Generative Design

The future of CAD

Nature does not design

with 10 comments

Despite the significant interest we have in nature as a source of design inspiration, we do not adopt  her design methods, except for  genetic algorithm, developed by John Holland in 1975. This however is  an  optimization method and not a design method. Her design solutions however, have begun to inspire the design of new products through the emerging field of bio-mimicry. But these are based her vast repertoire of design solutions and not based her design methods.

Even though nature’s design processes are now known –  they remain purely as a source of inspiration. Why then are her methods of no practical use to designers? I am beginning to suspect some fundamental problems.  Here are some of them :

Natures has no intentions

Design seems to be by definition a human driven process. Humans have intentions. Nature does not. God on the other hand may have intentions, but if he cared about nature he would not have created us.  The book the “Selfish Gene” (published 30 years ago) illustrates the claim that it is not life forms but bits of code that compete for self replication – which could then be seen to be the only intention  if there was any. So nature is into code play.  Disturbingly, nature’s design processes seem autonomous and direction less, and worse it is driven entirely by the selfish propagational interest of bits of code – that hitch hike on living forms.

This model of autonomous and mutually dependent conglomerate of code competing with each other to propagate seems to be an impractical and uninspiring model for designers to adopt. More depressing is the fact that the resulting biomass that we so admire is only a packaging for the all important the bits of code to  propagate itself. Once the packaging is gone past its usefulness and makes errors in replicating the code, it is dully discarded (suffering death) while the code moves on to younger packages that can do a better job at replication and propagation.  The deviousness of this strategy is nauseating. Our body bags are nothing but code replication devises. Whats even more annoying is the fact that the intentions of these bits of code seem to be independent of the bodies that carry it. A good part of design history remains in great awe of this package and it is hard to think that the very brain with which we understand this i,s just a small part of this package. I am not sure if we will every come to terms with this.

It is only recently we have come to learn its part in the greater scheme of things. Biologist have begun to see life forms as a less important byproduct of natures obsessive code play. I sometimes wonder for what end is this play ? Perhaps it is this code play that we mistake for life. There seems to be only one motivation for this code play –  more code play.

Nature does not “design”

The word design was first used in the 17th century to differentiate human creational efforts from divine creations. The word, therefore, is used to signify a human activity driven by human intentions. Design is also an activity that precedes fabrication. Nature does not have this contemplative step. It fabricates without contemplation with no understanding of the outcome. Not only that, each cell does not know what the other cell has in store. Despite that, it builds with impressive coordination according to pre-orchestrated schemes – that we may be tempted to call design. But design in nature is entirely through the modification of processes. We cannot call nature’s process “design”, because it is a “build and see ” approch and according to Dawkins – a blind one ( worth reading the The blind Watchmaker)

 Bits of code and populations

Life forms are built out of collections of code. Some of this code is shared by other life forms. New life forms are created by new combinations of codes. Hence the core design process – operates at a gene level and not at an organism level. Nature in its wisdom has no concept of life forms – except as facilities for the propagation of genes. In that too, it seems to work at a population level and not at an organism level. Nature’s solutions for a biological proposition should be seen as a population of propositions, rather than a singular solution.  The concept of “ideal design” seems to be alien to it. It seems to value diversity.

Life is a design contest

Nature, on the other hand, is rigorous in its evaluation of designs. It tests them against the cruelty of life, in competitions for food mates and survival. Organisms have to pass a series of tests. Could these tests be considered as a replacement for design intentions? In the case of mammals, this could be a combination of growth, survival, reproductive success and in the case of plants, growth and survival and propagation. They seem to be more like a series of filters through which the collections of genes need to swim rather than a pre-set direction. We can observe that in every one of these aspects, a wide range of strategies that bring about success. So it can be argued that intentions are absent other than continual reproductive success; continual because they need to keep passing the  life test. Life forms seem to enjoy great freedom in developing their own strategies and solutions. The biomass – that we call life happens to be of admirable design quality. So design in nature is about the continuous reshuffling and introduction of new types of code that makes the bodies that carry it to replicate the same.

So,  Nature is clearly doing something else

Should we not stop calling it design ?


Written by Sivam Krish

February 20, 2012 at 6:40 am

10 Responses

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  1. Hi Sivam,

    I agree – nature does indeed not design; she has no aim – she just evolves and is. Nature as designer is an unsound concept best left for creationists and the esoteric realm.

    Andreas Hopf

    February 21, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    • Hmmm…while she does not design, her mechanisms of creation can be tricked. Dog breeders do it.Perhaps we can do it too ?

      Sivam Krish

      February 22, 2012 at 3:11 am

  2. Hi Sivam,

    well, if we “trick” nature, we humans – with our aims, goals and purposes – enter the back door once again, right? Of course, one could argue that of course we’re part of nature, too. But then, we’re back to Paul Feyerabend’s “anything goes” or, as I’d say “can-do-ism”, aren’t we? At the end of the day, it does not matter where the boundary is drawn, as long as with what we do we expand our creativity, our expressivity, our design quality, no?

    Andreas Hopf

    February 22, 2012 at 6:32 am

    • Don;t we humans have a great track record in abusing nature ?

      Sivam Krish

      February 22, 2012 at 6:40 am

      • We have a top-tier track record abusing anything we can get our hands on, actually 😉

        but, in principle, a romantic notion of nature is very blinkered and misleading. the same goes for the ongoing discussion regarding technology. david nye has written a good book on the latter issue.

        Andreas Hopf

        February 22, 2012 at 8:02 am

  3. Prof. von Bülow discusses “Aspects of Design” in his book Genetically Engineered Architecture: design exploration with evolutionary computation.He sates that it is “generally agreed that design activity is purposeful, goal oriented and creative”

    Natures process seem to fall well outside this category.

    Sivam Krish

    April 3, 2012 at 12:07 pm

  4. hello sivam!
    i am a regular follower of your blog and i have a question. what you have preached like dawkins or frazer essentially is that nature designs without intentions. but in your reply on an industrial design blog* you said that nature has very specific intentions and those are to pass genes. i mean, i am a bit confused. isn’t that a cyclic argument like ‘there is an intent of working without intention when there is no intention’. i would really appreciate your response.



    March 14, 2013 at 6:40 am

    • You are referring to a discussion in 2005 ? Perhaps I would state it differently now. Nature works by passing on the genes of successful designs. Its part of the mechanics of the process. The organisms with certain genes are then more likely to propagate those genes if they are “successful” in a series of things that make it essential for its propagation, but it is still without intent. Evolution just happens in nature – but we look at thoruhg the lenses of design, which is fundamentally inappropriate, because “design” need to have intention.

      Sivam Krish

      April 18, 2013 at 11:37 pm

      • How about animals like beaver making dams and bird nests?Intent? Or the intent of biomass to live


        March 16, 2018 at 10:14 am

      • If an creature builds, then design intent may be baked into its genes e.g termites, but it may also invovle some learnt behaviour. You may also notice a feedback loop. If this does not work do this. Some of these intents are like programmed patterns.

        Sivam Krish

        March 16, 2018 at 11:07 am

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