Design in Nature, Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane

What a display of arrogance!

I picked up this new book prepared to be disappointed.  “A unifying principle of everything that changes through time (evolves)”!!  “A brand new scientific LAW”!!  With claims like these, surely there would be some acknowledged limitations or boundaries for application of this new theory.  Not at all. Instead of carefully ushering his supposedly unique idea into the mainstream of scientific and engineering thought, the authors use this book as a bludgeon to sell their “law”, making such grand claims and proclamations as to be ridiculous.  Indeed, the incredulity with which I read this book never ceased.  The authors somehow continued to up the ante, their claims becoming more and more grand from chapter to chapter.

The Constructal Law basically says that things change to become more efficient.  Both living and non-living things evolve in predictable ways over time.  Rivers change to move water efficiently, animals evolve to compete and survive more effectively, human designs change over time to work more smoothly and efficiently.  Basically, the Constructal Law is nothing more than a reduction of the laws of Thermodynamics along with an outline of what we all intuitively know.  Bejan wants to make the case that his Law can help guide scientists and engineers in designing their experiments and machines.  In the introduction of the book, he paints a picture of past scientists and engineers helplessly bumbling around without the guiding light of his Constructal Law.  I can appreciate a person trying to convince his audience of his views, but these attempts come off as the most extreme sort of arrogance, and really distract from the central point.

If the authors could have stayed in bounds, and limited their ideas to the original intentions, this book could have been quite good.  The Constructal Law can predict shape and size of many natural and man-made objects, from river basins to the architecture of tree branches to highway layouts in busy cities.  These parts of the book were interesting and made sense.  Unfortunately, the authors couldn’t restrain themselves from taking it to the next level.  Much of the book was dedicated to convincing the reader that the Constructal Law provides the missing link for “proof of the unification of the oneness of nature.”  The authors argue that life itself has evolved principally as a mechanism for moving matter around the earth.  They view trees as having evolved as machines for moving water from the earth to the atmosphere.  Animals as machines for moving matter through the oceans and over the land.  These are radically backwards from the more traditional views of evolution, and require a massive stretch of the imagination to arrive at.

Still, this book taught me so much.  Wait, what??  Yes, as a scientist, or an expert in any field, I need to guard against the sort of self-importance displayed here.  I think it is easy for scientists and scholars to become so focused on their pet hypothesis or theory that they miss the bigger picture or fail to consider alternative views seriously.  We could all probably be better at considering others points of views, from the personal level all the way to international relations.  Self righteousness can be a dangerous state to find yourself in.  From scientific ideas to personal philosophies to political views to investment strategies, people tend to get entrenched in their views, sometimes with only limited evidence of their accuracy.  Many scientists become so invested in their theories that they almost refuse to truly consider counter arguments.

This book helped me see the danger of this happening in some of my own research interests.  Briefly, a certain protein that I have been studying seems to play an important role in the division of maize (corn) leaf cells.  There are a number of intriguing clues about its specific role, and I’ve developed a likely scenario for how the protein is functioning.  That is all fine, but if I notice myself biasing my experiments or ignoring certain results that don’t favor my hypothesis, that is a problem.  I have to remember to keep an open mind about my results, and always consider alternative views.  While it is OK for me to hope that my hypothesis holds true, I cannot will it to be true, and must guard against letting myself become convinced of it until it is demonstrated to be true (or not).

Note: I still think that my original hypothesis is probably true, and am working hard to prove it determine whether it is or not. 🙂

Sorry for all the science talk, but I think these lessons can be applied to all of our lives.  Don’t allow yourself to become convinced that you’ve got it all figured out.  Try to stay humble about what you do.  Maintain a willingness to see the limitations in your expertise or theory.  Always keep learning, and never be arrogant enough to write a book about yourself discovering a brand new natural law that governs how the universe works.

Pages: 296 FOA Pages: 2,749 (The total number of pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus)

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2 thoughts on “Design in Nature, Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane

  1. Chip, thanks for posting. Sometimes, like you mentioned, it is very difficult to make unbiased observations especially when you have an invested interest or a hypothesis for another result. It is so important to try make decisions objectively.

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