Column

When Design Meets Biology

Written by Ma Chuan

Extreme Antropocentrism

American biologist Edward O. Wilson (b.1921) has been called the father of sociobiology, he coined the term “biodiversity” and has been regarded as the most influential biologist alive. His major works include The Origin of Creativity, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Consilience, On Human Nature, Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies, The Future of Life, and The Meaning of Human Existence. Among his writings, he breaks through the usual scientific perspective, using biodiversity as the thread, bridging various interdisciplinary ideas through the lens of humanities. He cares about the universal meaning between science and humanities and seeks a future path at the intersection of the two, evoking further understanding into the meaning of life. 

In his recent book The Origin of Creativity, he argues in the chapter “Limitations of Humanities” that “the main shortcoming of humanistic scholarship is its extreme anthropocentrism.” The unexpected reality that humans have been through in recent years has set the human system into encounters with many failures, thus, making the “extreme anthropocentrism” becoming the evidence for us to question the illusion and superiority of putting “human” at the center of all design.

The word umwelt, coming from a German word Umwelt meaning “surrounding” or “environment”, refers to the “biological foundations that lie at the very epicenter of the study of both communication and signification in the human [and non-human] animal.”1 Biologists often translates this term as “self-centered world,” as they believe that different organisms may have different umwelten, even though they share the same environment. Humans actually are not as acute as they thought in perceiving the umwelt. The way human perceives the world is contingent on our bodily states. As we are mainly reliant on senses of sight and hearing, compared to other animals, our senses of smell and touch are essentially in a blank state, making it rather difficult for us to discern this intricate reality of the world. And the reason that we often misconceive “is that we are left with very little to compare with the rest of life. The deficit shrinks the ground on which we can understand and judge ourselves.”2

There have been several books that revealed the long-neglected intelligence and power of plants, for instance, The Revolutionary Genius of Plants by Stefano Mancuso, professor of the Agriculture, Food, Environment, and Forestry Department at the University of Florence and director of International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, co-written by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola, and The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture by Emanuele Coccia. For Stefano Mancuso, the origin of these thoughts was provoked by a science fiction story, which tells an alien species living in a “radically sped-up dimension of time” that came to earth, upon arriving on earth, they were unable to detect any human movements, thus reaching the conclusion that humans are “inert materials” that are free to use, and they’ve begun to ruthlessly exploit humans.3 For the author who’s a botanist himself, such a story led his imagination to take a great leap. Plants account for up to 99% of the Earth's total biomass, and much like humans, plants also have five senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Mancuso takes a look at the “speedy, heedless, and arrogant” humans from the view of plants, and discusses the relationship between organisms and their environment. Perhaps, to take a fresh new look at plants, believe in the intelligence of plants, and fight alongside plants would be an effective approach to avoid upcoming disasters in our human future. 

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Coming from a book during the Renaissance, it reflected the hierarchical view of nature shared by men during that time. The left side is stone, then came living plants, and then came animate and sentient animals, and humans sit on top of the pyramid. These are not ordinary human, but “Homo sapiens”, which puts humans on top of everything in the world. Such perception among the Renaissance remains popular today, which has become the foundation of human culture, rather difficult to relinquish. 

The union between humanities and science has always been a compelling factor for design, yet Wilson thinks that up until now, humanities and natural science have each been dancing in their own narrow fields. For instance, art and humanities are often restricted to the sense of sight and hearing, and if we try to embrace other fields of science from the point of view of art and humanities, we often find that the research objects in scientific studies are growing more and more tiny, which has a lot to do with the division of disciplines and the evaluation system. The innovation and breakthrough in the union between humanities and science are essential that sciences help us to understand humanities, while we bring meanings to science and technology through the lens of humanities and art. Wilson suggested that when the two fields of knowledge and vision learn from each other, there are often five disciplines involved, namely paleontology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology, and all of them share a common ground, which is the “theory of evolution”.The union between humanities and science has always been a compelling factor for design, yet Wilson thinks that up until now, humanities and natural science have each been dancing in their own narrow fields. For instance, art and humanities are often restricted to the sense of sight and hearing, and if we try to embrace other fields of science from the point of view of art and humanities, we often find that the research objects in scientific studies are growing more and more tiny, which has a lot to do with the division of disciplines and the evaluation system. The innovation and breakthrough in the union between humanities and science are essential that sciences help us to understand humanities, while we bring meanings to science and technology through the lens of humanities and art. Wilson suggested that when the two fields of knowledge and vision learn from each other, there are often five disciplines involved, namely paleontology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology, and all of them share a common ground, which is the “theory of evolution”.

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From the molecular process of genetics to the programmed affective responses, and to everything in the universe, humanities and science approach problems from a singular continuity to creative thinking.

 Above, the underside of an African swallowtail (Photograph by Robert Clark) Below, a segment of DNA with a fragment of the histone proteins around which DNA is wound. (Image by Gaël McGill) 

 Source: Edward O. Wilson. The Origins of Creativity, trans. Wei Wei, Zhejiang People's Publishing House, 2018: 074

Reference: 

1 Sebeok, Thomas A. “Foreword”. Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs. Lisse, Netherlands: Peter de Ridder Press, 1976.

