Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Is Technology Darwinian?

Julian Vincent spoke before the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI) which contrasts technological and biological development. Technological progress, he notes, is often characterized as 'technological evolution'. However, Vincent claims, this metaphor is misleading since there are many ways in which technological progress does not follow principles of natural selection. He stresses the 'unguided' nature of nature of Darwinian thought and claims that technology as a human activity is guided. This, in turn, suggests important theoretical differences. For example, it suggests that theories explaining technological development may have greater predictive import than their biological counterparts. (For an interesting discussion of the limitations of various evolutionary theories in generating predictions, see Darwin’s Legacy, reviewed in the document list.)

A review of Vincent's work reveals that he is a leader in the field of biomimetics, that is, the concept of borrowing ideas from nature to further technology. While much of his work consists in specific applications of environmental "designs" – for example, he analyzes arthropod exoskeletons in engineering terms – he has also published on top-level biomimetic theory, including many of the ideas which underlie his speech before the BRLSI. In a 2005 book chapter, he argues that just like biology, technological development takes place on a field of limited resources – the same concept of limited resources in relation to population which motivated Darwin’s theories on the evolutionary mechanism. While technological resources are monetary – as opposed to the energy resources which are addressed by the influential Malthusian political-economic model – the same concepts of inter-organism and intra-organism resource conflicts apply. (Although obviously in the case of technology, the exact nature of selection is determined by the designer, or at least whoever is responsible for the designer’s paycheck.)

Biomimetics seems like an interesting interdisciplinary field, which combines biological insights with engineering and social theory. I encourage anyone who is interested in Darwinian natural selection, but is looking for a more applied subject to look into it as a potential research topic!

Julian Vincent is Professor of Biomimetics and Director of the Centre for Biomimetics and Natural Technologies within the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath.

Ben Picozzi

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