Janine Benyus on the Conscious Emulation of Life's Genius

Janine M. Benyus provided the impetus for the development of biomimicry with the publication of her renowned book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (William Morrow, 1997). She delivered the Rachel Carson Lecture on Environmental Ethics at the Center in February 2004. Her lecture, entitled “Echoing Nature: Lessons for a Sustainable Future,” was co-sponsored by the Wellesley Centers for Women and the Boston Research Center. Benyus, who has defined biomimicry as “the conscious emulation of life’s genius,” was interviewed by then Center president Masao Yokota at her home in Montana in spring 2004.

Thank you for inviting me to visit with you in Montana. What does this place mean to you?

It means home. We’re in constant communication with our surroundings in way that we don’t recognize. Settings affect us by making us feel safe or afraid, calm or nervous, at home or out of our element. Your question touches on the question I’m trying to answer in my next book: What is that unique quality that you experience when you walk into a place you call home? I asked a friend from Norway about this and he pantomimed his shoulders being pinned to his ears, and then dropping. He said, “This is what it means to feel at home.” This is my real deep love, understanding place, understanding how organisms fit into their particular homes. My whole background is about habitat selection and place-making in animals. I feel at home here and feeling at home for an organism is feeling like you can excel where you are. You’re matched.

What happens when we are not matched?

If we can’t live in a place that is our home, I think we do place-making in our homes. If you’re in a very stressful city, for instance, within your home you make a shrine, you make an altar, you make a place that has a view of Nature or has a little plant that you can look at. I think it’s biological. We like to look at water because we know deep down that it supports and brims with life; we like to look at flowers because we know that the next step is seed or fruit or food. That’s what I want to investigate in my next book, that deep-in-the-bones, innate sense of place.

How will you do this?

I’m going to talk to a lot of perception scientists and people who can help us understand how we choose a place and how places make us feel. There are some people who are prairie people and some people who are mountain people. What is that innate response to home all about? I want to make us think about what we’re doing in these places.

How did you develop your attitude toward Nature, toward life, your spirit of “wow”?

I like to be amazed, and I feel amazed. Truly, the world seems a very extraordinary thing. Part of it is just the way my brain and mind works. I didn’t speak until I was three. I was happy, evidently, smiling all the time, but it was very difficult to tell whether I needed anything because I rarely cried. I was just in my own world for a very long time.

Were your parents worried?

They took me to specialists, so they must have been. But I’m most comfortable when I’m out in a place like this, and when I’m being enchanted by Nature. It’s a way of being in the world and I like it. My parents were okay with me being a dreamy child. If you listen to the legend of my family, there was nothing wrong with me. My mother would say, she’s going to be an artist. And so they let me be a dreamy child.

I was also outside a lot as a kid. My father took us out every weekend. He took us into forests, into as much nature as we could possibly get to. We lived in the suburbs in New Jersey. It’s amazing how far he would commute, because the suburbs kept rolling over us. And he would pick us up again, and he would move us to the edges, and by the end, he was commuting a great distance. He’d always move us to a place that was rural, rural suburbia, and then it would roll over us. Then he’d move us farther out. So he’d come home on Friday night and he would mow the lawn in the dark so that on Saturday we could get up bright and early and go canoeing and sailing. He loved it and he lives out here now, where the wilds are at his back door. He was a parent who said, “Look at how amazing this is!”

What about your mother?

My mother was a very warm person and had great joie de vivre. But she was very sick when I was growing up as a result having tuberculosis when she was 20. She couldn’t do anything strenuous, and she rarely ventured farther than the edge of our yard. But she was in rapport with her body like a great athlete is because she couldn’t do everything everybody else could do. She could not enjoy our outside adventures with us, so we would come home and tell her our stories. Both of my parents are incredible storytellers. My childhood was very much composed of sitting at a dining room table and telling stories for hours and hours. So the storytelling comes naturally.

What was your childhood home like?

