Distraction Free Reading

The Nature of the Copy

From the dead center of an all-white eye, a lone sapling rose two feet tall. Cyclical ridges and valleys, etched in bioplastic by an unseen watchmaker, encircled the solitary lifeform and separated it from the mottled, decaying plant matter that had been strewn about nearby with intention, detritus by design. Lying adjacent on the table-in-sylvan-drag, a digital tablet and paper pamphlets displayed the word Nucleário.[1]

Figure 1: A forest floor, re-modeled

Nucleário and the five other prototypes exhibited at the 2018 Biomimicry Launchpad Showcase in Berkeley, California, were, according to the event’s online marketing, projects from a “new species of entrepreneur” who practices “biomimicry,” the “conscious emulation of life’s genius,” a refrain I would hear repeatedly during my fieldwork on contemporary chimeras of biology and design. “Genius,” a cultural category once reserved for the presence of spiritual inspiration, here refers to the technical creativity of a re-animated nature that designers attempt to imitate in new devices like Nucleário.[2] Under the solar-paneled roof of the David Brower Center, whose eponym served as the first executive director of the Sierra Club, teams from Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Taiwan, and the United States had gathered to compete under the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, which, this year, prompted designers to devise solutions for the mitigation and reversal of climate change. The prize: a cash award of $100,000 given by the Biomimicry Institute, a Montana-based nonprofit organization dedicated to “building a new generation of sustainability innovators” through educational initiatives.[3]

To the waves of judges, spectators, and investors who also stopped to eye Nucleário, the “inventor,” a term I use loosely given the ambivalence imitation introduces into questions of authorship, declared that his idea, once fully realized, could revolutionize the process of reforestation. While paragliding above the Brazilian rainforest, he wondered whether the winged seeds of the flowering bignonia, in their own drifting movements through the air, might provide analogical insight into how he could construct a lightweight shelter for growing trees. Coupled with other lessons from the tank bromeliad and leaf litter, these models inspired the striking patterned structure I had noticed before. This new, low-maintenance tree-planting system copies the form of nature to harness its functionalities, which include hydrating the sapling, protecting it from pests, and minimizing waste. By imitating the embodied “design principles” of biological systems, products of 3.8 billion years of evolutionary adaptations, the Nucleário group, which won first place, hoped to capitalize on nature’s alleged efficiency and improve a region beset by deforestation—a sympathetic magic for technologically conjuring a more sustainable world.

Followed by an entourage of assistants and media, Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute and author of the popular Biomimicry (1997), eventually arrived at the showcase to deliver her keynote lecture. To a packed auditorium, she imparted a series of pithy aphorisms that received equal parts whooping, clapping, and snapped affirmation. “The sustainable world already exists,” Benyus said, “We don’t have to invent that.” Our ethical obligation, according to Benyus, is to return to imitating it, a practice abandoned during the “Industrial Age.” In this romantic appraisal, the imitation of nature offers so-called “biomimics” the possibility of duplicating the sustainability they attribute to nonhuman life—an appraisal that echoes Michael Taussig’s (1993) definition of mimesis as “the copy drawing on the character and power of the original” (p. xiii).[4] Such an encomiastic assessment of “imitation” stands in sharp contrast to the “metalanguage of imitation” found in the classics of modern design theory (Lempert 2014: 390), which, I wish to highlight, contribute one frame and foil for biomimicry’s anti-industrialism.

Notes on the Imitation of Form

From the vantage point of modern Anglo-American design theorists, imitation in the arts registered as archaic survival, an anachronistic weed in the manicured timescape of modernity. In Art and Industry (1934), the curator-turned-critic of industrial design Herbert Read, formerly of the famed Victoria and Albert Museum in London, castigated producers and consumers alike for rummaging in the discarded piles of by-gone styles for Machine Age design inspiration. Neoclassical revivals of ancient Greek decoration and other similar repetitions of past epochs were “unnatural” deviations, Read argued, from the natural history of human aesthetics, which progressed from unadorned functional necessity, through two species of imitative ornament (the naturalistic and the figurative), to, finally, abstract form that did nothing more than “enhance” function—an early 20th century anthropology of design that equated the mimetic with the primitive.

If imitation lurked in the borderlands and bordertimes of Read’s biological theory of aesthetics, a primitive specter haunting modernity through its sudden irruptions from else-where and -when, it occupied a more central, albeit abject, position in the architect Christopher Alexander’s first treatise on design, Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964). Through an eclectic reading of postwar information theory and experimental psychology, Alexander argued that the modern designer, newly unbound by aesthetic tradition (or perhaps merely transposed into an austere iron cage), vainly resorts to “intuition” in order to process the overwhelming “complexity” of existing design problems.[5] In melodramatically terse prose, he averred, “Bewildered, the form-maker stands alone” (4). Eschewing nostalgic defenses of “individual genius” and “period style” which would seek to rescue design from modernization, Alexander turned, curiously, to the anthropological archive to unearth the natural “origins” of design’s demise and, in its ruins, discover a “rational” method for creating form.

