Who Did It First?
1. What did a biologist say about human inventors?
“I HAVE the suspicion,” one biologist said, “that we’re not the innovators we think we are; we’re merely the repeaters.”1 Many times, human inventors only repeat what plants and animals have been doing for thousands of years. This copying from living things is so prevalent that it has been given its own name—bionics.
2. What comparison did another scientist make between human technology and that of nature?
2 Another scientist says that practically all the fundamental areas of human technology “have been opened up and utilized to advantage by living things . . . before the human mind learned to understand and master their functions.” Interestingly, he adds: “In many areas, human technology is still lagging far behind nature.”2
3. What questions should be kept in mind as examples of bionics are considered?
3 As you reflect on these complex abilities of living creatures that human inventors have attempted to copy, does it seem reasonable to believe that they happened by chance alone? And happened, not just once, but many times in unrelated creatures? Are these not the kind of intricate designs that experience teaches can only be the product of a brilliant designer? Do you really think that chance alone could create what it later took gifted men to copy? Bear in mind such questions as you consider the following examples:
4. (a) How do termites cool their homes? (b) What question are scientists unable to answer?
4 AIR CONDITIONING. Modern technology cools many homes. But long before, termites also cooled theirs, and they still do. Their nest is in the center of a large mound. From it, warm air rises into a network of air ducts near the surface. There stale air diffuses out the porous sides, and fresh cool air seeps in and descends into an air chamber at the bottom of the mound. From there it circulates into the nest. Some mounds have openings at the bottom where fresh air comes in, and in hot weather, water brought up from underground evaporates, thus cooling the air. How do millions of blind workers coordinate their efforts to build such ingeniously designed structures? Biologist Lewis Thomas answers: “The plain fact that they exhibit something like a collective intelligence is a mystery.”3
5-8. What have airplane designers learned from wings of birds?
5 AIRPLANES. The design of airplane wings has benefited over the years from the study of the wings of birds. The curvature of the bird’s wing gives the lift needed to overcome the downward pull of gravity. But when the wing is tilted up too much, there is the danger of stalling. To avoid a stall, the bird has on the leading edges of its wings rows, or flaps, of feathers that pop up as wing tilt increases (1, 2). These flaps maintain lift by keeping the main airstream from separating from the wing surface.
6 Still another feature for controlling turbulence and preventing “stalling out” is the alula (3), a small bunch of feathers that the bird can raise up like a thumb.
7 At the tips of the wings of both birds and airplanes, eddies form and they produce drag. Birds minimize this in two ways. Some, like swifts and albatross, have long, slender wings with small tips, and this design eliminates most of the eddies. Others, like big hawks and vultures, have broad wings that would make big eddies, but this is avoided when the birds spread out, like fingers, the pinions at the ends of their wings. This changes these blunt ends into several narrow tips that reduce eddies and drag (4).
8 Airplane designers have adopted many of these features. The curvature of wings gives lift. Various flaps and projections serve to control airflow or to act as braking devices. Some small planes lessen wing-tip drag by the mounting of flat plates at right angles to the wing surface. Airplane wings, however, still fall short of the engineering marvels found in the wings of birds.
9. What animals and plants preceded man in the use of antifreeze, and how effective is it?
9 ANTIFREEZE. Humans use glycol in car radiators as antifreeze. But certain microscopic plants use chemically similar glycerol to keep from freezing in Antarctic lakes. It is also found in insects that survive in temperatures of 4 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. There are fish that produce their own antifreeze, enabling them to live in the frigid waters of Antarctica. Some trees survive temperatures of 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit because they contain “very pure water, without dust or dirt particles upon which ice crystals can form.”4
10. How do certain water beetles make and use underwater breathing devices?
10 UNDERWATER BREATHING. People strap tanks of air to their backs and remain under water for up to an hour. Certain water beetles do it more simply and stay under longer. They grab a bubble of air and submerge. The bubble serves as a lung. It takes carbon dioxide from the beetle and diffuses it into the water, and takes oxygen dissolved in the water for the beetle to use.