In the place I lived the longest, there was a forest and there was lawn. And from the forest came some wild daisies, my mother’s favorite flower. My dad would mow around the daisies and leave the daises. The next thing you knew, there were lots of daisies, and he kept mowing around them and mowing around them so that she could see them. As I think back on things like that, there was an appreciation for Nature, but they experienced it differently. For my mother, it came from looking out the window.

As a child, you studied at a Catholic school. You were lucky to learn about spirituality.

You know, I did. I learned the catechism and all of that. But when I got to high school, I was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph. They were a modern order and we had Jesuit priests who would come in as well. They were non-dogmatic and they taught us the religions of the world. I would not have given that experience up for anything. That was really good grounding. By the time I got to high school, we were encouraged to ask the big questions, the life questions, the great questions.

What did you learn from your early studies of religion?

It taught me to look for patterns common to all religions and be able to discard the things that were obviously human foibles.

Emerson encouraged us to bring poetry into religion. And you talk about bringing poetry into science. Could you discuss a little bit more about the significance of bringing poetry into science?

I think of science as an endeavor to understand our world. It’s one lens, and people have honed that lens in a certain way. What it tries to do is be a clear-eyed lens that takes all value judgments away. Ultimately, science is the quest to see what really is. Like all great quests for truth, you try to burn away whatever might prejudice or cloud your thinking. How do you burn that away so that you’re absolutely clear-eyed? It’s similar to the quest for emptiness. In science there’s been such a quest to become empty, to become the objective viewer, to see what really is, that I think it’s almost gone to the point where it’s become a hatred of what’s viewed as human weakness.

Why is anything but the truth seen as weakness?

Obviously, you bring your own values to everything you look at. You cannot be empty and be looking. You come as a person. So the more and more you try to ignore that or repress that, there’s a certain distrust or self-hating about it. Do you know what I mean? Your self-hating side says, “I would be a better scientist if I weren’t so weak, if I didn’t feel, if I weren’t overcome by beauty.” Science says, “If I weren’t spellbound by the beauty of this organism that I’m looking at, I’d be able to see its real essence.”

I don’t distrust my perceptions as a human being; I don’t distrust them at all.

Janine Benyus

Is this how you feel?

Not at all! I believe that a clear lens is a lens and is a good way of looking perhaps, but it’s only one way of looking. I believe that in order to understand the essence of an organism, another lens that you can bring to it is the very strongly honed, finely tuned instrument called human perception, which was honed through evolution in the same way as your rational mind has been in recent centuries. I don’t distrust my perceptions as a human being; I don’t distrust them at all. I think there’s a time and a place to look at phenomena through a scientific lens, but I think there’s also a time and place to look at it through a lens of celebration.

And that’s the poetry you bring to science.

Yes, that’s what poetry allows you to do. Poetry is worshipful talk. It’s worshipful articulation of what is around us. The process of writing poetry is a quest to learn, to find out what is through the process of writing. If I can put something into words, into poetic words, that allows someone, especially a person who is a non-scientist, to feel the essence of that organism, isn’t that just as valid as somebody who can tell me how long the falcon’s claws are or what they’re made of or how strong they are? Measurements help us know the falcon in a rational way, and I use them in my writing all the time. But I may also tell you about the falcon’s claw slicing clouds into ribbons, and you know just as much on another level about the sharpness of the falcon’s claw. It’s a long-winded way of saying there are different ways of knowing.

What kind of value can you create with this celebratory lens of “wow,” compared to other people who don’t have such a sense?

First of all, because the world is always surprising to me, I have a lot of fun. I allow myself to fall continually and deeply in love with the natural world every day. That makes me vulnerable, of course, because the world I love is bruised right now and becoming more and more bruised. But still, the surprise and wonder of Nature more than compensate for the despair that I feel. Also, if you go into the world with an attitude of deep and reverent observation, you don’t go with a pre-formed hypothesis. I am much more excited by staying open so that I can absorb something I could never have imagined. It’s a Goethian way of asking a plant to reveal itself, not prejudging what the plant might say but just sitting and listening to what the plant has to tell you, having the humbleness to believe that you can still be amazed. No matter how fantastic I think plants are, tomorrow when I walk outside, I’m going to find out something that amazes me, something I could not even imagine. That deep observation is a different kind of scientific inquiry. It may allow me to find something new while someone who is prejudging, someone with a hypothesis, will only see what affirms the hypothesis. If you go out waiting to be amazed, more may be revealed.

