Is ‘Design in Nature’ a Non-Starter?

A row is ready to erupt over two competing notions of ‘design in nature.’ One has been proposed under the auspices of being a natural-physical law. The other continues to clamour for public attention and respectability among natural-physical scientists, engineers and educators, but carries with it obvious religious overtones (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Wedge Document and Dover trial 2005) and still has not achieved widespread scholarly support after almost 20 years of trying.

One the one hand is the Discovery Institute’s notion of ‘design in nature,’ which is repeated in various forms in the Intelligent Design movement. Here at TSZ many (the majority of?) people are against ID and ID proponents’ views of ‘design in nature.’ The author of this thread is likewise not an ID proponent, not an IDer. On the other hand is Duke University engineering and thermodynamics professor Adrian Bejan’s notion of ‘design in nature’ (Doubleday 2012, co-authored with journalism professor J. Peder Zane), which rejects Intelligent Design theory, but contends that ‘design’ is nevertheless a legitimate natural scientific concept. Apropos another recent thread here at TSZ, Bejan declares that his approach “solves one of the great riddles of science – design without a designer.”

Here is what Bejan says about ‘design in nature’ and his ‘constructal law’ of physics:

“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 [sic]. 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.” (2012)

For a further comparison of these two different notions of ‘design in nature,’ see here:

http://humanextension.wordpress.com/2012/08/25/whose-notion-of-design-in-nature-do-you-accept/

I’m curious to hear how people at TSZ compare and contrast these two notions of ‘design in nature,’ if you think there is hope for Bejan’s ‘law’ and what it means for the Discovery Institute’s ‘design’ + ‘intelligence’ = ‘designer/Designer’ argument.

Could I also make a simple survey request that those who might wish to comment on this thread would say up-front whether or not they had heard of Adrian Bejan and his ‘design in nature’ or ‘constructal law’ approach before reading this post?

Thanks,
Gregory

37 Replies to “Is ‘Design in Nature’ a Non-Starter?”

  1. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    I’ve heard of the book and read some online stuff. Not enough to form an opinion.

    Sounds vaguely like orthogenesis. But maybe not.

  2. keiths
    Ignored
    says:

    I have the book on my Kindle, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

    Unless Bejan has truly identified a new mechanism for the creation of ‘designoid’ complexity, I don’t think he’ll have any impact on the ID debate. 

  3. Neil Rickert
    Ignored
    says:

    If one takes design to include Shapiro’s view of the cell as doing genetic engineering, that could lead to the view of a population as continuously redesigning itself.  That’s very different from the idea of an external designer such as the ID people are pushing.

    In short, it depends on what is meant by “design in nature.”

  4. Flint
    Ignored
    says:

    Offhand (I haven’t read the book), it sounds like the “design in nature” isn’t much different, if any, from an adaptive feedback system operating under directed constraints. In this sense, it’s indistinguishable from political efforts to influence economic activity by rewarding some behaviors and punishing others, trusting that the economy will change in predictable ways to these constraints. Except of course that nobody “designed” how environments provide niches.

    So this harks back to how Elizabeth was first banned from UD – by pointing out that the natural environment IS a “designer” according to Dembski’s definition – it makes consistent choices among options. 

  5. Mike Elzinga
    Ignored
    says:

    If one does a Google search of “Constructal Law,” one can come up with a number of links.

    Here is a paper in Physics of Life.

    Here is one in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

    Here is Wikipedia.

    I did a little reading on this a while back; I don’t remember the context. My impressions were that this is trending toward the quackery side even though it has apparently had some support from the National Science Foundation. For example, there is no law that says the entropy must increase at a maximum rate.

    This kind of “design in nature stuff” is very old. It goes back at least to the early Greeks. Many of the interpretations of the calculus of variations and Hamiltonian physics can be cast in the language of purpose; to maximize, minimize, or some form of tending toward an extremum. Kepler referred to the “Music of the Spheres.”

    This approach is a bit like trying to make entropy like “lack of information.” What does additional insight does it produce that one doesn’t already know from the physics and the mathematics?

    So what if it is the case that much of the universe appears regular and can be described in mathematics that humans can either invent or discover. All that may mean is that any intelligence that falls out of the behaviors of matter will naturally look around and see patterns and design because if that intelligence were not already consistent with the universe, it wouldn’t be around to observe and reflect on it.

