Shaking Hands with a Sloth

What designers and biologists can learn from one another, and from nature.

Biologist Rick Overson and student Elizabeth Cash birding along Lake Calamito near the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. [Photo: Anumeha Narain]

The standing joke in Gamboa is that this sleepy hamlet on the Panama Canal hosts more parrots than people. Spend just one night here, and you’ll find that Gamboans neither exaggerate nor jest. Each day at sunset, parrots stream from the dense jungle of neighboring Soberenía National Park. They straggle into town, two by two, to roost in great flocks in the spreading crowns of jacaranda, mayo and suicide trees. More than 700 — mostly Red-lored Amazons, a lime-green, foot-long parrot marked by a scarlet blaze on its forehead — have been counted in a single census. Their nightly return to town is as sudden and raucous as New Yorkers spilling out of Yankee Stadium after a World Series win. Come morning, the sun rousts the birds from their perches, triggering a reverse commute equally grand and unruly.

For 12 days in September, the parrots served as both alarm clock and dinner bell for the faculty and students in our Arizona State University class. We were part of a traveling studio in biomimicry which included graduate students in design and biology. Our challenge: Collaborate with our project partner, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, to create bio-inspired architectural and product design concepts for a new field station on a remote peninsula in the canal zone.

This was not my first educational foray into biomimicry — an emerging discipline that looks to the forms, processes and systems of nature for inspiration in solving human problems. I have been working since 2008 with faculty in design and biology to help draft curricula that probes the natural world for sustainable innovation. But this course was different. During an ordinary semester on campus, a class in biomimicry is shoehorned into the students’ already jam-packed academic and work schedules. Planning field trips to study plants, birds and insects up close is a logistical nightmare. So looking to nature typically entails peering at organisms on a computer screen, consulting with a professional biologist and then carrying out additional research in scientific journals.

But in Panama, far from the distractions of daily life back home, we were free to spend hour after uninterrupted hour outside. The temporary furlough allowed us to strap on backpacks and pace the tropical forest for days on end. And if that wasn’t enough, most nights after dinner, we’d dig out headlamps, slip on the day’s muddy boots and head out again to explore the forest’s edge, shining our lights on tree trunks and the undersides of rocks and leaves to greet the animals that showed up for the night shift. Or nature would just simply come to us, lured by the security light on the back porch of our dorm — Jurassic-sized moths, beetles and grasshoppers that left the students incredulous and gasping with delight.

Casque-headed lizard. [Photo: Elizabeth Cash]

The traveling studio was just one of many biomimicry classes now offered around the world. Biologist Janine Benyus popularized the subject with her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Since its publication, Biomimicry has snared the imagination of countless readers, prompting a range of professionals — from designers and computer scientists to materials engineers and business strategists — to begin rifling the great database of life for biology-based inspiration. There is good reason to look to nature for ideas. In the course of 3.8 billion years of evolution, Benyus argues, organisms have solved many of the same problems that confront us today — generating clean energy, managing waste, using materials efficiently and trading goods and services. And they’ve done so without fouling their environs or depleting the resources they need to thrive. As Benyus eloquently observes, organisms are rigorously tested in the planet’s long-running research-and-development lab. The failures, she says, are “fossils,and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.” 1

This intensifying interest in the living world is coinciding with extraordinary strides in laboratory technologies that allow us to study nature’s adaptations in unprecedented detail. In recent years, nautilus shells and whale fins have inspired more aerodynamically efficient blades for fans and wind turbines. A new look at the nano-scale surface structure of lotus leaves has led to exterior paints that shed dirt in the rain. Studies of the morpho butterfly’s wings, whose surface scales create color through dynamic reflectivity, have enabled engineers at the San Diego-based company Qualcomm to develop energy-efficient electronic displays that relay crisp and clear images even in full sunlight.