Unfortunately, many scientists emphasize the part of Darwin’s theory that understands Nature as a process of competition in which the only the fittest triumph. Others say that Darwin shared more about love. Perhaps having a poetic mind allows us to learn more from Darwin. As you have said, it’s not the survival of the fittest; it’s the survival of the fit.

In Origin of the Species, he wrote about survival of the fit. And actually, that’s what Darwin said. He didn’t coin the phrase “survival of the fittest.” In Origin of the Species, he wrote about survival of the fit. His ideas emerged during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when it was very much to our advantage to look into the world of science and justify the economic patterns we were beginning to create out of the spirit of competition. That’s when Social Darwinism emerged. Social commentators began to look at Darwin’s work to justify what they were seeing in the world and what they were developing in the world, and they’re the ones who emphasized “survival of the fittest.” This approach says, “Maybe the people in the slums are just not as fit as those in the wealthy areas of town.” And it went from there to eugenics; it’s a very slippery slope.

What does “survival of the fit” mean to you?

As you know, I write about place and I write about organisms in their place, so I constantly think about this idea of context. In and of itself, the word “fit” means absolutely nothing. Suppose a good doctor were to say, “Janine, you’re fit.” And then I said, “Oh good, then I’m fit to run a marathon.” That doctor would say, “You didn’t tell me about that. No, you may not be fit to run a marathon.” The question is: fit for what? fit where? and fit when? So even the word “fit” is incomplete without a place. Darwin’s phrase “survival of the fit” begs these questions. What he was saying was that an organism survives if it is able to fit its place. This is what has inspired my thinking about change.

Can you share an example?

I look out at the window here at Columbia ground squirrels, for instance. They’re constantly checking out the sky to see if there are hawks. Their world is changing all the time, and they’re constantly checking in with it. The reason for this is that their quest is to always fit themselves to their circumstances, to be a closer match, to be a better fit to their place. Because their place is changing all the time, they can’t be afraid of change; they have to welcome it with open eyes. If the sky is full of hawk, they’ll go in their hole. If the sky is empty, they’ll come out. Their world is changing constantly, and so they are changing constantly. In order to be fit in a changing world, you’ve got to change. So fitness is a process, not an endpoint. It’s a coming home, over and over again, to the center point, the state of being well-matched. So for organisms, change is not a frightening move into the unknown; it’s really a homecoming, a move back to fittedness. And because the world is always changing, being well-matched to that world, being fit, is a continual process.

It’s a human tendency to feel fear when we feel change. But real wisdom should be cultivated with … change.

Yes. That’s it. We must be able to say, “Now I get a chance to mold myself in a new way, and to adapt.” That’s what adaptation is all about. Today presents a new condition and I’m going to adapt to this new condition. Those squirrels are adapting minute by minute. Instead of thinking that you change in order to survive, what happens is that you survive in order to change. Adaptation is all about change. And changing is not a terrible thing to me. Changing is a homecoming, coming home to fittedness.

What happens if we do not change?

We feel disease when we are not fit to our places, to our circumstances. You can feel at home with a group of people, you can feel at home in your profession. That’s what these guys teach me all the time. That’s why we just took a walk. I wanted to show you the constant vigilance out there between those red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds and between the squirrels and the hawk. Nobody’s resting on their laurels out there, but they’re not complaining about it. I wish I could be that fluid.

Just as Darwin’s successors changed his ideas, so has Christianity reinterpreted the intentions of Jesus. Some people believe that the Bible encourages us to control this planet. But I don’t think Jesus said that.

