological knowledge into the language of human design. In 2006, Ask Nature was born. To mark the launch of a redesigned site and expanded content offerings, Co‑founder of the Institute Janine Benyus joins Chief Editor Andrew Howley in conversation.

AH: The heart of this project is clearly stated right in its name: Ask Nature. You’ve been at this for a long time, long before Ask Nature existed as an entity. How did you first begin to ask nature questions?

JB: You know, I’ve been doing it my entire life, because even as a kid, I spent a lot of time outside. And I was constantly trying to understand. Of course, I didn’t yet see natural areas as habitats. I didn’t know that yet. But I thought of them as neighborhoods, and I thought of them as communities. And I thought that they worked really, really well, year after year. And I would watch them actually flourish.

If a new gap would open up in the forest behind my house in the temperate forest in New Jersey, I would watch as a new forest developed there in that sunlight patch. And I would watch very carefully how that happened. It was a miracle to me. It’s still a miracle to me. And every spring, I would watch how it would crescendo into being with no conductor. And it would all come into being and blooming and blossoming and breeding, and then at the end of the year, slowly shut down and rest for the winter.

It was incredibly competent. And it was beautiful. So I became very interested in learning more about how those living systems organize themselves, and how they adapted to different places that I could see. For instance, that communities by the river were different than at the top of the hill. Why was that different?

"I hope that Ask Nature is a place where you get design inspiration, but I hope it's also a place where you're just awestruck daily. Awestruck, and filled with respect."

Cormorant flutters its wings above the water
Image: Ray Hennessy / Public Domain ‑ No restrictions

Stereotypes of its more urban regions notwithstanding, the hinterlands of New Jersey justify it its title of the Garden State.

So then how has nature answered?

You know, I could see what was happening and I wondered how it was happening. What were the commonalities, what were the things that made this system tick, and what kept it from tipping? I was looking for patterns. And now I realize I was looking for principles––for design principles.

I became a nature writer, then natural history writer, in order to basically celebrate these communities and have people understand them. In writing those books, I learned more and more, because in order for my reader to understand I first had to understand. And it became increasingly obvious to me that we needed to go from learning about the natural world to learning from the natural world.

"It became increasingly obvious to me that we needed to go from learning about the natural world to learning from the natural world."

Did that change anything about the way that you ask nature?

Absolutely. And that’s one of the things I think that is transformative and important about in the whole history of biology. For hundreds of years now, we’ve been in our stamp collecting phase, describing nature and learning about it, and that’s a huge task.

But I realized that learning from it entailed a whole different set of questions. Biomimicry is a lens through which you see the world. It’s the lens of asking nature, “How are you doing what you’re doing? And how might it improve what I’m doing?”

What I realized was that these organisms enhance their places. So how can we move to a point at which our innovations enhance our places and enhance the planet, as well as these innovations I saw in the natural world do?

And there’s another switch in the way you think. A lot of biological papers are describing why something is there in the light of evolution. A biomimic’s interested in how, and in how is it different or the same from how we do this? Can I learn something about this to improve our own innovations? That’s that second part.

Chameleon crawling toward the viewer
Image: Pierre Bamin / Unsplash / CC BY SA ‑ Creative Commons Attribution + ShareAlike

Nature creates and changes colors in myriad ways. If we want to mimic it to create non‑toxic colors for human use, we have to take the typical paragraph a decryption of color mechanisms would occupy in a paper about sexual selection, and expand it into a whole series of papers and whole research endeavors.

Let’s explore that a little bit. What’s the question or the mindset that seems to drive most biological research now, and how would it shift with this greater attention to “how”?

Well, currently we look at evolutionary mechanisms and we try to figure out what an is, and in what way it helps this organism improve its inclusive fitness.

If you read a paper, about, say, a butterfly that creates an amazing signal with its scales through structural color, you’ll be reading about sexual selection, and you’ll be reading about the evolutionary benefits of this. And then in one paragraph, there will be maybe a description of the scales and how they produce these striking colors.

