Could Biomimicry Help us Solve the Refugee Crisis?

Daniel Fraga
November 6th 2015

Millions of people are, in this very moment, in the midst of one of the biggest refugee crisis of the last several decades. The war in Syria and the unstable situation in the middle East is forcing masses of people into Europe, at a pace and scale that is causing incredible strife. Europe's ability to absorb an ever growing number of refugees (some data points to 1.5 million people in Germany alone) is put into question both by logistical issues - can these people be taken care of in a proper, humane way? As well as by ideological and political matters - do European nations have the obligation to deal with this problem by themselves? What does this entail?

This is one of the most politically charged issues of our days. It is a humanitarian issue, but it is also an issue pertaining to politics, demographics, economy, logistics and sociology. It is inextricably linked to the volatile and controversial issues of race, culture, religion and ideology. Issues like history, geopolitics, war and terrorism also come to mind when we consider the causes for this crisis. It is immoral, within humanistic, democratic and positivist societies, who value the individual human life so greatly, not to intervene and provide assistance to such a great number of people.

There is, however, a valuable resource that can offer some insight on how to deal with complex problems with multiple interconnected systems and chains of events. According to the Biomimicry Institute, "Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature's time-tested patterns and strategies." 

"Nature", however elusive of a term it may be (as we know very well here at the Next Nature Network), offers countless examples about how to optimally manage incredibly complex systems. From nutrients within an organism, to organisms within collectives, to populations within a territory and so on - nature offers models on how to deal with highly complex systems. Let's look at a few examples.

SLIME MOLD AND OPTIMIZED FLOW DISTRIBUTION

The old hermetic adage states that "As below, so above". To look at the small slime mold as a model for potential insights adheres to this age-old maxim, hopefully informing us - who are "above" - as how to face and solve this crisis.

Different kinds of eukaryotic organisms go by the name of "slime mold" (the most common being the Physarum polycephalum). Their life pattern is divided between a single-celled phase and a collective fase. As food becomes scarce, the single-celled slime molds, who feed on microorganisms in dead plants, usually begin to congregate in groups who visibly resemble a mold. After the food source is depleted, the slime mold collective disperses, only to restart this same cycle again later on.

Now, these groups are not one being in itself, but a highly organized social structure composed of millions of single-celled organisms. These are highly "intelligent" collectives, where flow of food and resources is optimized without the existence of a central hub of decision making nor of volition. These are emerging collectives, organized from the ground-up, and that have mastered the art of trial-and-error while searching for sources of food. The shape of the mold will change in order to pry its environment for food sources, and when one arm of the structure is successful in this pursuit, fruitless routes will be abandoned in favour of this new, profitable one. Experiments have been done where slime molds provide insight into the optimal structures of metro and road systems - by replicating them on a much smaller scale, optimally connecting and distributing different food sources.

Why would this be relevant to the refugee crisis? The optimal distribution of food in the aforementioned experiments with slime mold emulated the optimal distribution of people in metro and road systems all over the world. And in that sense, these microorganism collectives can also provide insight into the optimal distribution of immigrants and refugees throughout dangerous routes, occasionally closed borders and the varied morphology of European territories. In the same way as the above video shows, the travelling routes for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in Europe could become optimized - if this optimization has not emerged already - because of the way that collectives distribute information and informally organize to create efficient flow distribution.

Nonetheless, as simple, single celled organisms we could say that the slime mold offers little insight into the issues of borders and territory. In order to draw some insight from them, we would have to replicate, in artificial laboratory settings, the elusive concept of "borders". For that, let's now look at wolves.

