Life from an outsider's perspective…

Book Review: “Cats’ Paws and Catapults; Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People”, by Steven Vogel.

cat’s paws and catapults - book review

This book contains numerous examples of design, from an engineering perspective. The theme is on comparing the design of evolution with that of technological invention. Although the book has almost precisely a 50% natural and 50% artificial split, you get the impression that the author is slightly biased in favour of technology.

Steven Vogel acknowledges they are different: nature abhors using straight lines, engineers love them; nature has not been able to employ metals, yet they are commonly used in our constructions. Although I for one would never be critical (as this guy sometimes is) of nature by saying that it never utilises metals or whatever. It doesn’t need to – it simply isn’t required. To favour an I-beam over a tree limb is foolish and misguided. Is a piece of metal or lump of concrete alive? Certainly not. The astonishing feature of nature is that it manages to evolve these things, that are inherently living entities, which can grow and replicate themselves with no awareness or foresight!

So the trouble with this book is that it doesn’t address the fact that a tree does way more than just support itself: a tree is not merely a vertical structure; it is an extremely complex photosynthesis machine. It is self-powered AND self-generating. It would take a tremendous amount of technology to create a very minuscule and seemingly simple creature such as an amoeba, let alone an extremely complex multicellular organism such as a hummingbird or a dragonfly – currently, it is totally impossible. Yet nature does it spontaneously for free and that is some accomplishment.

There are many obvious observations in the book, and in places it can be a little dull. I really don’t think there are many people who will thoroughly enjoy this book. Either you’ll be the type of person who prefers natural evolution, or you’ll prefer technological invention, and so either way half of the book will not be very appealing.

A similar book is called “Diatoms to Dinosaurs”. I think that book is a much more interesting read – it is predominantly concerned with nature, not with technology, and some of the examples are just so much more alluring/enticing/intriguing.

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