2 Wilson, Edward O. The Origins of Creativity. Liveright Publishing, 2017.

3 Mancuso, Stefano, and Alessandra Viola. Brilliant Green. Island Press, 2015.

Design and Biological Thinking

The future is a two-level chaotic system, which will change due to our predictions. So, the future cannot be predicted, then why we go to design the future? Based on Kevin Kelly's point of view, if we see the world from the viewpoint of biology rather than mechanics, then technology itself is the evolutionary process of a living organism. We can introduce biological thinking into the interpretation of current technology, and look at the future trend of the entire technology in the way of looking at the germination of a seed. 

It is clear that traditional design thinking is unable to deal with the era of fast-changing science and technology. However, biological thinking is more inclined to overcome ignorance, which accepts diversity along with complexity, gets used to its variability instead of taking it for granted, improves tolerance in abstract or vague facts, and remains open in uncertainty. This is the similar view of Samuel Arbesman (complexity scientist, applied mathematician, computational biologist, research fellow in Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School) in Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension and VUCA (VUCA is the abbreviation of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. It is a new structure of the business world proposed by Robert McDonald, the chief operating officer of Procter & Gamble, by borrowing military terms). Biological thinking is not only scientific thinking "connecting the deep history of genetic evolution with the history of cultural evolution", but also the necessary ability and a prerequisite for us to learn, design, propose new things, and solve new problems. Adhering to biological thinking, we can consciously examine and actively think about the complex relationship between humans and nature.

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Tomás Maldonado. Design, Nature, and Revolution:Toward a Critical Ecology.

Susan Hockfield, the former dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a neurologist and biologist, and the first female and life scientist to serve as the principal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As an advocate of interdisciplinary research and development, she sees a compelling new future in the scientific field: bioengineering. In The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution published in 2019, she shared how these emerging technologies work and explained how to make the most of this exciting moment. 

A century ago, the last major revolution was generated by the fusion of physics and engineering, which Hockfield called "Convergence 1.0." Breakthrough discoveries in physics provide engineers with a more complete "parts list." These come from a deeper understanding of the physical world, such as thermodynamics, fluid and aerodynamics, electromagnetic theory, and material science, which have become the cornerstones of physics, providing engineers with powerful concepts and materials that can be used to create new things. These inventions include radio, telephone, television, airplane, computer, nuclear power, and the Internet, as well as a series of digital tools that are still in development. These technologies have fundamentally changed our world, and we can no longer imagine life without them.

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Susan Hockfield. The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution [M]. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. [2019]

Now, biologists are collecting a parts list of their fields and began working together with engineers. This is Hockfield called "Convergence 2.0". Her book shows some exciting research on the integration of engineering and biology. Engineers, doctors, biologists, and entrepreneurs jointly make discoveries and breakthroughs in the field of advanced science, effectively leading a fascinating, exciting, and refreshing future worth celebrating. Hockfield explained that the methods behind technologies such as active batteries, protein water filters, anti-cancer nanoparticles, and mind-reading bionic limbs are "really not good enough." They are inefficient and slow, but they can all be improved. This provides us with more choices, more strategies, and more experimental tools to achieve further progress. Most people have not yet begun to imagine the future they point to.

However, whether it is history or reality, scientists are not good at predicting the impact of their innovations. To achieve these developments on a larger scale, there are still huge obstacles, which require large-scale research, investment, interdisciplinary and inter-institutional cooperation, and a clearer path in the commercial market. This involves people from different professional backgrounds working together to study how design and biology and engineering come together to create the next technological revolution and solve global problems through sustainable innovation. In the 22nd Milan Triennial, Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival curated by Paola Antonelli, the curator of MoMA, and Ala Tannir, the architect-designer, and curator, designers and artists collectively expressed the identity of human beings as a species in nature. They called on artists, designers, scientists, and thinkers from different countries and cultures to discuss the relationship between natural ecosystems and humans, carefully consider the crises facing humanity, and reinterpret the issues on agriculture, city, consumerism, climate change, waste of resources, and human death and growth.

Cultivated New Thinking in Design

Innovative design academies represented by Bauhaus and Vkhutemas, with the changes in society and technology, iteratively produce fresh and vivid teaching methods of design, making students' needs for knowledge and methods greater and urgent. From radical design to anti-design, from critical design to speculative design, from participatory design to discursive design, the design trend that has evolved since the 1960s is also an evolutionary history of design concepts and design as a thinking tool. Design can help us understand and change the way we look at the world, discussing issues such as how to understand the world, how to build a good worldview, and how to create a better world.

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Copyright © Ma Chuan. Institute of Science & Creation, School of Design & Innovation, China Academy of Art.

Many of the emerging design methodologies mentioned above seem to have overlapped with some other subject areas and then wandered within the marginal range of this overlapping area, thus forming a new design methodology. For example, design and futurology are combined to produce “speculative design,” design and political science together to discuss “adversarial design,” and the combination of design and literature forms “design fiction.” So, we can't help reflecting on how the integration of design and biological thinking will affect the evolution of design methods, and how can it catalyze emerging designs. 

