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Natural Teachers

Janine Benyus

     ... biologist, life sciences writer. Author of six book including Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Ms. Benyus has also written about animal behavior, field guides to wildlife habitats and books on health. With degrees in natural resource management and English literature, Ms. Benyus has been a back-country guild as well as a translator of science-speak. She lives in Montana.


What do octopus, slime-mold and lichen have in common? Possible solutions to pressing human challenges that exceed what engineering schools offer, says science writer and biologist Janine Benyus. In her widely admired book, Biomimicry, she heralds a growing field of scientific innovation inspired by nature

Ms. Benyus reports a host of revolutionary ideas being put to use in the material and other sciences, but they all depend on much bigger "ifs": Can our obviously clever species become well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul? If not, perhaps we're just another young species headed for an early extinction.

Unencumbered evolution, Ms. Benyus notes, is the wellspring of good ideas and we donât have to go it alone in figuring out how to live. We are surrounded by "geniuses," species and systems from which we can actively learn. Ms. Benyus urges us to use our wonderful adaptation -- our huge brains -- to reclaim our ancient ancestorsâ extraordinary ability to mimic nature. Examples? Learning to ice-fish from the polar bears or how to avoid the perils of monocultures by mimicking a classic prairie.

Optimism characterizes Ms. Benyus, who has witnessed astonishing successes when people learn from leaves and spiders and molecules. She is hopeful that we will flip out of the today's paradigm, begin to treat nature as a teacher instead of as a warehouse. With a good dose of much-needed humility, we must begin to ask some very different questions, she counsels. Want color? Ask how nature gets the desired result, not what kind of paint to use. Then, instead of having to deal with all the problems that come, for instance, with painting cars, construct the cars from composites that create the desired result -- color -- the way nature does. (Here's a hint: Peacocks' feathers are, in fact, brown. The colors we associate with peacock feathers are the result of light refraction which creates the illusion of color.

When we begin to look to nature as our model, Ms. Benyus is confident that the result may well be more than a chance to squeeze through what she sees as a looming evolutionary knothole. This new perspective also encourages a glorious sense of awe, she's observed. There's more. When we learn to fit in on this planet rather than trying to dominate it, humans have the chance to experience a homecoming. But first, Ms. Benyus is convinced, we must recognize that the earth is ours ... it's just not ours alone.


[This Program was recorded September 16, 2000, in Oberlin, Ohio, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Janine Benyus defines "biomimicry" for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Ms. Benyus compares humansâ long, long history mimicking nature to a more recent tendency to synthesize things. She champions the idea of nature as mentor, not resource.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:10

Conversation 2

Humans are a young species, says Ms. Benyus, clever but still part of nature. Since we are not immune to natural selection, she questions if our artifacts are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul. She outlines what we need from the wisdom of our biological ancestors. She says today's central question is: Can we live on this planet without destroying that which sustains us? She offers some answers. A cultural transformation is urgently needed, she proposes, with examples of how our huge brains might mimic nature instead of trying to overwhelm it.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:10

Conversation 3

Ms. Benyus uses her biomimicry perspective and a leaf to demonstrate how nature powers itself and does a whole lot more. We have been asking the wrong questions, she says, then poses better ones including how can we create conditions conducive to life and be well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul. She illustrates desirable new ways to think using David Orr's Lewis Environmental Studies building. She offers ways to move beyond todayâs poorly-adapted practices to get through what she believes is an evolutionary knothole. Forests are her example of success.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:15

Conversation 4

Ask better questions, counsels Ms. Benyus, who then expands with "colorful" examples. Genetic evolution is too slow for the kinds of changes we urgently need, she believes, so we must rely on cultural evolution. Considering "memes," Ms. Benyus describes what humans do well and what we do poorly. She expands on what humans must do for each other and for all the other species on whom our lives depend. She explains the vast importance of having the humility to know that our species can die out. She imagines a creative intellectual ecosystem where people with questions and people with answers can come together.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:23

Conversation 5

Still in pursuit of deeper questions than people typically ask, Ms. Benyus details the innovations found in the Lewis Center building. She notes the over-arching need to ask: What should this (fill-in-the-blank) do in terms of how itâs made, used and disposed of; what does it really do; how does it enhance the place it lives? Good and bad design are considered. Opportunities abound for taking advantage of the natural integrity of a system, she demonstrates. Biomimicry flips paradigms, she says, with examples from materials science and spiders.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:54

Conversation 6

Ms. Benyus expresses her hope for the human species and the world that could come out of significant change if we choose to learn from the millions of other species and systems of which we are a part. She includes herself among those in awe of nature's model, hoping for a much needed homecoming if we choose well.

Conversation 1 RealAudio3:54


We had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Benyus at the dedication of Oberlin College's extraordinary Lewis Center for Environmental Sciences, the brainchild of the renowned educator and environmental leader, David Orr. We thank Dr. Orr for his vision and leadership in birthing this embodiment of a new kind of much needed ecological literacy.

We also appreciation the considerable efforts of the Oberlin College communications professionals who made possible a series of Shows in the midst of celebrating the dedication of the Lewis building, especially Vice President Alan Moran and media specialist and event coordinator Marci Janas.

Related Links:

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, published by William Morrow, is available in soft as well as hard cover editions.

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