Interesting new marriages between biology and the human problem-solving arts seem to be brokered almost daily. In 2010, fueled by a $2-million grant from the National Science Foundation, cell biologists and architects at the University of Pennsylvania teamed up to study the ways in which the skins of buildings, like human skin, might readily respond to environmental changes such as temperature, light and humidity. Making strides in this area is no trifling matter since buildings account for an estimated 40 percent of global energy usage. And funding from the National Institutes of Health has enabled Phillip Messersmith, a biomedical engineer at Northwestern University, to adapt his research on blue-mussel-inspired adhesives to the development of bio glues that could solve numerous health challenges, including the sealing of dangerous ruptures in fetal membranes that lead to premature births. And the list is growing as people around the globe look to biomimicry as a means of creating innovative and more sustainable solutions to human problems. In a review of the Worldwide Patent Database, Benyus points out that between 1985 and 2005, the number of patents with descriptors such as “bioinspired,” “biomimicry,” and “biomimetics” soared by 93 percent. According to estimates from engineer Bharat Bhushan, director of Ohio State University’s Nanoprobe Laboratory for Bio- & Nanotechnology and Biomimetics, between 2005 and 2008 alone, the top 100 biomimetic products netted $1.5 billion in profits. 2

Most professionals engage in biomimicry to hit the home run of commercial success — much as Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral, digging cockleburs out of his dog’s fur, had the aha moment that led to the invention of Velcro. Yet I would argue that there are less obvious and seemingly tangential, although equally valid reasons for turning to the natural world for inspiration to human problems. The very act of looking to nature, I believe, creates the conditions conducive to innovation.

To understand why, take a walk with me into the tropical forest.

I drop my backpack, unzip the front pocket and pull out an umbrella. It’s a little past 11 a.m. but the light is suddenly as dim and silvery as nightfall. A storm has blown in; a clap of thunder, then the patter of rain. Somewhere in the tree canopies above, the howler monkeys begin to roar. Decked out in knee-high rubber boots and raingear, our students are undaunted by the downpour. “Check this out!” I hear someone calling. I pick up the pace, along with a few other stragglers, and we trot up the trail. Already a group has clustered around Amanda, an interaction design student with a special knack for picking out well-camouflaged animals such as beetles and spiders. It’s not a talent that comes easy in the dense tangle of vines, branches and leaves that line the trail like a curtain. And yet the visual ripeness and profound unfamiliarity may actually increase the odds of discovery by forcing students to jettison their preconceptions and exercise instead a more singular attention, the kind that the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset describes as “an attention that does not consist in riveting itself to the presumed but consists of precisely in not presuming anything and avoiding inattentiveness.” 3

Top: Lady slipper orchid. Bottom: Orange and metallic green coreidae. [Photos: Elizabeth Cash]

This time Amanda has discovered a real beauty. Clasping the backside of a tree stem is an eight-inch-long green creature known as a casque-headed lizard. With a serrated fin at the nape of its neck and segmented scales, like armored plates, on its tail, the lizard looks a bit like a medieval knight outfitted in battle regalia. ASU biologist Rick Overson bends slightly forward, slowly cups his hand in mid-air and, with one swoop, gently swipes the animal from the tree. No sooner is it captured than the lizard employs his go-to survival strategy: He plays dead. Curled up in Rick’s open palm, the animal appears stiff and brittle, nearly indistinguishable from a dead leaf. The stunt — honed over eons of evolution — draws oohs and ahhs from our students.

Over and over in Panama, I witnessed moments just like this. I watched students as they retraced the same forest trails again and again, alert to new discoveries. I saw them drop to their knees to peer at a convoy of leafcutter ants parading their leaf fragments with the ritualized coordination of a procession of flag-bearing athletes at the Olympics. I witnessed them in a rapture of delight after a Smithsonian researcher stopped by the schoolhouse to introduce us to a sloth that he had been studying. They took turns holding the animal, parting its fur to marvel at the green algae growing among the gray strands, an adaptation that helps to camouflage the animal in the tree canopy. They laughed with me as I stroked its tough, woody nails and shook its hand. Its clutch around my fingers felt remarkably like the grasp of an infant.

