Last week I was lucky enough to slink into the back of a talk by Jenine Benyus, poster child of a biologically-inspired design philosophy called Biomimicry. She talked about how close observation of nature can help our design of everything from cement (seashells) to solar panels (leaves), and gave some powerful examples of breakthrough clean technologies that derive from this discipline.
At the end of the talk, a student asked Dr. Benyus about applying biomimicry to problems of social design. Can nature tell us how to set up the hierarchy in an office, or how to go about changing an over-consumptive culture?
Dr. Benyus was quick to point out that bad biology is often overapplied in social situations. We try to use bee hives to understand corporate culture and use bat mating to explain human mating in ways that are devoid of scientific merit. The complexity of human relationships is unmatched by relationships the natural world, so one must be cautious to avoid the scientific sin of oversimplification. That being said, the evolution of complex ecosystems from those relatively simple connections can teach us a great deal about the evolution of our own relationships and communities. I couldn’t agree more.
The trick is in understanding how to phrase social problems in a format that biology can inspire. You can’t ask nature how to build a cell phone, because nature doesn’t build cell phones. You have to ask nature how to ask nature how to build hard, durable solids (like seashells) or how to turn sunlight into stored energy (like leaves.) If we want to ask nature how to build human relationships, we have to first understand the process of how those relationships are built.
The process behind the emergence of human relationships is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and working with, and I’m of the opinion that there are just three tasks that drive the formation of human relationships and communities. These three tasks parallel closely the three conditions for the emergence of life from the primordial ooze (and it’s continuation to this day), and I’ve always been curious if they show up in other sorts of emergent systems. Let’s start by looking at the conditions that drive the emergence of life:
Autocatalysis– Life has to make more of itself.
Containment– Life has to have a process for separating some matter (food) from other matter.
Selection– Life has to die.
Combined, these three things are what turn a puddle of primordial gunk into a puddle of primordial gunk that wants something. Here’s how it works. Life starts when little pieces of autocatalytic material (RNA) get caught in bubbles of lipids (containment) that can absorb some chemicals and exclude others. From time to time these bubbles get popped (selection) like bubbles tend to. Imagine all of these little RNA bubbles floating around the ooze. Some of the bubbles absorb poison chemicals and kill their RNA, then drift around until they get popped. Other bubbles know how to absorb food, so they float around with fat, happy RNAs until eventually they split. Now the chance that the “genus” will get popped is divided by two. The better you are at eating, splitting and avoiding getting popped the lower your likelihood of getting wiped out. All of a sudden these chemicals have a mission, they can dynamically adapt and evolve.
I would say that human relationships develop in much the same way, through a straightforward three-stage spiraling process. It goes like this:
Doing– We do things that we find valuable.
Feeling– We use emotional reflection and communication to distinguish between the things that we like and the things that we don’t.
Promising– We decide what to do next and set clear expectations.
Relationships and communities will evolve and optimize themselves so long as these three things are going on smoothly. Like life, relationships have an incredible ability to adapt to match their surroundings and can learn to thrive in even the harshest of circumstances. Also like life, relationships can tumble and falter for what seems like the stupidest and most trivial of reasons. When they do, it’s usually because one or more of the things listed above isn’t happening. Relationships can be jammed by throwing a wrench in these processes, and their emergence can be driven by encouraging these processes to spiral up quickly.