Sunday, May 27, 2012

Critique of Bejan's "Design in Nature", Part I

The June 2012 issue of Mechanical Engineering, the magazine of ASME, has an article called “Design in Nature” by Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane (Bejan is a Mechanical Engineering professor at Duke University, and Zane is an assistant professor of journalism at St. Augustine’s College). The subtitle of the article is “The law of physics that guides the development of organisms is the same for inanimate nature and engineered systems”.  But the big problem with this title is that there is no law of physics that guides the development of engineered systems.  Engineered systems are choice contingent arrangements of matter and energy which utilize the laws of physics to achieve an end – but their development and end arrangement is not determined by any law, let alone some obscure principle one of the authors invented, which he calls “the constructal law”.  But the article is packed with contradictions and problems [and assumptions stated as fact], which appears to be an advertisement for the authors’ book “Design in Nature”.  [Note: I have not read the book, but this series of posts is intended to serve as both a critique of the author's ideas as they appear in the article, and to give the reader an idea as to whether or not the book is worth buying] 

The article begins:

“This book is about design in nature as a scientific discipline, centered on a physics law of design and evolution: the constructal law.  This law sweeps the entire mosaic of nature from inanimate rivers to animate designs, such as vascular tissues, locomotion, and social organization”

Then Bejan describes his ‘epiphany’ that phenomena like river deltas, the air passages in our lungs, and lightning bolts are governed by a certain scientific principle, and are therefore predictable patterns.  He says:

“In a flash, I realized that the world was not formed by random accidents, chance and fate but that behind the dizzying diversity is a seamless stream of predictable patterns.”

This provided the first clue that something was fishy.  If these things are all governed by a law of physics called the constructal law, then ‘fate’ would be a very good word to use, because this law would determine the outcome of these phenomena, which would be why they are so predictable, if indeed they are.  So how can he discount fate?  Thus it appears that right off the bat the author is perhaps confused, or at least his definitions are not the same as mine.  But then it gets really fishy.  He goes on to say:

“…I have shown how a single law of physics shapes the design of all around us.  This insight would lead me to challenge many articles of faith held by my scientific colleagues, including the bedrock beliefs that biological creatures like you and me are governed by different principles from the inanimate world of winds and rivers, and the engineered world of airplanes, ships and automobiles. Over time, I would develop a new understanding of evolutionary phenomena and the oneness of nature that would reveal how design emerges without an intelligent designer.”

 That last part is a talking point if I ever saw one.  So “design emerges without an intelligent designer”, eh?  Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.  And at this point I became suspicious that ASME is getting into the business of evangelizing for the Darwin lobby, thereby putting me into full BS detection mode.

Let me just say that I am an Intelligent Design proponent.  I believe that life was designed, and that there are therefore ways in which this design can be rigorously detected and even measured, and that the probability of something having been designed or not can be clearly evident.  Therefore, I would say that life, or creatures like you and me, are in fact governed by the very same principle that governs the engineering world, that being the choice contingent arrangement of matter and energy to achieve an end, and that is most certainly a different principle that governs inanimate nature, which would be pure law-like physicality.

In part II, I hope to start to show Bejan's error in claiming that the inanimate world and the designed world are governed by some unifying law of nature.