The scattered architectural observations of Peter Redfield, Margaret Mead, and Raymond Firth, among other anthropologists, formed the evidentiary basis for Alexander’s contention that societies could be parsed into one of two types by their “method of making things and buildings” (p. 33): “selfconscious” and “unselfconscious” cultures. Resembling Levi-Strauss’s (1966[1962]) division just two years prior of “hot” and “cold” societies, Alexander’s two-culture model associated unselfconscious cultures, occasionally glossed as “primitive,” with successful technical reproduction unmediated by formal reflections on design, and motivated only by the social force of tacit knowledge. To Alexander, imitation signified the exclusive application of the body to matters of building—Maussian techniques devoid of thought and language. Conversely, selfconscious cultures objectify their know-how in principles that can be debated, modified, and overturned; without the spirit of tradition, designers languish in the soil of arbitrariness. It was, according to my reading of Alexander, at the precise moment when imitation cedes to reason—the very possibility of choice—that design goes awry. Rather than pine for an impossible return to an architecture without architects, Alexander chased the cybernetic fantasy of an inscription device capable of translating design problems into symbolic logic that computers can at last resolve.[6]

While modern design theory’s antipathy toward imitation may stem in part from the enduring power of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s “rational” critique of the Beaux-Arts’ classical architectural pedagogy (Rabinow 1989), the semantic affiliation of imitation with primitiveness recalls to a greater extent Edward Burnett Tylor’s developmental theories of technology, language, and thought in Primitive Culture (1873). In his two-volume ethnological collection of world beliefs, a colonial anthropo-rium in literary form, Tylor arranged contemporary societies on an imaginary graph that plotted, in Fabian’s (2002) phrasing, cultural “difference as distance” in time (p. 15); accordingly, Tylor charted an evolutionary history of humankind in which contemporaneous societies progress from savagery to civilization, where “existing savagery stands directly intermediate between animal and civilized life” (p. 37). What interests me about the cultural axis Tylor drew between savagery and civilization are the ancillary ideas that cluster around each pole, particularly the connection between imitation, savagery, and nature.

Regarding the technical arts, Tylor recapitulated Augustus Pitt Rivers’ (1867) evolutionary theory of “primitive warfare” when he wrote, “The lower stages begin with the mere direct imitation of nature, copying the shelters which nature provides, and the propagation of plants which nature performs” (p. 68). As one time travels from “the merest nature to the fullest art” (p. 66), the “imitative faculty” (p. 65) may be seen to evolve toward the thought styles Tylor considered characteristic of modernity’s “intellectual culture” (p. 27): the “acquaintance with the physical laws of the world, and the accompanying power of adapting nature to man’s own ends” (p. 27). Tylor, in this analysis of artifice, establishes a binary opposition between savagery and civilization in which imitation signifies a proximity to nature and the absence of adaptation, knowledge, and control.

And just as primitive art mirrors the living, so too does language, and even thought itself. In addition to weighing the hypothesis that words themselves begin in acts of imitation of animal sounds or emotional states, Tylor goes so far as to postulate that the founding “grammar of nature” (p. 275), which he titles “animism,” reflects a mode of mimetic reasoning, the “poetic stage of thought” (305), that finds imitations of human qualities (e.g. the soul) in nonhumans. “Such resemblances,” he asserted, “…thrust themselves directly onto the mind, without any necessary intervention of words. Deep as language lies in our mental life, the direct comparison of object with object, and action with action, lies deeper” (p. 298). In this “semiotic ideology” of pre-modern imitation (Keane 2007), nature impresses on the mind without the mediation of language; thought pantomimes the world in reason’s quiet absence. Primitive design, conceptualized as a pre-linguistic effect of imitation, resides in the liminal space between nature and culture (as artifice), body and mind, instinct and will. For Tylor, imitation in design thus constitutes the Ur-moment in the morphogenesis of human culture, modernity’s civilizational origin and obverse.

Design’s Anthropologies

In seeming contrast to these histories, the increasingly popular discourse of biomimicry portrays imitation as the passageway to a future ecological Eden unpolluted by the toxic ethos of our industrial legacy. In this configuration, biomimicry is a forward-looking remembrance of forgotten affinities with the organic world, a promissory aesthetic predicated on the technological deliverance of a future past. If machine-era design theory polemicized imitation as the cultural antithesis of modernity, an absence of reason that emerges only in perverse flashes of past-ness, then the rhetoric of returns so prevalent in the biomimicry community indicates that this avowedly anti-industrial method does not necessarily extricate itself from the epistemic grid of 20th-century design theory, with its reliance on the polarity of primitive and modern, so blindingly clear in the writings of Tylor, Read, and Alexander. On the contrary, biomimicry merely flips the valence of design’s metalanguage of mimesis, from a negative survival to a positive return, a primitivist technoscience.