    It seems to be a reoccurring phenomenon that some engineers will take it upon themselves to recast the laws of physics and chemistry into engineering terms. Nobody objects to people searching for better understandings of the universe; but in the many years I have seen these reoccurring attempts, they have all disappeared after a brief flash of marketing and discussion.

  6. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

     

    Bejan declares that his approach “solves one of the great riddles of science – design without a designer.”

    I think Darwin could lay claim to having made some strides in that direction in the Origin. He admires and references Paley, and recognises ‘design’ as an issue that needed to be addressed.

    As to the deeper regularities – what Martin Gardner called Order and Surprise, or the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ – we live in a universe of quite ridiculous simplicity. A couple of quarks, an electron, a few gauge particles, with a small handful of quantum properties between them. I really don’t know what particle physicists do all day! 😉

    But because they interact, and the energy released by interaction is dissipated, we get stable ‘clumping’ – almost as if there were some Clumping Principle at work. Yet given the fundamental simplicity of the interactors, with apparently fixed values for their quantum parameters, it would be a surprise if there weren’t order, at many levels. 

    Bejan’s main thesis seems to be in relation to ‘flow’. What he terms ‘designs’ are systems that improve the efficiency of this flow. But all flow reduces to the following of entropic gradients, by accessible pathways. ‘Naturally’, the most energetically favourable available path is the one most likely to be taken. It’s actually hard to square this with the main target of “Design” argumentation – the complexity of some organisms. Some species – such as us – go to one hell of a lot of trouble to control this ‘flow’! It is that elaborateness that impresses. We divert ‘flow’ through complex systems like an elaborate game of Mousetrap.

  7. Gregory
    Ignored
    says:

     

    Hi Folks,

    Well, it seems most participants here are more interested to converse with or about IDists like Upright Biped, than to discuss the topic of ‘design in nature.’ Though I don’t give much time to reading UB, the notion of a ‘semiotic system’ being designed/created/constructed/composed/etc. doesn’t seem too problematic as long as it is limited the domain of human-made things. Human languages are, without much argument, understood as ‘designed.’ Since ID theory (what I call Big-ID to distinguish from small-id, which all theists accept) faultily analogizes between human-made things (e.g. mousetrap, computer code) and non-human-made things (biological information, genetic ‘code’), UB’s ‘semiotic’ argument appears to be yet another IDist attempt to bridge the gap, not recognising the weaknesses (and downsides) of the engineer-God strategy.

    In regard to the value of contrasting views of ‘design in nature,’ this seems especially significant because it pits ‘skeptics’ against ‘non-agnostics’ or ‘religious believers,’ as witnessed in the contrast between Adrian Bejan and most proponents of Intelligent Design. Bejan believes in/accepts ‘design’ as an engineer-physicist looking at ‘natural’ systems. He therefore doesn’t appear to suffer from the same faulty analogizing that is present in ID.

    Thanks to those who answered my survey question, which indicates some familiarity with Bejan’s work; at least most of you had heard of him and his ‘Constructal Law’ before. Let me now address some of your comments and questions.

    “Unless Bejan has truly identified a new mechanism for the creation of ‘designoid’ complexity, I don’t think he’ll have any impact on the ID debate.” – keiths

    Right and Bejan doesn’t seem interested in having any impact on the ID debate, as I wrote in the article linked in the OP. His interest is more in understanding what he also calls ‘design in nature’ using his ‘Constructal Law.’ He does more than ID does by outlining steps of ‘Constructal Design’ (cf. TRIZ). My notes don’t show that he calls this a ‘mechanism for creation,’ but rather that his approach can be used to predict the evolution of flows, one example of which he has made in sporting competitions and world records. Iow, Bejan says there are “two sides of the constructal law: we predict the occurrence of design in nature, and we design devices for human use.” This is a forward-looking meaning of ‘design’ whereas ID’s view is completely (so far) backward-looking.

    “In short, it depends on what is meant by ‘design in nature’.” – Neil Rickert

    Yes, exactly. So, what does it mean to you, Neil? Is ‘design in nature’ something ‘real’ or not? Iow, do you believe in/ accept the reality of either ‘internal design in nature’ or ‘external design of nature’? If not, then why not? Is it a condition of being a ‘skeptic’ that one cannot answer ‘Yes’ to the ‘design in nature’ question? Bejan appears to be irreligious, yet still answers positively to it.