But nothing, arguably, could beat our first night in Panama. We arrived at the STRI schoolhouse in the dark after a long day of travel from Arizona. After chucking our luggage and laptops, we headed into the night to a nearby frog pond. There, with the jungle at our backs, the stars overhead and the sweet must of damp earth in the air, we listened to the stereophonic chorusing of tree frogs, calls so shrill and dense that it was like swimming in sound. Stunned, we all fell silent. Then, one by one, we started to laugh. It was like being inside an amplified video arcade but with tiny, spatula-footed creatures instead of machines bleeping from the corners.

Brown-throated sloth. [Photo: Elizabeth Cash]

Curiosity, amusement and awe. How often does the design process intentionally engage these emotions? Not often enough, I’ll wager. In many studios, as in other workplaces, the deliberate eliciting of positive emotions is considered more than just a little beside the point — which is to wring a full quota of productivity from each of us. But research by scientists such as Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, has shown that positive emotions are central, not merely incidental, to productivity, creativity and innovation. For decades, Fredrickson points out, psychologists have largely focused their research on negative emotions, which have played an obvious critical role in human survival. Take fear, for example. Fredrickson  has observed that the fear response serves to narrow attention, enabling humans to focus and act quickly, say, to stay one step ahead of a hungry lion’s mouth. Fear simultaneously triggers an increase in heart rate, which makes more oxygen available to the large muscles. Adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol to increase glucose — i.e., energy — in the bloodstream. By tripping a cascade of psychophysical reactions, fear ups the odds of human survival.

Frederickson maintains that situating positive emotions in the evolutionary scheme of things, however, has been a far more perplexing task for psychologists. After all, what good is wonder? Or amusement? Or joy? Positive emotions, Fredrickson posits, do the opposite of negative emotions: they open the aperture of hearts and minds to take in a wider view of the world rather than tightening their focus to restrict the range of possibilities. The writer David James Duncan describes it best in a short treatise on wonder in his book My Story as Told by Water: “Wonder is anything taken for granted…suddenly filling with mystery. Wonder is anything closed, suddenly opening….” 4

It’s easy to dismiss positive emotions such as wonder as squishy and frivolous, but Fredrickson maintains that they have vital and far-reaching consequences. Citing two decades of research by Cornell University psychologist Alice Isen, Fredrickson observes:

When people feel good, their thinking becomes more creative, integrative, flexible and open to information. Even though positive emotions and the broadened mindsets they create are themselves short-lived, they can have deep and enduring effects. By momentarily broadening attention and thinking, positive emotions can lead to the discovery of novel ideas, actions and social bonds. For example, joy and playfulness build a variety of resources. Consider children at play in the schoolyard or adults enjoying a game of basketball in the gym. Although their immediate motivations may be simply hedonistic — to enjoy the moment — they are at the same time building physical, intellectual, psychological and social resources. The physical activity leads to long-term improvements in health, the game-playing strategies develop problem-solving skills, and the camaraderie strengthens social bonds that may provide crucial support at some time in the future. Similar links between playfulness and later gains in physical, social and intellectual resources are also evident in nonhuman animals, such as monkeys, rats and squirrels. 5

Frederickson describes the evolutionary role of positive emotions in what she terms the “broaden-and-build theory.” She writes: “Whereas the narrowed mindsets sparked by negative emotions were valuable in instances that threatened our ancestors’ survival in some way, the broadened mindsets sparked by positive emotions were valuable to our ancestors in different ways and over longer time scales. Broadened mindsets mattered because — over time — such expansive awareness served to build our human ancestors’ resources, spurring on their development of assets, abilities, and useful traits. These new resources functioned as reserves, better equipping our ancestors to handle later threats to survival, which of course were inevitable.” 6

