Nature, Design, and the Efficiency of Messes

This post is likely to be a mess.  But let me start with a question:

How do you feel about Nature?

Do you think of Nature as being orderly due to the natural laws that it follows?

Or is nature more about variety, dynamism, and just plain messiness?

I ask this because “nature” is a very, very slippery concept and how people understand it often plays a fundamental role not only in how they understand reality–but also in how they then act.

But let’s make this concrete by talking about an article on Andrew Sullivan‘s blog last week.  This post was titled, “When Messy is more Effective,” and it talked about how the relatively recent attempts by humans to study other species architectural habits and adapt/utilize them for human purposes.  Humvee_tire_270x269
This process is called “biomimetic design,” and it’s been quite the rage recently (see this article about honeycombed airless tires that were developed here in Madison by some graduate students and a faculty adviser that was on my Dissertation Committee as a reader), although one can trace this development back a lot further in time.

In any case, the Andrew Sullivan provided this interesting excerpt about the process of biomimesis:
A telling example is the comparative architecture of orb-weaver versus tangle-web spiders. Imagine a spider web, and chances are you summon an orb-weaver’s work in your mind: A branch-hung mesh of silk spiraling around a central hub so orderly and symmetrical you would consider it beautiful, and certainly superior to the irregular skein of strands of a tangle web in a wood pile. An orb web’s beauty comes from the simple algorithm the spider follows to construct it within a single plane. By comparison, a tangle web is the result of a significantly more dynamic behavioral process of trial-and-error construction, methodically stringing and testing silk between any available surfaces until an ideal prey-trapping tension is reached. It looks messy, and primitive.


But the tangle web is actually derived from the more primitive orb web. A tangle web can be built almost anywhere, and it doesn’t require airflow to catch prey. Its marvelous, asymmetric design allowed the spiders that developed it to begin a great radiation into thousands of new species.”

This excerpt, which resonated with me deeply, was from an even cooler and longer article that you can find here (and that I encourage you to go read… fascinating stuff..).

The gist of the longer article is that humans have been looking more and more at nature to find better  ways of designing human technologies, but the process they’ve used to do this is often problematic–not only in that humans don’t understand (or misunderstand) the natural structures that they are trying to copy, but also that they often completely fail to think about some of the different values/rules/elements that profoundly shape natural creations and that may be antithetical to human needs.

The excerpt and the article use two examples.  One of them is the orb vs. tangle web design that is noted above.  The second (and primary example in the bigger article) refers to when an architect named Mick Pearce designed an office complex in the 1990’s based on principles derived from termite mound “design” in order to cool the complex more efficiently and cheaply.

While the complex did accomplish the goal of cooling at a substantially lower cost, the original understanding of what went on in Termite mounds that it was built upon was wrong.   The “science/engineering” ideas had been postulated in the 1960’s, but when later experiments and empirical data were collected, it was shown that these principles were incorrect and that the termite mound was not constructed to be a cooling engine (that was a side benefit), but rather its construction functioned more as a kind of breathing engine to bring oxygen in and expel carbon dioxide.  (Go read the article for more detailed analysis..)

Now, the reason that these articles resonated so strongly within me is that they were deeply intertwined with a number of questions involving the human desire for order and purpose and how that relates to the complexity, nuance, and basic messiness of the world around us. Some of these are:

a) The attraction of simplicity over complexity. One of my favorite quotes ever is by Alfred North Whitehead, who said, “Seek simplicty, but distrust it.”  To me, this has always been a valuable warning in that it acts as a brake on the natural tendency to embrace the easiest and/or most accessible answers to problems without thinking through the possible ramifications.  In other words, it is a hedge against intellectual laziness.

These articles relate to this issue in that they show how quickly we sometimes try to cram our human desires and understandings onto the natural world around us.  For example–as humans we have a concern with cooling structures–and that colored the thinking of the original researchers of termite mounds to the extent that they posited that these were the intentions of the termites.

But this kind of thinking also appears more generally when you listen to scientists talk about “elegance” in theories about reality.  An elegant theory, if you read a bit in the history of science, is almost always prized over a messy or complicated one in both science and mathematics.  This kind of attitude is often put into practice when such theories are simplified by, say, “neglecting friction” or making assumptions about “ideal conditions” when, in reality, such aspects can play significant roles in the material world.  In a very concrete way, these factors can play A HUGE ROLE in process development from lab/experimental scale up to industrial plant scale implementations.  What works in a small reaction chamber under carefully controlled conditions may not work when it is 1000 or 10,000 times larger because the small/negligible “issues of friction/turbulence/temperature variability” often increase in non-linear fashions, introducing a myriad of complications.

b) The second way it resonated with me related to issues of order/messiness when it came to human perception and understanding.  Humans–or at least human minds–tend to have an affinity for order, patterns, and symmetry.  As some relatively recent research has shown, perceptions of “beauty” with regard to human faces correspond highly with symmetrical faces, but this is not the only area where humans are attracted to examples of orderliness in reality.