    “nobody ‘designed’ how environments provide niches.” – Flint

    Yes, Bejan agrees with the ‘nobody designed it’ approach.

    “the natural environment IS a ‘designer’ according to Dembski’s definition – it makes consistent choices among options.” – Flint

    It seems then that you, and according to your report, also Elisabeth, agree that the subject-verb expression ‘nature designs’ is valid and thus we can say that indeed there IS ‘design in nature’ by the ‘hand’ or ‘action’ or ‘intention’ or ‘plan’ of nature (cf. natural selection)? Do I understand you correctly? If I am misunderstanding you or using the wrong words, please correct me.

    (cont’d)

  8. Gregory
    Ignored
    says:

    Mike Elzinga writes that Bejan’s ‘Constructal Law’ is: “trending toward the quackery side even though it has apparently had some support from the National Science Foundation.”

    Yes, it is possible Bejan’s approach may ‘trend toward quackery,’ especially given that he has not (yet) identified limits to his ‘Constructal Law.’ As Bejan emphasises, “it is physics, not opinion!” Yet Feyerabend wrote to be careful of such confidence in scientific methods in 1975: “All methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits.”

    Even though he is getting publications in Nature Scientific Reports (which ID folks have not been able to get) and in other top tier locations, one should admit it is possible that Bejan’s ‘design in nature’ is just as pseudo-scientific as IDs. Please understand I am keeping that option open also, Mike. Nevertheless, support from the NSF shouldn’t count for nothing and the fact that he holds three degrees from M.I.T. doesn’t hurt either.

    “What additional insight does it produce that one doesn’t already know from the physics and the mathematics?” – Mike Elzinga

    Yes, I think that’s a fair question to ask. I’m not an engineer, physicist or biologist and welcome comments from those who are. and The way I currently understand it, Bejan is offering a ‘naturalistic’ meaning of ‘design in nature’ and the IDM is offering an anti-naturalistic or ‘intelligent agency’ meaning of ‘design in nature.’ That appears to be the major difference, even though they both use engineering terms and expressions to make their case. Bejan speaks of ‘evolutionary design’ and ‘design evolution’ whereas the IDM is more anti-evolutionary, or at least has not identified ‘evolution by design’ as part of its scientific-political program.

    “It seems to be a reoccurring phenomenon that some engineers will take it upon themselves to recast the laws of physics and chemistry into engineering terms.” – Mike Elzinga

    “constructal theory began by accident in 1996 as a thermodynamics principle that unites physics with biology and engineering” – A. Bejan (2012)

    This engineer was trained in thermodynamics also and has published over 500 peer-reviewed papers and 20 books, receiving honourary degrees in several countries. My question to you folks here at TSZ is: are you willing to consider that Bejan is on to something with his ‘designs’ and ‘flows’ model, which differs from and flatly rejects ID language of ‘redefining science,’ but also suggests to have made a great breakthrough? Iow, is ‘design’ an acceptable concept in natural science, when nature is seen through ‘engineer’s eyes?’

    “Thermodynamics is a religion that I carry with me.” – A. Bejan (2012)

    (cont’d)

  9. Toronto
    Ignored
    says:

    Gregory,

    I think saying that nature “designs with intention” is not supported by what we observe.

    We can say “nature designs” but not with intent, by simply modeling “nature” as a system that includes feedback.

    The results of such a system seems to agree with what we observe happening.

    If you have a population of predators that is growing, and a population of prey that is shrinking, at some point the predator population will start to shrink allowing the prey population to recover.

    This is a simple example of feedback, not intent.

    If the predator population is composed of large and small members, there is a good chance that the number of smaller predators will be a larger proportion than large predators when the total prey population is smaller.

    There is no “intent” here and no “search target”.

    Systems tend to stabilize themselves without any intent at all.

     

  10. Gregory
    Ignored
    says:

    (cont’d)

    Allan Miller, re: Darwin having made strides toward solving “one of the great riddles of science – design without a designer,” it does appear to me that Bejan considers himself to be an innovator and scientist on the scale of Darwin. He certainly doesn’t lack confidence and his story shows a record of achievement and overcoming obstacles. He points out that ‘evolution’ precedes Darwin, that it wasn’t ‘invented’ by Darwin and that we needn’t think of evolution only within a (neo-)Darwinian framework.

