Photo credit: Kellar Autumn
Kellar Autumn, Professor of Biology at Lewis & Clark College, is best known for his discovery of the mechanism of adhesion of geckos. He is the leader of the Gecko Team, a collaboration between L&C, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and UCSB. His research focuses on the mechanisms and evolution of animal locomotion, and on developing biologically inspired materials and machines.
In 2005, Kellar’s lab discovered that gecko setae are the first self-cleaning adhesive known to science. Why might anyone care? Because the gecko adhesive system is perhaps the first truly smart adhesive, which means gecko-inspired smart adhesives may revolutionize adhesives and assembly techniques. In the design world, this matters.
Geckos can run up smooth vertical surfaces. Kellar and his colleagues discovered how they can do that by measuring the tiny forces involved—which led them to design a new type of adhesive that is self cleaning and can function in the vacuum of outer space.
His work has been featured on every major television network and in hundreds of newspaper, magazine, and Internet articles worldwide.
Photo credit: Dr. Ken Ryan
We were fortunate to have Kellar come share his insights about bio-inspired design at Herman Miller. Here is an excerpt from his talk:
As a scientist, I’m motivated to understand what the fundamental principles are of a system. We model the system well enough so we can generate hypotheses. Then we go into the lab and try to prove ourselves wrong at every opportunity. It’s the classic scientific method. What we’re left with after plowing through 10 years’ worth of experiments is a theoretical framework, and if you want to call that design, that would be okay with me.
You could say we’ve been thinking about design for a very long time. It goes back to Plato and Aristotle. Plato saw the world in terms of ideals that were unchangeable. Aristotle saw things in terms of function, a means to an end. As the science of biology developed, so did fights between biologists over how they saw the world working. This was all before Darwin, so it wasn’t just biology, it was also tied up with religion.
The arguments came to a head in the 1830 debate between Étienne Geoffroy Saint Hillaire and Baron Cuvier at the University of Paris. Cuvier argued function explains the world, and organisms should be classified based on it. Geoffroy countered that there are rules of design, and they govern everything. But neither view could explain why organisms seem to be designed yet often the designs aren’t very good or don’t make sense. Later, Darwin resolved the dilemma by saying common ancestry explains the rules, and natural selection explains how organisms get tuned to fit the environment.
Even today, design is one of the most contentious, controversial issues in biology. People want the world to make sense, and when it doesn’t, it’s a struggle.
Biological inspiration for engineering design isn’t going to be successful by looking for simple answers. I call that bio-marketing—taking a design, putting biomimicry on it, and then saying, “This was biologically inspired, so you should buy it.” If that’s what you want to do, that’s okay, but I’m not going to be part of it. I’m a scientist trying to do real bio-inspired design.
Genrich Altshuller, the developer of TRIZ (an acronym of a Russian phrase that means “the theory of inventive problem solving”), said, “In nature, there are lots of hidden patents.” I think what he was getting at was that biological systems arrive at solutions that are unpredictable and, in some cases, unimaginable to us until we see them.
Geckos have solved the problem of sticking to things in a completely different way than engineers solve this. I just don’t think we would have thought about it unless geckos had evolved first. I think of biodiversity as a huge design library. There are millions of species, each with different solutions to life’s problems, with secrets that are waiting for us to discover them. But the scary thing is that extinction is taking these books off the shelves and burning them faster than we can open them and read them. Even if all we care about is engineering design, we need to slow the rate of extinction.