On a more conscious and fundamental level, humans like order because it makes things easier for them to understand and that can give them a sense of power. As the excerpt in Andrew Sullivan notes,

“Humans like symmetry and order, I think because symmetry and order help us recognize patterns, and we like to think we understand things,” says [entomologist John] Wenzel. … “In my studies I’ve seen things many times that I think are anomalies, pathologies, almost like mutations,” Wenzel says. But what seem like pathologies … can become useful, even essential. And difficult to understand.”

That last sentence is where it becomes really interesting to me.  Specifically, that divergences from symmetry or order may actually be superior to the symmetrical or orderly designs in certain kinds of activities.

If you think about this for a second, the truth of it is obvious.  A mousetrap, for example, is not a study in symmetry.  A frog or grasshopper–with the asymmetry between front and back legs–also are able to produce dramatic results based on exactly the “over” development of their hind legs.

Furthermore–perfect symmetry–because it is easy to understand and adapt to–can be a significant weakness.  If you are trying to hide something or to be NOT noticed–a perfectly ordered structure will not help you–if only because it requires that so many other elements be perfect in order for it to function.  Disordered states–in contrast–are so much more common, which makes it harder to distinguish any one particular disordered state from any other.

A simple way to think about this is that there’s only one way for a mountain lake to be perfectly pure and clean–but there are a nearly infinite way for it to be less than perfect.   Orderliness, in other words, is that is going to be rare in nature, and it will be something that requires special effort to construct and maintain.

c) A final issue that I would discuss here is the way that different kinds of human values are intertwined here into the areas of both design and nature.  As the larger article that I noted earlier explains, the process of mimicking nature for design purposes raises all kinds of interesting issues. On the one hand, the way that “nature” finds solutions to design issues is fascinatingly inefficient if you were to put it into human terms.  Instead of doing an analytical cost benefit analysis and using basic principles and calculations to discover a solution, nature basically has a few simple algorithms with the possibility of mutations that it gives to millions or billions of different individuals, and the best designs survive better into the future.  Employing such a process on the human scale with regard to house design would be fantastically inefficient in terms of man-hours and materials if we hadn’t yet invented computers that can simulate such processes far quicker in a virtual world.

On the other hand, however, there are the issues with exactly the kinds of results that mimicking these “natural processes” would produce.   Natural structures–such as beehives or termite mounds or spider webs–are often remarkably fragile.  Although they often display incredible strength relative to the amount of material they use, this high level of efficiency equates to a far lower value of robustness or structural redundancy.  In a nutshell, it may not be the smartest thing to design a house that uses 80% less materials and therefore costs less to build if that house then also collapses upon its inhabitants whenever there’s a 10inch snowfall.

As humans, we also have an inherently different set of values that will guide our designs–for example that we are relatively long lived creatures who take decades to even achieve adult status.  As such, we are very different than a huge mass of creatures–the majority of which live and die within a year–and most of who are not individually essential for the continued existence of the group.  These fundamental differences need to be kept in mind–and too often I see people neglecting to pay attention to how crucial they are when they look to nature to provide solutions to their problems.  I will stipulate here that this problem appears more in relatively naive articles about these issues than in the more technical analyses of such things… But, in defense, it is the more naive and popularized takes on these issues that most people hear about..

In the end, I would note that we live in a disorderly, imperfect, and messy universe.  Life, itself, is much more like organized chaos than any kind of designed and orderly dynamic.  This does not mean that our actions are meaningless or that we cannot create some amazing examples of order and progress.  Instead, it just means that we should not essentialize order as some kind of higher good, and therefore lead ourselves astray by trying to force our perceptions of the disorderly world into some idealized and more perfect form.  Doing so will only lead to self-deception and hinder our efforts to grok the world around us.

About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
This entry was posted in Human Nature and Mind, Nature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Nature, Design, and the Efficiency of Messes

  1. Thanks for finally writing about >Nature,
    Design, and the Efficiency of Messes | The Philosophy
    of NOM <Loved it!

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