The twig girdler is a species of beetle that lives in Texas and Northeast Mexico. When the female is ready to lay her eggs, she finds a mimosa tree, crawls onto a branch, chews a slit into it, and lays her eggs. But her larvae can’t survive in live wood, so then she backs down towards the trunk, chews a groove around the branch, and the branch falls off. She then flies away and a few weeks later, her eggs are hatched and her larvae feed on the dead wood of the branch. What’s most amazing is this: a mimosa tree, unpruned, will live for about 25 years. A mimosa tree, pruned by twig girdlers, can live for over 100 years.
How this complex, beautiful relationship came to be is one of the mysteries of evolutionary biology. The odds of getting to it just from random mutation and natural selection are slim.
But we don’t need to understand the mechanism to characterize the effect. The effect is as if the beetle has some intuitive sense of the world around her, as if the beetle and the mimosa tree are connected, as if they both exist with the unique purpose of helping one another by offering to one another life-affirming gifts.
We see this again and again in nature. It is as if everything in nature acts out of the properties of the heart.
It’s OK that we don’t yet understand the mechanism. I’m reminded of something that Feynman said about quantum physics: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. So do not take this lecture too seriously, but just relax and enjoy it. I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will get down the drain, into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.”
I make this point because I want to draw a distinction between biomimicry -- which examines the mechanisms of nature and attempts to replicate its apparatus in technology — and the kind of technology that I’m proposing. The most powerful qualities of nature are those where we don’t yet understand the apparatus. We don’t fully understand nature’s wisdom, her purpose, her intuition, her connection. But we can mimic these qualities without understanding their mechanisms, because they parallel the qualities of the heart.
If we want to build technologies that follow nature, we will motivate them from the heart. Of course, we will use our heads to make them work. But our choice of the tools we build — and the attitude with which we build them -- will come from a place of gift and purpose and intuition and connection. In this respect, we will be artists as well as scientists.
In his 1974 Turing Award lecture, he said: “My feeling is that when we prepare a program, it can be like composing poetry or music. Furthermore, when we read other people’s programs, we can recognize some of them as genuine works of art. I can still remember the great thrill it was for me to read the listing of Stan Poley’s SOAP II assembly program in 1958; you probably think I’m crazy, but at the time it meant a great deal to me to see how elegant a system program could be. The possibility of writing beautiful programs, even in assembly language, is what got me hooked on programming in the first place.”
And Bill Joy, who built vi and BSD (both of which are still used some 30 years later), once wrote about how Michelangelo released statues from the stone, carving as if he were discovering the form rather than creating it.
“In my most ecstatic moments,” said Joy, “the software in the computer emerged in the same way … I felt that it was already there in the machine, waiting to be released. Staying up all night seemed a small price to pay to free it — to give the ideas concrete form.”