Top: Green and black poison dart frog. Bottom: Leaf-cutter ants. [Photos: Elizabeth Cash]

I would argue that biomimicry serves similar ends — but in deeper, more profound ways. It attenuates the sense of aliveness we feel when tapping one of our most primal identities — our biophilic, or life-loving, selves, what biologist E.O. Wilson describes as our innate tendency to take pleasure in the company of living things. Closely related, Benyus says, is another human universal: “our appreciation for good design.” An object’s beauty, she maintains, “emanates in part from how well it works, how snugly it fits its function and how elegantly — with a minimum of effort or extras — it is made. Our delight in the presence of good design is probably millions of years in the making since the first objects of our admiration were most certainly not in museums or shop windows, but in our native habitats. Everywhere we looked, we saw beautiful forms and systems — designs that made life possible.” 7

This age-old delight in nature’s design genius, I believe, helped one of the students in our traveling studio to create an especially innovative project. In her studies at ASU, Kirsten, a master’s student in design, had grown quite expert in solar technologies. She wanted to use her field experience in Panama to find a natural model for creating a bio-inspired twist on capturing the sun’s energy. By mid-semester, however, her investigations had led down nowhere but blind alleys. Frustrated and dejected, she pondered the photograph of an animal that had captured her affection and admiration in the rainforest — the two-toed sloth, an arboreal dweller that had evolved to hang effortlessly from the tree tops. Watching the sloth’s elegant structural solution to the problem of weight suspension, Kirsten recalled the clumsy backpacks that hampered the movements of students and scientists in the rainforest. What if they could be redesigned to hang more efficiently from the human body in the way that sloths hung from the trees? Kirsten followed her hunch with a close study of the musculoskeletal scaffolding of sloths and produced a brilliant redesign of the cumbersome rucksack.

Curiosity, amusement, admiration and awe.

I would like to make another case for bringing the natural world into the arena of the problem-solving arts. In his 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, science writer Steven Johnson explores the theory of the “adjacent possible,” developed by the systems biologist Stuart Kaufmann. Describing it as the “collection of existing parts” from which good ideas are built, Johnson views the adjacent possible as a kind of grab-bag of ideas and experiences that we collect from simply being in the world — overhearing a conversation about motorcycles in the line at Starbuck’s; having a friend drag us to a modern dance concert that we’d never attend on our own; hearing a news report about marine kelp on the radio; stumbling across a novel about Afghanistan while shopping for a cookbook; sitting across the table from a beat cop at a dinner party; studying a sloth in the rainforest canopy. 8

Spectacled caiman. [Photo: Elizabeth Cash]

It’s the cobbling of connections among the disparate items that are stashed in our grab-bag of living, Johnson says, that gives rise to startling opportunities for innovation. Case in point: Johnson cites the experience of the Parisian obstetrician Stephane Tarnier who, in the 1870s, skipped work and headed to the Paris Zoo. There he observed chicks getting a jump on life in the toasty shelter of the zoo’s poultry raiser. The proverbial light bulb went on in Tarnier’s head, and he wondered if a similar device might improve the odds of survival for struggling human newborns. With the help of an engineer, Tarnier designed a human incubator in the maternity hospital; the data he then collected showed that its use cut the mortality rate of low birthweight babies from 66 percent to 38 percent. “We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition,” Johnson points out. “But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.” 9