One consequence of this modern temporality is, as one might expect, a lingering and problematic evolutionism that anthropologists have repeatedly criticized (Wolf 1982). At the showcase I attended, Benyus began describing the desirable qualities of life that biomimics should attempt to imitate. “Materials reincarnate,” she said, “and indigenous technologies evolve in context.” Her slide, however, read “ingenious,” referring to “life’s genius.” Benyus never sought to rectify her mistake, nor did the crowd express any signs of disagreement. Far from arbitrary, her verbal gaffe reveals all the structuration of a Freudian slip, a tightly-linked association between indigeneity and nature that I noticed throughout my research as designers sought to ground their work in the ecological authority of native traditions (di Leonardo 1998; Krech 1999). Even in her discipline-defining text, Benyus (1997), on the opening page, recounted how a Huaorani man “roared like a jaguar” (1). Far from inert or innocent, these modern temporalizations actively implicate indigenous persons in narrative schemes that deny their “coevalness” (Fabian 2002; see also Rifkin 2017). Interrogating how the aesthetics of imitation orient such temporal orders might throw relief on the filiations of settler colonialism within contemporary design, especially biomimicry, which often positions itself as the progressive vanguard of “eco-tech” and “natural capitalism.”[7]

In recent years, anthropologists studying design have proposed a variety of taxonomies for categorizing the relationship of their discipline to their area of interest. The most influential proposal consists of three “arrangements” (Murphy 2016): anthropology for design, design for anthropology, and anthropology of design. The last dyad, anthropology of design, entails a critical attitude on behalf of anthropologists studying design, following Suchman’s (2011) call to investigate the “cultural imaginaries and micropolitics that delineate design’s promises and practices” (3). As an anthropologist of design confronting a Victorian anthropology of design latent within the affects, facts, and artefacts that comprise biomimicry, I wondered: Are anthropologies of design everywhere critical? And, moreover, are they always the exclusive domain of anthropologists? With a negative to each, a critical anthropology of biomimetic design demonstrates that design’s anthropologies—the perspectives designers hold on human relatedness with each other and with technology—afford thought-provoking inroads into the myriad ways Anthropos animates and articulates the world of design, and the time-bending involutions of anthropology in design, in addition to design in anthropology.[8]


[1] Eyes, watches, and other contraptions of considerable contrivance have long fascinated the Western imagination. Their physical complexity wordlessly intimates a designer, or Designer. For the Anglican theologian William Paley (2006[1802]), the watch was one such evocative object whose very construction begged the question of an “artificer,” and, by analogy, so too did the natural entities that functioned similar to, or better than, human technologies. The eye, in particular, captured Paley’s attention in Natural Theology, where he used the apparent artificiality of the organ of sight—its presumed likeness to the telescope—to reason that God had intended to make His authorship legible in natural signs of technicity, symbols of divine provenance. Not everyone, however, saw eye to eye with Paley. Charles Darwin (1998[1861]), in his eye-opening theory of evolution, The Origin of Species, argued that the window to the soul was less a portal to heavenly revelation, more the result of natural selection. Besides, he demurred, pointing to the imperfections of vision, God would never be so sloppy. For Darwin, the watchmaker is, in Richard Dawkin’s (1986) phrase, “blind,” generating random mutations that vary wildly in their environmental fitness. For artifacts like Nucleário, the causes of techno-poesis are socially ambiguous, somewhere betwixt and between human, natural, and divine.

[2] McMahon (2013) chronicles how “genius” has morphed over the longue durée from its genesis in Greek philosophy and Roman mythology, through Christian theology and Romantic arts, to scientific surveys of IQ and current “genius” worship.

[3] See the Biomimicry Institute website for a full description of their mission, initiatives, and other marketing materials, including those for the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge: https://biomimicry.org/.

[4] This emphasis on the sustainability of nature imitation distinguishes biomimicry from kindred design methods like the bionics-influenced biomimetics. Insisting on this difference forms a crucial pillar of their sociological boundary work and self-fashioning.

[5] This model of subjectivity, of the human-as-information-processor, reflects mid-century understandings of individuals as organizational problems (Levine 2017).

[6] “Architecture without architects” is, of course, a reference to Bernard Rudofsky’s (1964) analysis of “vernacular,” “anonymous,” or in-formal architecture found outside sanctioned curriculum of Western architectural pedagogy; it should be noted that Rudofsky’s manifesto largely conforms to the modern-primitive episteme I address here.

[7] “Natural capitalism” is the name Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins (1999) gave to a speculative capitalism that recognizes and accounts for its inherent dependence on natural resources. For critical perspectives on this ideology of “green liberalism,” see Steinberg (2010).

[8] Unlike “design anthropology” (Gunn, Otto, and Smith 2013), what I have here called “design’s anthropologies” is less a “style of knowing” (11) shared by anthropologists currently working within the design industry, which aligns with Murphy’s (2016) “anthropology for design,” than it is a relational concept for contextualizing and comparing anthropological perspectives held by designers across places and times.


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Benyus, Janine. 1997. Biomimicry. New York: Harper Perennial.

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di Leonardo, Micaela. 1998. Exotics at Home. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Gunn, Wendy, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, eds. 2013. Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. London: Bloomsbury.

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Rabinow, Paul. 1989. French Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Steinberg, Ted. 2010. Can Capitalism Save the Planet? Radical History Review 107: 7-24.

Suchman, Lucy. 2011. Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design. Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 1-18.

Taussig, Michael. 1993. Mimesis and Alterity. New York: Routledge.

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