That’s the dogma. We interpret it in a way that matches our fear-based idea of the way the world really must be. That’s a very interesting thing for me in my work right now because somehow I went from being a Nature writer to a person who gives talks about the natural world with people from a lot of other disciplines. It’s a challenge to answer people’s bubbling questions, because it’s a big world and there’s so much I don’t know about. But I have been observing patterns for a long, long time. And I always have to look inside myself and ask, “Am I interpreting what is in a way that is just most comfortable for me to interpret it? Or should I go back and look again and see what really is?” This is another reason why I don’t like to go outside with a hypothesis. Even if I talk to somebody who’s been in this valley for 40 years, and he’s got some of it figured out in a different way, because he’s got a bigger scope, the truth is that he doesn’t have it figured out either. If you’ve only seen five square miles of this valley, you don’t have it figured out. You’ve only seen a piece of it.

You say many things in a very poetic way. How did you develop your language of Nature?

The profound switch I think in biomimicry, is this switch from learning about Nature to learning from Nature. That encapsulates the entire transcendent quality of it. Because what it means is that you as a human change your stance toward the natural world, and that necessarily changes how you talk about it. I think about this postcard I have from my photographer friend Terry Evans. The image on the card is a photograph from a series she took at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, where they have drawers and drawers of stuffed specimens. It’s this incredible photograph of a white drawer with all of these cardinals lined up shoulder to shoulder with toe tags on them. When you first look at it, it looks like they’re birds on a wire, but they’re birds in a drawer, dead. It’s a very powerful photo. But that was our relationship to those organisms; the very first naturalists to collect a new species would kill first, learn later.

The key difference with biomimicry, Masao, is that in order to learn from them, you need them flitting around you the way those birds flitted around us today. You need them alive and living and evolving in context in their habitats. Learning from them turns you into the student. With a notepad in hand, and your eyes just watching them, you could still take down how long their wings are, how many beats of a second do they beat, and still be learning about them. But you’re also noticing how they fly without fossil fuels, how they build nests with non-toxic materials, and that’s where we can learn from them.

So it is learning from Nature that brings you closer to it?

The really transcendent thing is that when you’re learning from them, you start by saying, “Watch how they fly.” And then you ask, “How do I fly? And what could I learn about flying from watching them?” You watch how they build their nest and wonder, “Why do I decorate my house with their nests? What is it about their things that are so beautiful?” If you make the change from learning about them to wanting to learn from them, you have to take away the invisible barrier that exists and causes you to believe that what they’re doing in their lives is different from what you’re doing. That’s the first really powerful thing that happens. You have to take away that barrier in order to ask those questions. And when you do, you begin to see organisms not as objects, not as birds in a drawer, but you begin to see them as living beings who are parents, who are hungry. When night falls, it’s cold and they need to go somewhere. You come to realize that they love to be on the wire just singing their hearts out. It’s not all about survival. I know animals are out there having a great time. Watch these horses right now with these dogs. Yahoo, there you go, yeah! Yahoo! The sun’s out, they’re having fun. It’s not just all about, “Oh where will I get my grain next.” They are simply playing with those dogs, enjoying the day. In other words, these organisms are not objects. Seeing that horse as something more than a source of glue for a glue factory is the key to saving this planet.

What is one of the wonders of Nature for you from which humans have so much to learn?

Let’s talk about the abalone, which is a giant marine snail. This shell is split in half, and has mother-of-pearl on the inside. This nacre, or mother-of-pearl, is twice as tough as our high-tech ceramics. It’s twice as tough as the ceramics we use, for instance, for jet engines. What’s amazing is that it’s made of calcium carbonate, which is what chalk is.

Why is it so tough?