Perhaps the implantation of biological thinking into design thinking can provide the creative method with a subtle influence like photosynthesis, can penetrate the design work like water, provide sufficient nutrients for design thinking experiments, and become a force to promote design evolution. This is an uncertain answer, and it will be a long-term process of verification. In the changes between mankind and nature, we use design as a tool and strive to find a more tolerant, humble, and considerate ecological thinking about species, society, and nature, look forward to a new way of understanding the world and construct a way of thinking that can deal with any unknown changes, so as to better deal with our relationship with the past, present, and future. 

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Program Domain ©Institute of Science & Creation, School of Design & Innovation.

Biological thinking helps us understand the design process. Under the influence of biological thinking, the way of solving problems has changed from "single problem solving" to "segmental iterative solving." In the designed system, the use of biological thinking is the key to achieving the autonomous evolution of the organization. As Samuel Arbesman pointed out in Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension, in order to observe the nucleus of an amoeba and analyze its characteristics and functions, it is necessary to keep the nucleus in the living body. Only in this way can we understand how the cell nucleus adapts to the life of the amoeba and how it provides the core genetic information related to the many functions of the cell. We need to stimulate the perception and creativity of sustainable manufacturing through questioning, criticizing, and reflecting on the impact of product manufacturing on nature, mankind, society, and ethics. In addition, we also need to look at the problem with an iterative growth perspective, and change from "single problem solving" to "segmental iterative solving" in order to find a feasible solution.

Biological thinking affects our perception of what we design. The view on design has changed from "machined assembly" to "organic growth." Neri Oxman is an architect, designer, and artist, and she is also a professor at MIT Media Lab. In her concept of "Material Ecology," she advocated "the story of form told from the point of view of the matter, and it begins, naturally, with form's predicament." For example, it is using microorganisms for manufacturing to convert bio-energy into wearable devices, building materials, and transportation-related products.

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From Assembly to Growth ©Institute of Science & Creation, School of Design & Innovation.

Biological thinking enables us to perceive the source of the design. When we try to use biological thinking to think about problems, reflect on daily life, deal with time, and formulate proposals, in the process of design, the observation of organisms and plants has become a method of reconciliation with nature that has been learned and cultivated since childhood. Thus, we cross the concept of time and space, explore the source of the past, the essence of the present, and the context of the future. In design, we go from real, personal, and active observations to collect first-hand data, and then comb the data as the research object of the design, and thinking and deducing the design plan. Whether a fungus or a cellular structure, all the natural forms are suggesting a design innovation. For example, analyzing the water-response bending microstructure of Selaginella during its resurrection can produce a composite material that simulates the curling and stretching of Selaginella. So, when humans imitate the curled shape of Selaginella, how do people view the world from their perspective? Take another example, starting from the water absorption and rehydration of dry agaric and its microscopic structural system, a stacked water-absorbing structure of a building volume can be built; or, borrow the sucker, aerial roots, and spiral attachment structure of the creeper, and use the three-dimensional form as the prototype for the evolution and production of the external structure, and print its fractal in 3D.

Biological thinking can advance the design process. We face various emerging technologies with an open and inclusive attitude, such as Biotechnology, Information Technology, Cognitive Science, CRISPR, and other cutting-edge science and technology as the basis of understanding for design and development, and technical courses in the project are regarded as a method of education rather than the goal of education. Technology will change with its development, and the technology we use is also optional and iterative. For example, studying and cultivating the luminous performance of Armillaria under different temperature, humidity, and nutrient conditions, conducting parameterized analysis of the different structures of its hyphae, daughter cells, mother cells, and colonies, and through 4D printing, generating a more stable structure of bioluminescent with different shapes. For another example, we can use the concept of cell development and follow the rules of topology generation and parameter derivation to build experimental models from microscopic extraction, structural analysis, morphological variation, material reorganization, and object generation, and present groups of states that can be transformed into each other in dimensions. So as to provide dynamic, open, degradable, and renewable sustainable development and design innovation possibilities for health, food, construction, clothing, transportation, and other fields.

It is because the goals of scientific research have become sufficiently precise and subdivided, and science and technology only exist in the laboratory, which is obscure and incomprehensible to ordinary people's daily life. But we propose that design can be a way to bring science and technology and daily life closer and give them value. This is what Edward O. Wilson calls a high-level dialogue to cater to the cutting edge of the fusion we are experiencing. When unexpected things become reality, when the entire human system makes mistakes, we instantly doubt all the illusion of the "human" centering and the sense of superiority it produces. Upholding biological thinking and ecological concepts, we consciously examine and actively think about the complex relationship between human beings and the natural world in which they live, and take the co-evolution and harmonious development of humans and the natural ecological environment as our value orientation.

This is our ability and courage as a human species. When we have a stable core and initiative, the meaning and responsibility of our existence must be deeply rooted in living life. 

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