11. How extensive are biological clocks in nature, and what are some examples?
11 CLOCKS. Long before people used sundials, clocks in living organisms were keeping accurate time. When the tide is out microscopic plants called diatoms come to the surface of wet beach sand. When the tide comes in the diatoms go down into the sand again. Yet in sand in the laboratory, without any tidal ebb and flow, their clocks still make them come up and go down in time with the tides. Fiddler crabs turn a darker color and come out during low tide, turn pale and retreat to their burrows during high tide. In the laboratory away from the ocean, they still keep time with the changing tide, turning dark and light as the tide ebbs and flows. Birds can navigate by sun and stars, which change position as time passes. They must have internal clocks to compensate for these changes. (Jeremiah 8:7) From microscopic plants to people, millions of internal clocks are ticking away.
12. When did men start using crude compasses, but how were they in use long before this?
12 COMPASSES. About the 13th century C.E. men began to use a magnetic needle floating in a bowl of water—a crude compass. But it was nothing new. Bacteria contain strings of magnetite particles just the right size to make a compass. These guide them to their preferred environments. Magnetite has been found in many other organisms —birds, bees, butterflies, dolphins, mollusks and others. Experiments indicate that homing pigeons can return home by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. It is now generally accepted that one of the ways migrating birds find their way is by the magnetic compasses in their heads.
13. (a) How are mangroves able to live in salt water? (b) What animals can drink seawater, and how so?
13 DESALINATION. Men build huge factories to remove salt from seawater. Mangrove trees have roots that suck up seawater, but filter it through membranes that remove the salt. One species of mangrove, Avicennia, using glands on the underside of its leaves, gets rid of the excess salt. Sea birds, such as gulls, pelicans, cormorants, albatross and petrels, drink seawater and by means of glands in their heads remove the excess salt that gets into their blood. Also penguins, sea turtles and sea iguanas drink salt water, removing the excess salt.
14. What are some examples of creatures that generate electricity?
14 ELECTRICITY. Some 500 varieties of electric fish have batteries. The African catfish can produce 350 volts. The giant electric ray of the North Atlantic puts out 50-ampere pulses of 60 volts. Shocks from the South American electric eel have been measured as high as 886 volts. “Eleven different families of fishes are known to include species with electrical organs,” a chemist says.5
15. Animals conduct what various farming activities?
15 FARMING. For ages men have tilled the soil and tended livestock. But long before that, leaf-cutting ants were gardeners. For food they grew fungi in a compost they had made from leaves and their droppings. Some ants keep aphids as livestock, milk sugary honeydew from them and even build barns to shelter them. Harvester ants store seeds in underground granaries. (Proverbs 6:6-8) A beetle prunes mimosa trees. Pikas and marmots cut, cure and store hay.
16. (a) How do sea turtles, some birds and alligators incubate their eggs? (b) Why is the male mallee bird’s job a most challenging one, and how does he do it?
16 INCUBATORS. Man makes incubators to hatch eggs, but in this he is a latecomer. Sea turtles and some birds lay their eggs in the warm sand for incubation. Other birds will lay their eggs in the warm ashes of volcanoes for hatching. Sometimes alligators will cover their eggs with decaying vegetable matter to produce heat. But in this the male mallee bird is the expert. He digs a big hole, fills it with vegetable matter and covers it with sand. The fermenting vegetation heats the mound, the female mallee bird lays an egg in it weekly for up to six months, and all that time the male checks the temperature by sticking his beak into the mound. By adding or removing sand, even in weather from below freezing to very hot, he keeps his incubator at 92 degrees Fahrenheit.
17. How do the octopus and the squid use jet propulsion, and what unrelated animals also use it?
17 JET PROPULSION. Today when you fly in a plane you are probably being jet-propelled. Many animals are also jet-propelled and have been for millenniums. Both the octopus and the squid excel in this. They suck water into a special chamber and then, with powerful muscles, expel it, shooting themselves forward. Also using jet propulsion: the chambered nautilus, scallops, jellyfish, dragonfly larvae and even some oceanic plankton.
