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Book Review: The Design in Nature

Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization

by Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane

Doubleday, 2012

A growing consensus inside and outside the scientific community is beginning to think people are going to be studying Adrian Bejan’s books (this latest one was co-written with J. Peder Zane) in a century, or two centuries, or as long as they’re studying Galileo and Newton and Einstein. Reading his work, pondering it long after you’ve shut the book (or shut the book off, if you’re part of the e-reading world), sometimes yields the feeling that an elemental paradigm-shift is being born, that underlying assumptions about the physical world that have been held since Aristotle are on the verge of giving way to entirely new understandings.

It’s easy to get this impression when reading Bejan’s latest, Design in Nature – not only because of the incredible, thought-provoking ideas it contains, but also because it’s so embarrassingly obvious Bejan himself wouldn’t mind if you lumped him in with those one-name giants of science. He does it so often himself in these pages. Darwin is mentioned in the affectionate tones we reserve for bumbling junior colleagues; Leonardo da Vinci might have amounted to something, but he “just didn’t take things far enough,” and so on. It would be grating if it didn’t stand such a good chance of being at least partially justified.

Bejan is a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, and in 1996 he came to realize “in a flash” that a hitherto unarticulated law of physics was at work in the universe. On a flight “high above the Atlantic”(the book is likewise full of such blinding-light-on-the-road-to-Damascus romantics) Bejan takes out his notebook and writes (inscribes?) this new law, what would become known as the Contructal Theory: “For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it.”

In Bejan’s new theory – which has since enjoyed a nerdy frenzy of academic scrutiny, debate, and increasingly widespread acceptance – the second law of thermodynamics is taken out on a Friday night and gotten so wildly drunk that it stands on a parking embankment and howls out that line from Titanic, “I’m the King of the World!” For Behan, all the implications of the second law’s determination that heat will always flow from a greater concentration into any available sink of lesser concentration (and never the reverse) are simply too profound to leave in the small print at the bottom of the page. In the process of that flow of energy, he sees a new universe of possibilities. That flow isn’t only mandatory, Bejan states (and he states it and illustrates it in this book better than ever before, perhaps due to Zane’s help), it’s also universal, predictable, and revelatory. That flow of greater concentration to lesser – note how his wording of his law doesn’t need to specify which currents we’re talking about – is not only the governing activity of all life, it’s the governing definition of all life. Life is flow, and everything that flows – from trees to lightning bolts to lava flows to, yes, Facebook feeds – is alive.

The brilliance of Bejan’s thinking is its elasticity. He sees the universe in reassuringly Manichean terms: there is everywhere, inherent in creation, forces of resistance, and the hallmark of all life is the movement to overcome those forces, and to continuously evolve more efficient ways to overcome those forces. The innate tendency of some ‘finite-sized’ systems to come up with new and better ways to overcome resistance is, in Bejan’s terms, the best way to describe the whole drama of life:

This is the natural phenomenon covered by the construcal law: the generation, ceaseless morphing, and improvement of flow design. This mental viewing enables us to recognize that people, birds, and other animals are flow systems that carry mass on the surface of the globe; that trees and mud cracks are flow systems for moving water from the ground to the air; that universities, newspapers, and books are flow systems for spreading knowledge across the globe. All generate designs that should evolve to better facilitate the flow of these currents. This insight allows us to recognize pattern in phenomena long dismissed as accident.

Those better-designed flow-systems can be highly complex (electrical discharge, wave displacement, neurons firing, etc), but despite his book’s perhaps accidentally provocative title, Bejan is quick to stress that “complexity is a result, not an objective.” His envisions a universe filled to overflowing with designs – but with no designer to speak of:

Of course, there is not conscious intelligence behind these patterns, no Divine Architect churning out brilliant blueprints. To preempt any confusion, let me make this perfectly clear: The constructal law is not headed toward a creationist argument, and in no way does it support the claims of those who promulgate the fantasy of intelligent design. Anyone who takes excerpts from this book to suggest that I am arguing for a spiritual sense of “designedness” is engaging in an intentional act of dishonesty.

Once our author has made this sharply, defiantly clear, he’s free to write, one slim paragraph later: “How come? What causes the constructal law? The short answer: We don’t know.” To which several billion religious fundamentalists in the world will respond: “a single law that seems to govern not only all the working, moving systems of the universe but seems to do so according to one identical – and very pleasing – aesthetic? We have a name for that. We’ve always had a name for that.” They won’t even be guilty of intentional dishonesty, since they won’t be claiming Bejan‘s doing the arguing – they’ll just hijack his argument and use it themselves. I’ve met seminary students well-versed in doing just that. Call it a natural flow of the idea.

Bejan doesn’t do himself any favors on this score, often adopting a vaguely messianic tone that might give even a hardened Anglican religious notions (“You, dear reader, are in on the cutting edge of an emerging idea that has only just started to flow on the globe, and into books”)(You keep expecting Bejan to blurt out, “Tell me, dear reader, who do the people in Durham say that I am?”). But that whole hijacking is a shame, because it distracts from the central amazement of Bejan’s ideas. Those ideas really are epochal – they deserve better than to become a punch line for Bill Maher. “It is not love or money that makes the world go round,” our author tells us, “but flow and design.”

The book is joltingly eye-opening. If even half the broader ramifications of Bejan’s new law are true, humans will need to re-think virtually everything they know about almost everything, from the structure of evolution to the meaning of life itself:

When we speak of rivers and animals evolving to increase flow access, we are describing very gradual changes. But when lava generates design, droplets of liquid splash and splat, lightning bolts crackle in the summer heat, and snowflakes form against the winter sky, we are witnessing evolution right before our eyes.

It may be that only half those ramifications are true, of course. Bejan’s law is entirely too flexible for its own good, and he himself is problematically unwilling to see any validity in the centuries-old distinctions between things that are alive and things that in some ways mimic life. He’s likewise a bit too generous about the novelty of what he’s proposing – allometric studies have been around for well over a century, after all, and just because their original expounders couldn’t make Twitter analogies doesn’t mean they were blind, deaf, and dumb.

But even half a quiver-full of reality-redefining propositions is still a lot, and as Bejan refines his thinking in book after book and paper after paper, the more compelling that thinking becomes. Every year brings him closer to one-name territory, and there seems little doubt that by the time he gets there, he’ll belong there. In the meantime, Design in Nature provides the happy occasion for that rarest of critical exhortations: every intelligent person on Earth should read this book.