BORDERS, WOLF PACKS AND TERRITORIAL MALES

Borders are not exclusive to humans. These abstract, invisible lines marking limits of territory are very common throughout nature. The European Gray Wolf, for example, is a highly territorial animal. A pack of wolves - the basic social unit - is composed of five to eleven animals on average, with an adult, monogamous mated pair; three to six juvenile offspring as well as one to three yearlings. The juvenile wolves generally stay within their natal pack until they are anywhere from 10 to 54 months old, dispersing afterword in order to form their own packs and seek new territories where prey may be found. Each pack has, in average 35 km2 of territory, and they defend their areas from other packs through a combination of scent marking, howling and direct attacks. When other wolves or even other packs have colliding territorial interests, violence generally ensues. Wolves do not adopt wolves from other groups into their own, unless they deem that they do not represent a threat in terms of reproduction. That's why, in the rare occasion that there are adopted,  they are usually immature animals (1 to 3 years old). The setting for such violent encounters is usually on the peripheries of the territories, close to what we could call "borders".

The war in Syria is on one of these so-called "borders" of the contemporary, geo-political world. The Middle-East is the place where, throughout history, cultures, religions and peoples have mingled and clashed. It is where the interests of the major players on the world stage enter in conflict with each other. The Syrian people rebelled to further liberate themselves, on the onset of the Arab Spring and the attempt of several Arab Countries to democratize their regimes - just like a group of younger wolves attacking the established powers of their mega-pack. The Assad regime, however, still enforced its power in trying to control the status quo; add to this fundamentalist groups like ISIS, which are yet another group of contenders for the Alpha Wolf status in that region of the world, and what we have is a conflict so serious that it has provoked the migration of many individuals to other areas where security, sustenance and prosperity are more available. Syria, as we so often hear nowadays, is a country without borders; the territories are under severe dispute between conflicting groups, and as such, very volatile and dangerous. Human disputes are different than wolf disputes, however. Not only are they about territory and resources, but they are also about power on the planes of culture and society.

When these migrants arrive to the notably prosperous and secure lands of Europe, they encounter borders on those same planes. Other "packs", those already established in Europe, boast an abundance of resources that (excluding the complexities of the economical system and its manifold fluctuations) support the arriving pack. Spatial organization is also well developed, to the point where territory, as a resource in itself, would not be an issue in the assimilation of these new packs. But the conflict exists, on the levels of culture and society. Assimilation of the arriving tribes is problematic because they represent a perceived threat to the European cultures and societies - as is the opinion of a great number of people.

Biologically, it is males who represent a threat to the reproductive rights and schemes of societies - and it is generally males (wolf and human) who compete for breeding rights. Women and children tend to not represent such a great challenge to established hierarchies. Perhaps, as in the wolf packs, there is some sort of biological resistance on the behalf of Europeans to assimilate a foreign group that is perceived to be mostly male.

THE CELL, BORDERS AND OSMOSIS

Getting back to the very small, let us now look at the cell. Cells also have borders, though they have a different way of functioning and a different relevance to the subject at hand. The "border" of a cell is more commonly called "cell wall". Not all cells have walls, and depending on species, the cell wall composition varies.

Now, in most cells, the wall is flexible, meaning that it will bend and adapt rather than take on a rigid form. Despite this, it has considerable tensile strength, meaning that because of its flexibility it does not break easily. The function of the cell wall is to provide structural support to the cell contents, as well as protection against mechanical stress and infection. It is essential for the definition of the cell, for without it, its contents would not be be able to be grouped nor work coherently as a unit.

An interesting distinction between cells in the natural world has to do with the distinction between Plant Cells and Animal Cells. Plant cells have chloroplasts, because they make their own food, animal cells do not. Plant cells have a cell wall and a cell membrane, whereas animal cells only have the cell membrane.

Osmosis is the movement of solvent molecules through a semipermeable membrane, into a region of high solute concentration, in a manner that tends to balance the solute concentration on the two sides (according to Wikipedia). In other words, osmosis is a phenomenon that tends to balances the concentration of a solution - between a cell and its environment, for example. So if you place a plant cell in a liquid solution that has a lesser concentration of solvents (like salts or minerals) what happens is that the cell will absorb some solution, so as to balance with its environment.

With animal cells, it is different. If you repeat this same experience, the animal cell will burst because it has no wall, and thus no means of regulating this balancing process. In the human body, it is the kidneys provide this necessary regulatory mechanism - so as to control the concentration of water and mineral salts in the blood. This is called Osmoregulation.