Enlarging the boundaries we draw around our adjacent possible, Johnson argues, multiplies the opportunities for making the kinds of associative, recombinatory leaps that can result in meaningful innovations. “Chance favors the connected mind,” he writes. 10 But not just any connections. Johnson cites a 1999 study in which sociologist Martin Ruef profiled 766 graduates of the Stanford Business School who had launched successful entrepreneurial careers as measured by the development of new products or the filing of trademarks or patents. As part of his study, he queried his subjects about the numbers of people in their professional networks. More importantly, he also sought out information about the backgrounds of their contacts. According to Johnson, in his analysis of the study, Ruef discovered that the most creative entrepreneurs were those who “had broad social networks that extended outside their organization and involved people from diverse fields of expertise.” Conversely, “groups united by shared values and long-term familiarity, conformity and convention tended to dampen any potential creative sparks. The limited reach of the network meant that interesting concepts from the outside rarely entered the entrepreneur’s consciousness. But the entrepreneurs who built bridges outside their ‘islands,’ as Ruef called them, were able to borrow or co-opt new ideas from these external environments and put them to use in a new context.” 11

Brown-hooded parrot. [Photo: Elizabeth Cash]

For designers, I cannot think of a more fertile — or little explored — arena of adjacent possibilities than the natural world. Getting outside the box — the box of a building! — can liberate designers from what can often seem like the echo chamber of the studio, where many are apt to look to the works of other designers for inspiration — that is, to stick safely inside their own networks rather than to venture beyond. As John Thackara observes in In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, “Perhaps we would learn more quickly from penguins and spiders if we were not surrounded by swarms of our own technologies. Stranded on an ice floe, with nothing but penguins for company, we’d probably study them more closely. But we live in a world filled with materials and devices invented by ourselves.” 12 To be sure, expanding the adjacent possibilities of nature doesn’t necessarily mean boarding a plane to “nature” — to a land where there are more penguins and parrots than people. As books such as The Natural History of Vacant Lots make clear, there are dozens of plant and animal species ripe for inspiration-making in the heart of even the most urbanized place. 13

I would like to suggest one more reason why biomimicry is so valuable for problem-solving designers.

The mood is festive on the outdoor viewing platform of the Miraflores Visitors Center. The sun has emerged from a bank of cumulous clouds and seems to be holding the afternoon rainstorm at bay. Our students have joined the tourists who throng the railings overlooking the Miraflores Locks, their English mingling with the French, Japanese, German, Spanish and Dutch of the crowd, which is as internationally diverse as the bright flags that snap from the masts of the tankers and cargo carriers that we’ve come to watch. All eyes are on these ocean-going behemoths as they slowly thread the eye of the needle of one of the most massive engineering projects on earth: the Panama Canal.

The Miraflores Locks are one in a series of aquatic elevators that raise and lower vessels as they make their way through the canal. Each day about 35 tankers and carriers pass through the Panama Canal, their great hulls crammed with automobiles fresh from the factory floor and their decks piled high with containers of sneakers, T-shirts and plastic toys. It is a daily parade of “stuff” that is as alarming as it is awe-inspiring. You cannot look at such enormous quantities of goods without thinking about the mining of the materials used to make them, the energy consumed in their manufacture and transportation and the pollutants released in their disposal.

Top: Red cup fungi. Bottom: Panamanian rainforest. [Photos: Elizabeth Cash]

And as you tour the history museum that adjoins the Miraflores Locks, you cannot look out across this impressive waterway of commerce without thinking of the lush and lifesome rainforest that was cleared or drowned to create it. For me one exhibit in particular stands out: a continuous loop of vintage film footage from the early years of canal construction. The repeating three-part sound track haunted me as I toured the gallery: first an explosion, then a geyser of dirt shooting into the air and then the sound of falling earth like heavy rain. In the display photographs of the canal’s construction, whole hillsides are shown stripped of their green cover and reduced to sun-baked terraces of bare dirt. The amount of earth excavated in connecting the dots of the Pacific and Atlantic through the Isthmus of Panama boggles the mind. As David McCullough has written: “If all the material from the canal were placed in one solid shaft with a base the dimension of a city block, it would tower nearly 100,000 feet — nineteen miles — in the air.” 14

And the destruction continues. Panama is currently digging another set of locks — it will be the third, scheduled to be completed by 2014 — which will accommodate ships that are much longer and wider with two to three times the cargo-holding capacity. In the future, our students might design the goods that will be carried on these longer and wider ships or specify some of their cargo of raw materials in the construction of the buildings they create. Was there any better place for these budding architects and industrial designers to ponder their responsibility to the planet than right here on this deck overlooking the Panama Canal?