Now, if we want to mimic those scales, say to create non-toxic color, we have to expand that paragraph into a whole series of papers and whole research endeavors. We have to look at the mechanisms of how it’s being done. It spans disciplines in a way that other things don’t, because as you’re asking the questions, you have to bring in physicists who understand optics, and material scientists, and chemists––and it behooves you to have an engineer next to you, who understands how humans are currently doing things, and manufacturers who know how to produce whatever idea emerges.

One of the great proto-biomimics that we always think of is Leonardo Da Vinci, a “Renaissance man.” People at the dawn of the modern scientific age were so multidisciplinary themselves. And in the 500 years since, we’ve just gotten more and more specialized. Does the practice of biomimicry bring us back to something that we’ve maybe lost a little bit?

Well, after studying biomimicry for so long and interviewing biomimics, and still following their stories years later, I can say that the people that I know who are biomimics tend to be somewhat Renaissance type people, right.

Like Marcus Buehler from MIT who writes about materials. He’s trying to find the structural motifs within biological materials, so that we might mimic it. But the way he describes that is to talk about them as the motifs that are in music. And he literally has scientific papers that are brilliantly describing the differences between musical motifs and molecular ones. For example, many, many s start with an alpha helix, right? That’s a structural motif. But there’s also design principles of how these things self-assembled. So he’s looking at those things and because he’s a musician he’s realizing that there are commonalities between them.

I find that a lot actually. John Warner, who’s a medicinal chemist by training, and in 1997, he started the field of green chemistry. He’s also a musician. And he thinks of chemistry in that way. And I could go on. There’s a lot of people who have that Renaissance kind of thinking.

It’s not going to just be in those people, though. I think we’re gonna have teams of people working. We talk about having a new chair pulled up to the design table that wasn’t there before, for someone to give biological ideas. But behind that biologist is going to be a whole team of people who help them understand that phenomenon.

And we’re not just talking about technical phenomena. You are also looking now at how management and organizational strategies can come out of looking at relationship processes like mutualism. Mutualism is very common in the natural world––these organisms who hook up in a relationship in which they exchange benefits to one another. There’s an etiquette to forming, maintaining, and passing on those relationships with fidelity. A fungus and a tree are in a chemical dialogue to check each other out before the fungus starts giving the tree phosphorus and the tree starts giving the fungus carbon. And then if one of them shirks their duties, they move on to a different species.

So there’s an etiquette of reciprocity. It’s unusual to look at those patterns in biology and it’s even more unusual to bring them into a boardroom, as two companies are merging, and say, “If you want to be mutualists, you might think about making sure you follow these steps.”

"There’s a lot of people who have that Renaissance kind of thinking."

How then does the biomimetic perspective change the way we think of or look at nature itself?

For starters, in general there’s a censure of any sort of anthropomorphic thinking: you don’t want to put a chimp in a tutu. And that’s an important value. But what we have done, I think, is create a false boundary between ourselves and the problems we have to solve, and the problems that the rest of the natural world has to solve. That’s a false boundary. But we’ve put up that boundary: “They’re different. They’re other.”

Biomimicry dissolves that false boundary and says that these organisms are solving pretty much similar challenges: how to keep themselves warm, how to keep themselves cool, how to take care of their young, how to how to find enough food, how to build structures, how to make materials, how to harness energy, how to deal with waste.

"The embodied wisdom of living‑in‑place is in those organisms."

And we’re a very young species, Homo sapiens sapiens. When we remove that false boundary between what they do and what we do, it opens us up to be able to look functionally and say, “We have those same functions. What is different is how you as an elder organism, who’s been at it a lot longer, have managed to do it.”

The embodied wisdom of living-in-place is in those organisms. They have found a way to live somewhere, be contributors, and stay there. We are just now getting to that point where we’re realizing we’d like to stay on this habitat we call the planet Earth.

