Of Invention & Design

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RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR

Comparisons, it is often said, are odious. But, comparisons are part of life. A cricket bat is not a bat without the willow for reference. Hence, the equation — a unique object, or organisation, stalls assessment and comprehension, because it is singular. This also explains for human aptitude to ‘inventing’ technologies.

It’s not that animals don’t devise; they use tools to carve and manipulate environmental objects to improve their quality of life. Chimps, for example, peel off twigs to make better termite traps, while beavers temper and arrange logs and sticks to make handy dams. Yet, one basic fact remains: each of such species does not boast of a single miracle invention.

This is the true perception of reality, or fundamental characteristic of the human species: one that may have determined our origin during the evolution narrative. The supposition also is: our technology is the natural and inescapable progression, because we are supposedly the most intelligent, thinking species, influenced by every code of the physical universe. Our intelligence may not always be rational, all right, but what is important is the stunning sequence of our own biological characteristics — the fact that we have our endoskeleton based on the ‘lever’ principle, unlike large animals that need to be necessarily viewed in the context of metazoans — earthly, rather than marine.

Scholars reckon that an appropriate comparison for human technology exists: the evolved technology of living organisms. Hence, the big question: could we continue to characterise biology as technology? Maybe, yes. However, the truth remains that biological technology has been shaped by natural selection. While it is agreed that our hackneyed templates imply external constraints, albeit differences often arise either from history or refined differences in natural contexts. Such disparities may, again, be just the right grist for our own technology mill, more so as we move increasingly towards a position comparable to biological systems — one that promptly guides genetic elements. What does this connote? That our biological world includes an array of technologies — mechanical, chemical and computational. The only disparity being the technology fulcrum of biological chemistry needs analyses, just as much as the technology of biological computation remains unfathomed.

The similarity betwixt engineering and biomechanics, likewise, is rich enough to supply extraordinary insights into both biological chemistry and bio-computation. Prokaryotes, for example, are biochemical geniuses, directing chemistry to make their living and identify their roles; yet, they do extraordinarily little orchestration of external mechanical forces.

Research suggests that the absence of structural metals, in biology, is proof that animals would be far better off, if only they had them. You may not agree with such a hypothesis, though you’d be tempted to. Here’s another analogy. The pliability of metals explains for their elevated toughness, but organisms have found other routes to attain it. Also, if ‘elasticity’ underlies the usage of metals in human technology, there’s nothing like the mechanism at work that would allow an animal to mend a deformed tooth. The argument is obvious: that the metals we use in our technology, iron and aluminium, were ignored by evolution because their poor presence in seawater holds no weight when investigated from a pertinent geological standpoint. Three billion years ago, when free oxygen was a scarce commodity, iron and uranium were delicately soluble; the great iron deposits in a part of our living planet are just enough evidence of the ‘crystallisation’ of that iron which helped oxidative photosynthesis to really come of age.

The inference: as we approach true nanotechnology and biotechnology, cultivated comparisons of the two will perpetually transform the way we look at either archetype. For all the good reasons.

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