Let's bring this metaphor to the refugee crisis. Is a nation like a cell? Syria can very well be. As a nation whose borders became destroyed, its contents - the people - were no longer protected nor secure, and had to thus leave. The pressure over its borders was just simply too strong.

The Syrian cell burst, and its contents produced a huge flow of individuals fleeing the war. Of the surrounding "cells", it seems as if Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have rigid and impermeable walls - unlike organic, living matter, and more like the dead, inorganic plastic derived from their oil. Europe on the other hand is - slowly, and not without incredible strife for the refugees - absorbing this flow of stateless people.

And the fear of those who raise questions concerning this absorption may be related to what happens to animal cells when they absorb too much liquid from their surroundings - they burst. Without borders and without a way to regulate the absorption of these people, the very definition of European states may be at stake. At least in the context of this metaphor. Are the European states like plant cells, with borders which regulate and are able to balance the absorption of the flow of migrants and refugees? Or are they like animal cells, who burst under too much pressure? What kidneys - or regulatory mechanisms - are in place to help these people?

BIRD SEASONAL MIGRATION; ECOSYSTEM REGENERATION

All sorts of animals engage on seasonal migrations - even many humans. Let us look now at the example of migratory birds.

Food is one of the primary drivers for bird migration; on winters, many species of birds migrate from colder regions towards warmer ones, where the food supply does not vary so drastically; on summers, they fly north, where the days are longer and thus the feeding periods are extended, and breeding birds can better provide for their offspring. The seasonal presence of migrating birds on both their breeding and wintering locations makes them, in practice, a part of two ecosystems.

Humans of prosperous countries tend to partake on a seasonal form of long -distance migration - vacations, where they head to warmer places for leisure. But in this case, migration is driven by more fundamental issues: security and survival. A war-torn country, presently in serious armed conflict makes it so that it's inhabitants would want to leave for other places.

And in the same way that migrating birds are active and important members of two distinct ecosystems, we can look at the refugees as also bringing value to the European "ecossystem" - on a human and economic point of view. Europe is not only the "Old Continent", but also a continent getting old. Europeans are, in average, getting older, and the economy and the social states of European nations will eventually reflect that. Strain on national economies will increase due to the amount of elderly to provide services to, as well as due to the diminishing amount of working age people actually supporting the system. Migrants, like migrating birds, may bring value to the European "ecosystem" by helping it regenerate - at least on what concerns age demographics.

*

Each of these examples offers valuable insight on this crisis. The problem, however, is that this insight is partial. The refugee crisis is an issue that is part of a larger system, which is autonomous and volatile. This makes a global understanding of it extremely difficult - or simply impossible. Nature is a good model for how to deal with such complex issues. And this is still true; nature does organize an incredible amount of complexity. The Biosphere works in such an efficient and perfect way that we are bound to look at it in awe, looking for guidance - particularly in hard times. Nonetheless, we as humans, can't seem to be able to mimic the complexity of these life-systems that our planet employs. We are only able to do so only partially, piece by piece. The Biosphere, as life's operating system, is simply too intricate and complex.

There seems to be a limit to the useful application of Biomimicry as a tool for drawing insights; probably, that limit is the line between non-human and human nature. For when we try to use non-human nature (old nature) to solve our own, specific and particular problems, biomimicry can be useful. It's an easy correlation to draw. But when we try to solve problems pertaining to autonomous, emerging and volatile human systems, then we cannot look at old nature for guidance. Human systems (we) have invented a huge number of exclusively human variables, which find little parallel in nature. Next nature is different than old nature.

Ultimately, the collective interplay between these exclusively human variables creates such a complex network of relations that leaves us only one solution in order to solve all our crises: to create our own solutions in the midst of our new natures - to be inspired by old nature, then go Forward to Nature.

Sources: EtomicaWikipedia-Gray Wolf, Wikipedia-Cell Wall, Wikipedia-Osmosis, Wikipedia-Bird Migration, Wikipedia-Slime Mold

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