You’ve probably never heard of George de Mestral before. Like many inventors, fame simply wasn’t in the cards. His invention, on the other hand, came to take on a life of its own.
According to legend, de Mestral and his Irish pointer were on a hunting expedition when they accidentally walked through a patch of burdock thistle. Later, while painstakingly removing the burrs from the dog’s fur, de Mestral decided to take a closer look. How could the burrs stick so tenaciously and still reattach after removal? Under the microscope, the answer was obvious: the burrs were covered in thousands of tiny hooks. The hooks snagged on loops of thread or fur, allowing the burrs to disperse across the landscape.
George soon discovered that imitating nature was a sticky business. After several unsuccessful attempts to recruit a textile manufacturer and even more trouble designing a method of mass production, he finally registered his product in 1958. And with that, Velcro was born.
Biomimicry, or the science of design based on nature’s patterns and processes, is a new name for an old idea. Over millions of years, natural selection has produced highly efficient (though often imperfect) structures and processes that allow a vast diversity of organisms to survive. These organisms are engineers by necessity, undergoing thousands of iterations to find a solution.
The invention of Velcro is one of the most memorable examples of biomimicry, but it is just one of many. Noses of Japanese trains modeled after kingfisher beaks, stain repellant fabrics designed to resemble the surface of lotus leaves, and cooling systems in skyscrapers based on those of termite mounds are only a handful of examples of borrowing nature’s solutions to solve human problems.
“We tend to think we’re categorically distinct from the rest of the natural world,” says ecologist Sam Stier, an ecologist at Biomimicry 3.8, “but what we see in the natural world is technology. The beak of a bird is technology just as chemical communication between ants is technology. Until we understand the natural world in those terms, we can’t conceptually understand ourselves as really being part of nature.”
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Several years ago, while teaching a group of third graders about the geologic time scale, I held my arms outstretched on either side of my body. My arms, I told them, represented the Earth’s entire history from the Big Bang to the present. In comparison, human history was the equivalent of the tip of my fingernail. Thousands of years of history encompassed in a thin sliver of nail.
Biomimicry is built on the same concept. Our capacity for reasoning is impressive, but in the end, it pales in comparison to millions of years of trial and error.
Listen: Interview with Sam Stier, a biologist at Biomimicry 3.8.