    It may be that we need to start thinking about ‘design’ again outside of the not-design framework that Darwin, and following him Dawkins, has left us. In the English language does ‘design’ without a ‘designer’ make any sense, given that English includes the verb ‘to design’ / ‘designing’?

    “Bejan’s main thesis seems to be in relation to ‘flow’. What he terms ‘designs’ are systems that improve the efficiency of this flow.” – Allan Miller

    Yes, I agree with your general assessment of Bejan’s approach. Indeed, it is not so much different than that of imo one of the greatest (grand theorist) living evolutionary thinkers, Ervin Laszlo, from nearby Hungary. Nevertheless, Laszlo isn’t trained in engineering and thermodynamics at M.I.T. and he doesn’t speak of ‘design in nature’ as Bejan does. Both are promoting a systems-oriented ‘evolutionary’ worldview, however, which indicates at least some features of overlap.

    One of the major contributions Bejan claims to have made is that design and flow is not only a property of nature, but also of human society. Look around you for design and flow everywhere, Bejan suggests, and you will find it. Maybe since he is from Romania and speaks with an accent his language is difficult for those accustomed to reading and hearing western scholars. Or maybe he has imbued some Eastern philosophy, such as yin and yang and the notion of harmony instead of Malthusian-Darwinian struggle for life and Spencerian survival of the fittest. Whatever the case, when he says that human society is the  most complex and puzzling ‘live’ flow system that we know (2007), he is suggesting, as the sociobiologists did before him, that social scientists need help from engineers such as himself and his universal ‘Constructal Law’ to better understand and thus to ‘(re-)engineer’ society. That could be considered very dangerous on a global scale, if the designs and flows he (or e.g. the future President of the European Union) sees don’t agree with those that other people desire or expect.

    As Allan Miller notes about human beings, “We divert ‘flow’ through complex systems…” This speaks of ‘intentionality’ or ‘plan’ or ‘purpose’ to the ‘design in [human] nature’ that we make as persons. Unfortunately, Bejan’s approach seems to dehumanise human beings. When he extends his ‘Constructal Law’ from physical nature to human nature, our character and the way we ‘design’ or ‘plan’ our lives becomes compromised, as if primeval personal ‘choice’ is not a more powerful concept than simply ‘go with the flow.’

    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.” – A. Bejan (2012)

    My view is that Bejan’s claims put him right near the middle of the controversy surrounding Intelligent Design, creation and evolution, even if he would prefer to avoid ID and doesn’t want to give it airtime. His ‘design in nature’ could be the most significant opposition that the IDM has yet faced (not that it has done all that well with other opponents!) because it refuses to involve, address or allow the (extra-natural) ‘implications’ that go along with ID theory. Bejan’s is a nature-only view of the universe. Whether Bejan would be able or willing to debate with an IDist about ‘design in nature’ has yet to be seen.

    Which ‘design in nature’ makes more sense or none at all? Can a person who doesn’t believe in a Creator God (e.g., someone who is not a ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘evangelical’ Protestant) accept ‘design in nature’ as Bejan does? These questions are offered here to you at The Skeptical Zone.

  11. Gregory
    Ignored
    says:

    “We can say ‘nature designs’ but not with intent, by simply modeling ‘nature’ as a system that includes feedback.” – Toronto

    What’s the difference then between ‘nature designs’ and ‘nature selects,’ i.e. natural selection? Are you suggesting that Bejan uses the two terms synonymously?

    “There is no ‘intent’ here and no ‘search target’.” – Toronto

    What is it that constitutes the content of what it is that ‘nature designs’? Does nature design ‘feedback’ without intent?

    It sounds like the key point you want to make is that there is no intention in nature, no purpose, no plan, no foresight. If so, that seems to be similar to Bejan’s meaning of ‘design in nature’ – it is just there (without ultimate explanation). And therefore we should use ‘design’ as a natural scientific concept, in addition to its more common usage in regard to human-social systems.

  12. Toronto
    Ignored
    says:

    Gregory,

    My comment was in response to this one by you:

    Gregory: “It seems then that you, and according to your report, also Elisabeth, agree that the subject-verb expression ‘nature designs’ is valid and thus we can say that indeed there IS ‘design in nature’ by the ‘hand’ or ‘action’ or ‘intention’ or ‘plan’ of nature (cf. natural selection)?”