Not far from the Miraflores Locks are the forests where our students set out on treasure hunts each day and returned home each night excited by what they’d discovered. For now, at least in Panama, these forests and the canal have called an uneasy truce, since the government must preserve enough of the forested watershed to ensure a steady supply of water for shipping and to minimize soil erosion that clogs passageways. Still, the lesson about tradeoffs was clear: our lust for stuff all too often means that there are fewer trees for sloths, monkeys and lizards, less food and shelter for ants, fewer cubbyholes for bats. There is no better classroom in which to ponder these issues than this ecological DMZ along the banks of the Panama Canal.

It’s too early to tell exactly how their visit to the rainforest in pursuit of biologically inspired design might change their understanding of environmental responsibility, or their resolve. Did they move any closer to adopting the new metric for good design that I’d proposed early in the semester, namely, the ecologist Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”: “A thing [design] is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” 15 Our students, like countless others in universities around the world, view sustainability largely as an issue of environmental performance — how to design products and the built environment so that they consume less energy and water, require fewer and more benign materials, serve the needs of users in healthier, more robust and enduring ways. Make no mistake: these are all critical strategies. But in the end sustainability isn’t simply a mathematical endgame in which you strive to tally the greatest number of LEED points or drive down the greatest number of kilowatts. Ultimately it’s about a broader framework: preserving the ordinariness of daily life for all beings, the essential routines of eating and breeding, nesting and resting on which all life, including human life, depends.

This is what biomimicry does. It allows us to put a face on sustainability and maybe fall in love with it. It makes us desire the well-being of the beloved. It can create the possibility of a new kind of pact, one that arises out of curiosity, amusement, inspiration and awe, the kind that happens when you shake the hand of a sloth and look him in the eye.

Author's Note

Special thanks to student Elizabeth Cash, biologist, designer and photographer, who generously supplied her extraordinary images for this essay. Heartfelt thanks to our biology faculty, Dr. Rick “Bug” Overson, who not only showed us where to look but also how to see.

  1. Janine Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997), 3.
  2. Bharat Bhushan, “Biomimetics: Lessons from Nature — An Overview,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 367: 1445-1486, 2009.
  3. Jose Ortega y Gasset, trans. Howard Wescott, Meditations on Hunting (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 150.
  4. David James Duncan, “My Story as Told by Water: Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-Watchings, Fish-Stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light,” Living Rivers, in the Age of the Industrial Dark (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2001), 88.
  5. Barbara L. Frederickson, “The Value of Positive Emotions,” American Scientist 91: 330-335, 2003.
  6. Barbara Fredrickson, Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive (New York: Crown Publishers, 2009), 21.
  7. Janine Benyus, “A Good Place to Settle: Biomimicry, Biophilia and the Return of Nature’s Inspiration to Architecture,” in Stephen R. Kellert, Judith Heerwagen, Martin L Mador, eds., Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life (Hoboken: Wiley & Sons, 2008), 27.
  8. Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (New York: Riverhead, 2010), 35.
  9. Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 28-29.
  10. Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 174
  11. Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 166.
  12. John Thackara, In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 188.
  13. See Matthew F. Vessel and Herbert H. Wong, The Natural History of Vacant Lots (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) .
  14. David McCullough, The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1977), 530.
  15. See Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949).
Adelheid Fischer, “Shaking Hands with a Sloth,” Places Journal, April 2012. Accessed 02 Dec 2022.

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • 04.17.2012 at 08:21

    More than inspiring! If every University implements this kind of interdisciplinary exercises and include centres that explores nature's wisdom, design will trigger a new creativity and our worldview crisis will be healed.