18. What are some of the many plants and animals that have lights, and in what way are their lights more efficient than man’s?
18 LIGHTING. Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the light bulb. But it is not too efficient, as it loses energy in the form of heat. Fireflies do better as they flash their lights on and off. They produce cold light that loses no energy. Many sponges, fungi, bacteria and worms glow brightly. One, called the railroad worm, is like a miniature train moving along with its red “headlight” and 11 white or pale green pairs of “windows.” Many fish have lights: flashlight fish, anglerfish, lantern fish, viperfish and constellation fish, to name a few. Microorganisms in the ocean surf light up and sparkle by the millions.
19. Who made paper long before man, and how does one papermaker insulate its home?
19 PAPER. Egyptians made it thousands of years ago. Even so, they were far behind wasps, yellow jackets and hornets. These winged workers chew up weathered wood, producing a gray paper to make their nests. Hornets hang their large round nests from a tree. The outer covering is many layers of tough paper, separated by dead-air spaces. This insulates the nest from heat and cold as effectively as would a brick wall 16 inches thick.
20. How does one type of bacterium move about, and how have scientists reacted to this?
20 ROTARY ENGINE. Microscopic bacteria preceded man by thousands of years in making a rotary engine. One bacterium has hairlike extensions twisted together to form a stiff spiral, like a corkscrew. It spins this corkscrew around like the propeller of a ship and drives itself forward. It can even reverse its engine! But how it works is not completely understood. One report claims that the bacterium can attain speeds equivalent to 30 miles an hour, and it says that “nature had, in effect, invented the wheel.”6 A researcher concludes: “One of the most fantastic concepts in biology has come true: Nature has indeed produced a rotary engine, complete with coupling, rotating axle, bearings, and rotating power transmission.”7
21. How do several animals, completely unrelated, use sonar?
21 SONAR. The sonar of bats and dolphins surpasses man’s copy of it. In a darkened room with fine wires strung across it, bats fly about and never touch the wires. Their supersonic sound signals bounce off these objects and return to the bats, who then make use of echolocation to avoid them. Porpoises and whales do the same thing in water. Oilbirds use echolocation as they enter and leave the dark caves they roost in, making sharp clicking sounds to guide them.
22. How does the principle of ballast that is used in submarines work in several different, unrelated animals?
22 SUBMARINES. Many submarines existed before men invented them. Microscopic radiolarians have oil droplets in their protoplasm by which they regulate their weight and thereby move up or down in the ocean. Fish diffuse gas in to or out of their swim bladders, altering their buoyancy. Inside its shell, the chambered nautilus has chambers or flotation tanks. By altering the proportions of water and gas in these tanks, it regulates its depth. The cuttlebone (the calcified internal shell) of the cuttlefish is filled with cavities. To control buoyancy, this octopuslike creature pumps water out of its skeleton and allows gas to fill the emptied cavity. Thus the cavities of the cuttlebone function just like water tanks in a submarine.
23. What animals use heat-sensing organs, and how accurate are they?
23 THERMOMETERS. From the 17th century onward men have developed thermometers, but they are crude compared to some found in nature. A mosquito’s antennae can sense a change of 1/300 degree Fahrenheit. A rattlesnake has pits on the sides of its head with which it can sense a change of 1/600 degree Fahrenheit. A boa constrictor responds in 35 milliseconds to a heat change of a fraction of a degree. The beaks of the mallee bird and the brush turkey can tell temperature to within one degree Fahrenheit.
24. What expression do these examples remind us of?
24 All this copying from animals by humans is reminiscent of what the Bible suggests: “Ask the very beasts, and they will teach you; ask the wild birds—they will tell you; crawling creatures will instruct you, fish in the sea will inform you.”—Job 12:7, 8, Moffatt.
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Copying from living things is so prevalent that it has been given its own name
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Nest cooled by evaporation
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Cross section of chambered nautilus