    What I was disputing was your suggestion of “intention” or “plan”.

    There is no path that nature “intended” water to take down a hillside, rather the river is carved by the force of gravity on the water and the resistance of the soil that impedes the water’s flow.

    Gregory: “Does nature design ‘feedback’ without intent? “

    “Feedback” is not a designed entity, it is rather a characteristic we observe in any system where “physics” plays a part.

    A teeter-totter in a playground does not have “feedback” designed into it by the designers of the equipment, but the children playing on it supply the feedback path just by sitting on it, without adding a single component other than themselves.

    We should not NOT use the term “design” as it implies a “designer” and yet in nature, there is no specific “designer” or even “design” that is “intended” by something.

    A better term might be “adaptive feedback” but definitely NOT a new use for an old term.

  13. Mike Elzinga
    Ignored
    says:

    “What additional insight does it produce that one doesn’t already know from the physics and the mathematics?”

    – Mike Elzinga

    Gregory observes: Yes, I think that’s a fair question to ask. I’m not an engineer, physicist or biologist and welcome comments from those who are.

    My comment may have seemed somewhat dismissive because of my familiarity with this kind of thinking. It is quite common in attempting to describe physical phenomena to shift one’s perspective in order to try to gain other insights into the phenomenal one is trying to model; and I apparently just take that for granted because it is what most of us in the physics community do in trying to make better sense of what we observe and try to model. We are well aware of the process; and are also well aware of how it can be abused and go wrong.

    To take a simple and familar example, viewing automobile traffic as a flow of a compressible fluid leads to some very interesting patterns for which over a century of study on fluids seems to apply quite well. One sees density waves growing into shock waves and other patterns that can be controlled by careful timing of stop lights and speed zones. This way of looking at traffic came out of primarily an engineering/physics perspective after someone apparently looked at speeded up recorded videos of traffic. The “forces” of interaction among the “particles” of automobile traffic are of course not the same as the forces among particles in a compressible fluid; but they produce similar effects on the “medium” to which they apply.

    In physics, we are dealing primarily with conservation laws, the four forces, and symmetries in nature. “Symmetries” in physics turn out to be important because they relate to conservation laws. This was a dramatic change in perspective that came out of looking at the Lagrangian and Hamiltonian equations of motion. Group theory in mathematics lead to a way to categorize symmetries and elucidate patterns that became extremely fruitful in the discoveries of new particles. So changes in perspective are common and appropriate.

    In other words, there is nothing wrong with these kinds of approaches as long as they don’t stretch analogies into reified absurdities. Analogies to forces and energy in physics may sometimes be useful shortcuts to descriptions of relationships among plants and animals, but much of the time such analogies are extremely weak and should not be taken too seriously.

    When someone like Bejan starts along a line of complete work devoted to stretching analogies, it is bound to break down at some point. Unfortunately, those who are not familiar with the long history of using analogies to extend one’s understanding are likely to be individuals who can easily get caught up in woo-woo stuff that is just plain wrong. One of the signals of unrealistic stretching of analogies in an extended work is the over marketing of one’s ideas. People who understand the limitations of analogies will wait to see how their “new” ideas pan out.

    We see this problem with the ID/creationist community. The gullibility of members of this community is driven partly by their insecurities regarding their sectarian beliefs coupled with an arrogant sort of bigotry that wants to make their dogma “rationally” superior to all other dogmas. This has resulted in over fifty years of going to extremes in pushing analogies beyond the breaking point and onto complete distortions of all of science in order to prop up sectarian dogma.

    We see it in the various forms of “quantum religions,” or in that movie that was going around the country a few years ago entitled “What the Bleep do We Know?” At the centers of these kinds of activities are often people with large egos who believe they are addressing large philosophical issues in ways that nobody ever thought about before.

    Such activities often turn into personality cults centered on some extremely narcissistic individuals who like controlling the thoughts and behaviors of others. People whom we might think of as fairly intelligent can be drawn into these “philosophical” issues because they are curious and interested in learning about new things themselves. But one has to keep one’s feet on the ground also. Without a fairly decent grounding in well-vetted scientific knowledge, it is easy for people to be lured off into some pretty weird stuff. And it has happened to some very intelligent people stepping outside their areas of expertise.

