Point of View

In design, nature goes with the flow

May 8, 2012 

Design is a dirty word. Ever since it was used to promulgate the fantasy of Intelligent Design, the concept of design in nature has become a litmus test used to determine whether someone believes in facts and reason. In scientific circles, the mere mention of design sparks looks of derision.

This view is wrong. Human beings have always observed broad patterns in nature. They have noticed, for example, that the tree-like design of river basins (combinations of rivulets, brooks, streams and rivers), also occur in the lightning bolts that crackle across the summer sky and the circulatory systems that deliver life-sustaining nutrients to all the cells in our bodies. Indeed, the occurrence and evolution of natural design is repeated with remarkable fidelity everywhere – in both the animate and inanimate realms.

Nature does have design, which emerges and evolves to serve a purpose, and this tendency should be recognized as both a natural phenomenon and a scientific concept.

Ironically, the controversy surrounding design in nature actually has less to do with facts and reason than the contentious history of this innocent little word. Design has two meanings in English. The first is as noun, which refers to a configuration, shape, structure, pattern, rhythm or motif that is discernible and worth remembering. The second meaning is as a verb “to design,” which refers to the human power to contrive and to project images to new levels of thinking.

Since the Enlightenment, when thinkers questioned religion, scientists have rejected the ancient notion that nature has a motive – that there was a creator behind everything we see around us. This liberating rejection of religious dogma, however, has created a powerful paradox – and a new dogma that scientists are keen to protect.

It is why the concept of “design in nature” is opposed by many scientists. It’s also why even those who are aware of the reoccurring patterns hesitate to take the leap and see that the broad evolutionary tendencies we observe in living creatures also shape inanimate phenomena that do not possess DNA, such as rivers, snowflakes and lightning.

These designs are clear to the naked eye. They did not just drop from the sky in their fullness. They acquired shape and structure naturally, through an evolutionary process.

This phenomenon has been the focus of the work of one of us (Adrian Bejan) for the last 16 years since discovering the constructal law. Briefly, this law of physics holds that all macroscopic design in nature arises to facilitate access to flow. Put simply, everything moves better with design. Designs emerge spontaneously and over time, configuring and reconfiguring themselves (evolving) to enhance whatever current is flowing through them, whether it is water down a series of tributaries, blood through the cardiovascular system or electricity in a lightning bolt.

Design happens, as a law of nature. For almost two decades, researchers around the world have applied the constructal law to dozens of natural phenomena, ranging from turbulence and lava flows to the design of trees, animals and cities.

But the concept of design in nature is still viewed as taboo and can make even the boldest scientists uneasy. To be clear, in no way does the constructal law support the claims of Intelligent Design. Instead it solves one of the great riddles of science – design without a designer.

We now find ourselves at a crossroad. The long history of science has made the term “design” anathema to rigorous inquiry. Scientists, however, are beginning, slowly and with a certain amount of trepidation, to acknowledge and explore the concept of design, making predictive, purely theoretical advances in understanding shape and structure. So, today, design in nature is a body of knowledge in which the facts have outpaced the language.

The problem, fortunately, is easy to fix. We should embrace the noun and be careful with the verb, recognizing that the majesty of the universe includes its capacity to create shape and structure that allows everything to go with the flow. It’s high time we recognize “design” as a scientific concept.

Design in nature is not about any of us, human or superhuman. It is not about “a designer.” It is about the universal natural phenomenon of design occurrence and evolution.

Adrian Bejan, J.A. Jones distinguished professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, and J. Peder Zane, assistant professor of journalism at St. Augustine’s College, are the authors of “Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization.”

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