Well, it partly has to do with the way the chalk is arranged in a particularly robust crystal form called rhombohedral. There are only 14 crystals in nature and this is one of them, rhombohedral. But what makes the whole structure really tough and resistant to cracking is that it’s more than just a mineral. If you broke this shell and looked at the mother-of-pearl lining from the side (with a microscope), you’d see layers of mineral interrupted by layers of a soft squishy polymer; it’s made like a puff pastry. Here’s what’s even more amazing. The mother-of-pearl self-assembles in the seawater around the giant snail’s fleshy body. First, the giant snail secretes the protein which self-assembles into soft scaffolding. Then the free-floating minerals from the seawater are attracted to “landing sites” on the scaffolding, and they self-assemble into beautiful mother-of-pearl structure. This spontaneous layering of hard-soft-hard-soft is what makes it really tough.

And what can we learn from this?

Well, we don’t make our ceramics like that at all. Why would you add something soft to make something harder? It’s counterintuitive. But that’s what the abalone does. It’s a good thing, because their shell is their protection. When a sea otter puts an abalone on its chest and starts banging it with a rock like this, the soft layer slides under the pressure. It has a give within so it’s not so brittle. This is a wonder of Nature. What we can learn is that using heat the way we do to make high-tech ceramics is not the best way to make them hard. You can’t have something soft and squishy like a polymer in it or like a protein in it and subject it to high heat. It would burn up. What the abalone teaches us is that if you want to toughen a material, you can’t use high heats. And since you can’t import minerals, you have to find a way to use the common materials in the sea water, and arrange them in strong shapes. The abalone can’t drill for oil or stoke a big kiln, and it has to manufacture right next to its own body! But it learns something as a result of having these limits. It learns the secret of how to make high-performance materials in life-friendly ways, which we don’t learn with our high heats and our brute force.

Humans have a tendency to learn from Nature, but in a negative way. For example, we harnessed the energy of an atom and used it as a threat to others. You have said than humans are a relatively young species. Is this why we have a tendency to learn in very limited or very aggressive ways?

That’s how I think of it. That’s the only way that I can explain our missteps. I cannot assume that that’s our nature. I can only assume that it is a stage of human development. Homo sapien sapiens arrived on the scene a very short time ago in evolutionary terms. We’re seeing a young species that has a powerful adaptation, which is a big brain. It is a tool-using species that has learned to put itself at the end of a very long lever. We’ve learned to use and play with extremely powerful forces, but we’ve not yet figured out how best to use them. The most well-adapted thing we could do is to improve the habitat for our offspring. That’s what every other organism is doing, that’s what everything out there has been doing since the moment you walked into the valley and we started talking. Every action you see is about making sure that the young do well. That includes making sure that their habitat is going to be okay for them. We humans don’t yet know what to do with our energy resources. We don’t know what’s worth doing. Figuring out what’s worth doing is a mark of maturity.

Some say the root of evil is selfishness.

I thought about selfishness last night after our first talk. Is there selfishness in the natural world? Is there self-serving behavior in the natural world? Absolutely. Is it all there is? Absolutely not. What really interests me, and the reason I focus most of my natural history writing on ecosystems, is that an ecosystem like my pond cattail marsh habitat out there is a whole, and there are individuals within that whole that are serving themselves, but they are serving themselves in a way that betters and enhances the whole. I call it “whole-body awareness.” Like in your body you’ve got different cells, and if I took your skin cell right now and I put it on a Petri dish with nutrients, your skin cell would crawl away like an amoeba. People don’t know this. But it would crawl away. If you gave it food, it would crawl toward food and get food. We have 30 trillion cells. Your skin cell is very different from the eye cell, very different from your heart cell, from different from your lung cell. They all have different talents.

Like individuals.

Yes, but if they are all individual organisms with their own self-serving needs, why is it that your heart doesn’t take all the oxygen? Why is it that your digestive tract ever gets any oxygen at all? Why don’t your lungs keep it all and sell it to the rest of your body? The answer is because there’s a whole-body awareness, I think, in these cells that allows them to temper their self-serving tendencies with their whole-body awareness. This is one of the horizons in science that I don’t think we’ve understood well. So when we talk about self-serving, I say yes, yes, organisms are selfish. But they are self-serving “and” whole-serving, not a self-serving “or” whole-serving.

Thank you very much for helping us learn so much from Nature.