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October 01, 2016 Saturday 06:23:23 PM IST

Follow in the Footsteps of Nature

Creative Living

The word imitation is derived from the Latin root imitatio, meaning “emulation” or “act of copying”. Imitation is a unique skill of a person, to closely observe and replicate another’s behaviour, an important element of socialization. It lies at the root of emerging traditions and developing cultures, facilitating transmission of Information, insights and inspirations through a lineage of individuals for generations without ever requiring any genetic bond to govern it, transcending the limitations of blood relations.

To imitate is natural to human beings, being governed by the activities of the mirror neurons system in the frontal cortex of their brains, as the current research suggests. These neurons enable a person to keenly observe and reproduce the actions of others per se. It has been observed that the same neurons are fired when one performs a goal-directed activity or when one observes others performing such action. Mirror neurons also account for the sympathy or empathy one feels for the other and is the a priori reason for humans to be a social animal. Social inadequacies of autism, for example, are reported to be due to the reduced activity of mirror neurons.

A child takes baby steps into the learning process by imitating the walks of its parents. Parenting thus assumes importance in social coexistence of humans. As Aristotle infers, there is natural pleasure in imitation, which is an in-born instinct for humans. It is this pleasure in imitation that drives a child to learn the earliest lessons of life, like speech and earlier contacts to the world around it. It in turn equips the grown-ups to imitate Nature through pieces of art and gadgets of technology.


Imitation at this level must be equated to creation, since something original is derived from such artistic or technological endeavours. It acts as a springboard to novel ideas, helping one to innovate and to transcend the limitations set by the horizon. A fully-developed person is thus a fully original person at the same time, not a carbon copy of somebody else. For this reason, copying is considered a crime in the academic circles, be it cheating in an exam or plagiarism in research or unauthentic styles and strategies of the educational leadership. Imitation becomes an impediment to the personal growth and development beyond a certain level and intensity.


Art thrived on imitation, irrespective of controversies surrounding the relation between art and imitation. A short history of art will reveal a dialectic relation between them. Plato (Greek philosopher of 4th century BC), for example, took a controversial position in this regard, inspired by the dualistic philosophy he subscribed to. He recommended banishing of poets and artists from his Republic due to their inherent tendency to mimesis (the Greek root for “to imitate”). According to Plato, the universals (Truth) exist independently of particulars in the world of ideas, which are imitated by the particular reality. Hence imitations of reality have to be considered as twice removed from the Truth and hence repugnant. Hence he advised promotion of philosophers and demotion of artists in the Republic.


However, for Aristotle, the immediate disciple of Plato, art is not twice removed from Truth, rather it is an indicator of new aspects of reality, which remain a mystery which is never fully understood or appreciated. Art unmasks the hidden faces of the reality and unravels further aspects of the Truth. On this count, art is on a par with philosophy, the love of wisdom and the search for truth.

A good poem is trans-historical or a historical, in that it pleases everybody of every generation, transcending space and time. According to Plato poetry makes people weaker and emotional making them too sentimental. But, for Aristotle, poetry and drama (especially Tragedies) engender catharsis, ennobling the perceivers and developing their humility for good.


According to the theory of Imitatio by Greek philosopher Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1st century B C), the creative process results from imitation of the masterpieces of previous authors. This concept of art dominated till the middle of the 18th century, when Romanticist theories repudiated it. Romanticists made originality, and not imitation, as the cornerstone of artistic creation.


Romant icism was crowned in the Modern Period, which w a s characterized by radically progressive thinking, praise for technical advances, and exaltation of the Western hegemony. Such emphasis of originality was short- lived, soon replaced by the Postmodern Era, which promoted subaltern cultural mores, integrating them to the mainstream culture and thus reestablishing the importance of imitation in art.

Postmodernity promoted the artists to sublimate their assumptions, prejudices, and cultural stratifications and to embrace the contradictions, irony, and profusion of pop and mass culture.


The history of technology is, however, equivocal about the importance of imitating realities of the nature. It always appreciated the significance of optimization due to evolutionary forces, which is in gang in the nature for millennia altogether.


The survival instinct of the species set the evolutionary process within species into motion, which directed towards their sustainable existence on the earth, where only the fittest could survive. Here the fittest signifies the best-optimized and the best-adapted which alone survived the travails of existence. Hence it is not surprising that that designers, architects and engineers took cues from Nature when they set out to create something novel.


There exist large volumes of examples that bear witness to the technologists emulating the footprints left by nature in its evolutionary engineering process. Bio-inspired designs are abundant in technology, be it the climbing pads capable of supporting a human’s weight, inspired by geckos or the Tree houses inspired by the Baobab tree, or the backpack inspired by armadillo, or lifesaving robots inspired by spider, or the heliotropes that follow the movement of the sun inspired by the sunflower or the tree-climbing robot inspired by the inch worm, or the high-heel shoes inspired by the bird skull, or prosthetic arm inspired by the tentacle.


Engineers have learned a lot from the humpback whales their amazing dexterity, irrespective of their massive shape and size, in the development of efficient turbines, from the termites their efficient engineering of sustainable habitats, from kingfishers their ability to break through boundaries little noise, from the prairies the resilient ways of food production, from mosquitoes the craft of creating excellent needles that prick with the minimum of fuss and pain, from dolphins the art of sending signals under water, from loons the engineering of internal desalination plants that convert the salt water they drink in winter at sea into safe drinking water, from the ant colony the faster and efficient communication within a computer, from the dog a nose to smell cancer out, from the cactus the efficient use of the spikes to stay cool in deserts, from human lungs to develop efficient sequester for greenhouse gases, from chimpanzees the skill of self-healing, from the chest bones to optimize strength and materials, from lotus plants to clean without cleaners, from shark skin to develop non-resistant swimsuits (which received a lot of media attention during the 2008 Summer Olympics when the spotlight was shining on Michael Phelps), from burr to develop efficient closures of Velcro straps, from the birds the efficient jet planes.


Further, the beautiful and recurring natural designs based on the Fibonacci sequence, Logarithmic Spirals and the Golden Ratio find repeated applications in the bio-inspired designs like silent flows, loss-free impellers, etc. that substantially cut the transmission losses.


These mathematical constructs are found to define the Path of the Least Resistance uniquely, not as a straight line, but rather as a spiral that logarithmically drops its radius.


A creative mind shall therefore keep a close watch on the walks of Nature, understand the laws governing them and emulate its footprints to be able to leapfrog large number of evolutionary steps to be able to create something radically new in art and technology.

Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran

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