A review paper about cultural and political implications of Biomimetics

My another unusual article has been published in an open access journal.

Nosonovsky M. Cultural implications of biomimetics: changing the perception of living and non-living. MOJ Appl. Bionics Biomech. 2018;2(4):230‒236. http://medcraveonline.com/MOJABB/MOJABB-02-00072.pdf

I am cautious with open access journals, since many of these are of low quality. Of course, there are many high quality open-access journals, like PNAS, Scientific Reports, or Entropy. At the same time, many new journals, lacking an established reputation, emerge and invite you to publish with them. They are sometimes called “predatory publishers.” In particular, there are four or five new journals in biomimetics and bionics, which have emerged recently, and I routinely decline their invitations to contribute with the waiver of their open-access fee. However, when a new Journal of Biomimetics in Engineering sent me an invitation to submit to their special collection “Ethical, Normative, and Epistemological Considerations of Biomimetics,” I hesitated. I knew the journal editor as an expert in nanotribology. The special issue was edited by two little-known young researchers from Europe. The topic of implications of biomimetics to the history of culture and epistemology always interested me. I have knowledge of and an educational background in ancient Middle Eastern languages and cultures. However, I have almost never written in English about philosophy, culturology, or anthropology.

Finally, I decided to take the challenge and wrote this paper (which took me several days). First I reviewed, how “life” and “living” was defined in various cultures, from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia until today. After that, I reviewed modern cultural and ideological aspects of biomimetics: why it causes so much enthusiasm among the public across the political spectrum and how it relates to current modern and post-modern definitions of life.

I submitted my manuscript one day before the deadline, and it received the number JBE-17-0003, which indicated that there were not too many authors willing to be published in this new journal lacking impact factor and reputation. This was submission No. 0003 in the year 2017 when the new journal was launched. Despite that, a couple of months later, I received detailed reviews (several pages long) with so many comments and questions, as if I was submitting to Nature. The editors asked me for a revision. Many of these comments were useful, while some were strange or political.

For example, I discussed the attitudes towards biomimetics among both the left and the right. When talking about the latter, I mentioned the Intelligent Design movement. The anonymous reviewer stated:

“It is the first time that I read in a scientific journal about a connection of biomimetics to Intelligent Design and the Discovery Institute. I am hesitating to use so much space to discuss their ideas which are so far away from the objectives of biomimetics”.

Okey, but we are talking about cultural implications of biomimetics. Why do you want to conceal this connection? And “so much space” is about 10 lines.

Another comment:

“…there is already a voluminous body of work published on philosophies and histories of life generally and with regard to the emergence of biomimicry. Such work can be found in the fields of anthropology, history and philosophy of science, science and technology studies, and geography. Only two such papers by Henry Dicks are cited here. While more work is to be done in examining the rise of biomimicry as a paradigm shift in how life and technology are thought, this paper does not offer anything substantive to those debates or wider histories of science around the conception of life.”

But my paper already cites 53 references. I am not sure which “wider histories of science” this reviewer meant, or what does it have to do with geography. A qualified reviewer should say, which important work about cultural implications of biomimetics I did not cite, and why in his/her opinion it is relevant.

I spent several more days revising the manuscript per their request, and submitted a revised version along with a very detailed response to reviewers’ criticism. Surprisingly, finally it was rejected from the open access. This is unusual to reject a paper after you requested revisions, and all points raised by reviewers were addressed! A guest editor sent me a “new” review:

“The basic idea announced in the title and the abstract is very interesting: how biomimetics changes the perception of the living (and the non-living). The problem with the paper, however, is that this issue is not at all thoroughly explored. Instead, we are presented with a superficial overview of different conceptions of life in various different civilizations and epochs. An additional problem is the lack of attention to the secondary philosophical and theoretical literature on biomimetics; apart from some rather superficial references to the recent work of Dicks, there is almost nothing here. The result is a paper with a very “amateur” feel to it.”

Well, you better be careful calling “amateur” your colleagues who are cited by 150 times more than yourself (6000 vs. 40), when you are guest-editing a new open-access!

Another important observation presented in my paper, upon which reviewers did not react, is about Noam Chomsky citing a bizarre biological “universal genome” theory:

“Same ideas, which are viewed as pseudoscientific in the biological community, can be considered progressive among linguists and anthropologists. A bold example of that is the Chomskyan idea that language emerges instantly. This implies that all languages and races are similar (and equal), and that the anthropological binary oppositions are constructed, in line with the tenets of post- structuralism. However, it is interesting that in support of his ideas Chomsky would quote a paper by a religious biologist [50] hypothesizing that a universal genome of all multicellular organisms was created instantly:

‘…it is now possible to contemplate seriously the proposal that there must be a ‘Universal Genome that encodes all major developmental programs essential for various phyla of Metazoa’ that emerged at the time of the Cambrian explosion half a billion years ago (Sherman, 2007). From this perspective there is only a single multicellular animal from an appropriately abstract point of view. Observed variety would be superficial’ [51]”

The instant and spontaneous origin of complex systems is perhaps the key problem in the study of emergence. Chomsky is a founder of the post-structuralist (or “generativist” when in linguistics) paradigm, which became influential if not dominant in the humanities. This makes the connection remarkable. The relation of this paradigm with the biomimetics, which redefines the boundary between living and artificial, is worthwhile to think about.

After I had spent maybe a week of my time preparing and revising the article (in response to the invitation to contribute), what would I do? Of course, when I happened to receive another invitation to publish for free in a biomimetics open-access, I just sent the manuscript to another journal. This one is based in India, they are unbiased politically, and they reviewed and published it quickly. There are still some problems with typesetting oriental fonts (I use Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, and Ancient Egyptian in the paper), many of which should be written right-to-left, but it is perhaps unrealistic to expect perfection with these exotic fonts from a publisher who is not used to them.