Op-Ed

Duke professor’s beautiful law of human progress

Duke professor and author Adrian Bejan.
Duke professor and author Adrian Bejan. Duke Photography

It is the most commonly denied undeniable fact: our world just keeps getting better.

Even as scholars, pundits and the guy across the bar beat the ancient empty drum of doom, the key measures of life both in body (life expectancy, the quality of food and shelter) and soul (human rights, access to education) continue to flourish at home and abroad.

A series of new books — including “Enlightenment Now” by Steven Pinker, “Progress” by Johan Norberg and “It’s Better Than It Looks” by Gregg Easterbrook — collect reams of data to prove President Obama’s 2016 observation, “If you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.”

Because the past is prologue — because every human era since the glaciers melted has been better for humanity as a whole than the one that preceded it — I am confident our leader in 2116 will be able to make the same declaration.

Though the march of human progress is beyond dispute, the forces driving it are harder to pinpoint. Harvard Professor Pinker thinks he’s found the answer, tracing all the good news to the rise of reason — to an evidence-based, scientific world view — during the Enlightenment.

Life has indeed improved dramatically since the 17th century, but Pinker’s thesis fails to account for the steady improvement that occurred before then — a point he noted in his previous book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” which demonstrated the inexorable decline in violence since the Stone Age.

A far more comprehensive explanation is offered by Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University who grounds these happy achievements not in the arbitrary whims of humanity but the eternal laws of physics.

Bejan’s work — which was the subject of a book we wrote together, “Design in Nature,” and which will be honored in Philadelphia this week when he receives the prestigious Benjamin Franklin Medal — is so compelling, and beautiful, because of its holistic approach. His monumental discovery, the constructal law, does not see humanity as distinct from nature but as a part of it; it holds that human progress is governed and predicted by the same phenomenon that has inexorably improved the natural world.

While some dispute the idea of progress in human affairs, the notion of progress in nature challenges the deeply ingrained dogma of a random, accidental universe. The constructal law explodes that misunderstanding.

To understand why, consider that nature is one big push toward equilibrium — mixing and churning to erase differences. At the simplest level, when you add hot water to a cold bath, you don’t get pockets of hot and cold but warm water. On a large scale, weather systems are a Sisyphean effort to achieve equilibrium in response to the sun’s uneven heating of the Earth.

The constructal law shows that this movement occurs with design: that nature spontaneously generates shape and structure to facilitate the world’s flows. Air, for instance, does not just blow as wind; it also self-organizes into jet streams that move more air more easily. Water does not just seep from the plain to the river’s mouth. It has, over millions of years, self-organized into the tree-shaped river basins that dot the globe. A similar tree-shaped design has evolved in our bodies to move blood from our heart to our cells.

In more than 5,000 peer-reviewed papers, Bejan and his colleagues around the world have demonstrated that all shape in structure in nature — of rivers, trees and forests, of mud cracks and the human brain — has arisen to facilitate flow.

While the constructal law is as old as time itself, these designs are not. River basins and animals did not exist when the Earth was formed. They arose as a manifestation of nature’s tendency to generate evolving designs that facilitate mixing and churning across the landscape.

Thus evolution is not just a biological concept but a law of physics, expressed in the animate and inanimate realms.

And evolution is not random. It has a direction in time — generating better and better designs to move more mass, more easily. That is progress.

In this view, human history details how we have created designs to move more stuff — the vehicles and roads, economic, political and intellectual frameworks to facilitate the flow of goods and ideas across the landscape. Like water in a river and blood in our bodies, all of them flow through designs to get from here to there — evolution that, Bejan shows, looks like everything we find in nature.

This phenomenon is not beholden to any ideology. Despite some bumps and hiccups, it has occurred across time. The progress Pinker and others catalog is an expression of this law.

Progress is real. It is natural. It is all around us.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.
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