As we mature, we could walk into the role that other species now have, which is being a positive contributor, a benefactor––and that what we give back to the natural world is welcome. It’s a long time since we’ve thought of ourselves as not having a black mark on our souls, but rather belonging to––being native to––this place.

The way you get to that is by learning from other organisms who already know how to do that, I’m convinced of that.

And luckily, they freely grant us their advice. So this is our commons, and this will always be a public domain website. We’re trying to gather that advice in AskNature so that everybody can have access to it at the moment of creation, when they’re designing or deliberating about anything.

We’ve been an expansionist species. We’ve always been able to go to a new environment. We’re finally reaching a point where there’s not really a new environment to go to. So that changes our perspective. 

That’s the idea Herman Daly had, that our expansionist mechanism strategies made sense when we were a small number of humans in a very large world. And now there are many of us, so the strategy has to shift. Thankfully, there’s lots of species who have learned to live in place with a deeply circular approach we can learn from.

"[Biomimicry] helps us realize we are nature."

And there are human communities that have been living that way already, for a long time. There’s been the ones that move around, and there’s been the ones that stay put.

That’s right. We have not been a hands-off species. We have been very much involved with affecting this planet. Look at the ways traditional indigenous cultures have used fire to tend the Earth. Humans have been doing that for a long, long time. We’re looking for a way to live here now, not with a hands-off approach, but in relationship with various living systems. And I think biomimicry is part of that journey. And part of that journey has to do with changing our mental model about these other organisms that we live with. We’ve “othered” them at this point.

So biomimicry brings this real big change in how we see the rest of nature. First of all, it helps us realize we are nature. We also see that the rest of the natural world is amazing. And in many ways, it needs to be our mentor.

So there’s this respect that happens also. Before you can honestly ask an octopus to help you design something, you have to respect that octopus. You’ve got to respect whatever you’re mimicking. It’s what Wes Jackson calls the deepening conversation with the organism as you try to mimic it. You’ve got to go back over and over, and say “I don’t have it right. Can you tell me more?”

Octopus looking towards the viewer
Image: Qijin Xu / Public Domain ‑ No restrictions

Asking Nature means closely observing specific species, and at times even specific individuals from those species. Before you can honestly ask an octopus to help you design something, you have to respect that octopus. You’ve got to respect whatever you’re mimicking.

That makes me think of how we often wonder, “Is there life on other planets?” Maybe, maybe not. “Is there intelligent life on other planets?” And then you think, well, what is intelligent life? Because a chimpanzee is pretty intelligent. A raven is pretty intelligent. A dolphin is pretty intelligent. They live right here with us and we don’t talk to them. So how would we somehow come to another planet, find a completely other organism, be able to tell how intelligent it was, and be able to learn anything? We can’t even do that with the hyper intelligent, very closely related species that we share the planet with now.

Exactly. That we would think that they’d be somewhere else when they’re right here. We are surrounded by other intelligent organisms.

And then it’s only 4% of all known species that are mentioned in the human patent database. We study one species and that’s the only species we study for decades. Everybody builds on that model species: the rhesus monkey or orb weaver spider. And how many species of spiders are there? 45,000? So that’s the other thing: can AskNature open our eyes to the rest?

I hope that AskNature is a place where you get design inspiration, but I hope it’s also a place where you’re just awestruck daily. Awestruck, and filled with respect.

This idea of a changed relationship with how we see nature is very important because it will change the trajectory of how we live here. If we want to stay, we need to learn to be a welcome species. And the best way to be a welcome species is to not “other” other species, but to begin to realize how amazing they are.

Even if we didn’t want to stay here––if we wanted to go find somewhere else in the universe to live. We’re going to do a lot better wherever we show up if we’re looking with understanding and respect to whatever biological community is there.

That’s right. Respect an organism, actually take it as your mentor. Then, obviously, think about the mentors in your life. You do not want to harm your mentor. So I think it’s a fast route to conservation, a change of perspective, and it’ll change the way we treat the rest of the natural world.