Defining a scientific movement

  • Cover of "Biomimicry"

  Review by Michelle Nijhuis





Janine Benyus' Biomimicry is a book about science. One of its many unexpected pleasures, however, is that it is also about scientists. Benyus' fondness and respect for researchers is evident in every chapter, even as she gently pokes fun at their peculiar obsessions. Here, for example, is her description of biochemist Tom Moore:


* "And what do you have when you have a positive charge on one side of a membrane and a negative charge on the other?" He's like a demented game show host. I have no idea. "MEMBRANE POTENTIAL!" he shouts, as if we've hit Double Jeopardy."


But Benyus also has a serious case to make. Biomimicry argues that nature can save us: By using natural systems as models we can create technologies that are more sustainable than those in use today.


"Life can't put its factory on the edge of town," she writes. "It has to live where it works." This isn't an invitation to check out of Western civilization. Benyus believes that the methods of modern science, if taken in new directions, can lead us toward a gentler means of survival, and she offers a clear-eyed portrait of a scientific movement that is beginning to do just that.


She travels to conferences, universities and research stations around North America, puzzling through the complexities of research for the answers to some simple questions. How will we feed ourselves? How will we heal ourselves? How will we make things? How will we conduct business? Each of these is answered with a natural model - a leaf, a forest, a spider, a cell - and with a description of research labs buzzing with activity, hard at work on these questions.


Although most of these innovations are in the fantasy stage, there has been some progress. At the Land Institute in Kansas, researchers are working to breed perennial, food-producing native plants, hoping to help us "grow food like a prairie." Some animal behaviorists have begun to study "self-medication" behavior in chimps, using the chimps' knowledge of native plants to discover new medicines in the world's rainforests. And plant physiologists are imitating the process of photosynthesis in the laboratory, building molecules that may one day turn the sun's rays into energy for human use.


Benyus' curiosity and probing questions move the story along, as the researchers respond to her as they would to an enthusiastic student. Her scientific background - a degree in forestry from Rutgers - may have led her to the right questions, but it's her skill and grace as a writer that allows her to explain the answers to the uninitiated.


Both she and the researchers she meets describe their work as interdisciplinary, as physicists reach into biology and biologists team up with mathematicians. Her book makes connections as well - some scientists may not have thought of themselves as biomimics before being interviewed by Benyus, while others may not have thought of their work as part of a diverse larger movement. But now it will be hard for them to forget the conclusions of this western Montana writer. n
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