  14. Flint
    Ignored
    says:

    I would say that nature designs in the sense that gravity combines with topology to design a watershed. I would accept that nature’s environmental constraints direct suitable adaptation (aquatic organisms develop shapes and appendages suitable for mobility in water). I would NOT accept that there is a “plan” here in the sense of intention involving foresight. Designs in nature are reactive, not proactive.

    Natural selection does not happen according to some predetermined plan. Trial and error show definite patterns, because there are patterns to what works and what does not. There’s no teleology here. 

  15. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    My question would be are there channels into which evolution flows. Just for example, are hands and thumbs a channel will attract convergent evolution? Is this a relevant question?

  16. Flint
    Ignored
    says:

    I’d say it’s relevant in some cases – I mentioned aquatic adaptations. And we see lots of different eyes because light is useful. We see lots of different approaches to flying, so flying is useful. We see lots of parasites, and I saw an estimate that there are a dozen different viruses that prey on each type of bacteria. Similarly, speed is often helpful, as is camouflage.

    Whether opposable thumbs attract adaptation seems doubtful, but I suppose most people here would know better than I do. 

  17. keiths
    Ignored
    says:

    Gregory,

    Yes, I agree with your general assessment of Bejan’s approach. Indeed, it is not so much different than that of imo one of the greatest (grand theorist) living evolutionary thinkers, Ervin Laszlo, from nearby Hungary.

    Let’s hope for Bejan’s sake that his approach is very, very different from that of László, who seems to be a total crackpot. Here’s what I wrote to a friend who asked me what I thought of László:

    I hadn’t heard of Ervin László until you mentioned him. Having done a bit of Googling, I’m afraid the news isn’t good. While László might not be the Florence Foster Jenkins of science, he comes close.

    Strike number one was this glowing review of one of László’s books from that inveterate abuser of science, Deepak Chopra:

    “Ervin László provides the most brilliant, comprehensive, and intellectually satisfying integral theory of everything that I have ever read… His work transcends the vision of Darwin, Newton, Einstein, the quantum pioneers, and many other scientific giants of history.”

    The more glowing a Chopra endorsement, the less likely that the endorsee has a firm grip on reality. Even worse, Chopra compares László (favorably!) to Darwin, Newton, and Einstein. That László was brazen enough to accept such an accolade and put it on the back cover of his book testifies to a lack of judgment and good taste, and to absolutely no sense of shame.

    Strike two was this recording of a László lecture. I had to stop listening 30 minutes in because of the ridiculous freshman-level mistakes he makes in talking about the vacuum energy (aka zero-point field), his supposed area of expertise. He states:

    “The very stability of atoms is due to the interaction of the electrons that orbit the nucleus with the vacuum. Why? You see, as you orbit, you constantly lose energy, you constantly radiate energy into surrounding space. If you radiate energy without replenishing it, sooner or later the gravitational attraction of the nucleus, of the neutrons in the nucleus, would pull these electrons back. So hydrogen couldn’t be stable. Nor could carbon. There could be no life. Unless the electrons that orbit the nucleus constantly pick up energy. They have to replenish the energy, otherwise they’ll fall back into the nucleus. So the very existence of matter in the universe, of stable atomic matter, out of which stars are made, out of which we are made, and everything around us is made, is due to the interaction of vacuum energies with electrons.

    “The same is true of the earth. If the earth in its path around the sun wouldn’t constantly pick up energy from the vacuum, it would fall into the sun. Same of the moon, would fall into the earth, etc. So there is a constant interaction. The stability of planets, the stability of atoms, the stability of the earth, all is due to this kind of constant interaction, an energetic interaction.”

    Every statement in that passage is wrong. The stability of atoms doesn’t depend on the vacuum energy. Electrons do not constantly radiate energy as they orbit the nucleus (if they did, everything would glow in the dark). It’s the electrical attraction of the nucleus, not the gravitational attraction, that would cause the atom to collapse if this happened, and it’s the protons, not the neutrons, that would do the “pulling.” The vacuum could not replenish the energy lost, as this would violate the law of conservation of energy. The earth and moon don’t depend on the vacuum energy to remain in orbit. The single sentence left standing is the plaintive question “Why?”

    Strike three was this László interview in which he buys into the whole year 2012 hysteria and says that “astrophysics” and the Mayan calendar predict a magnetic pole reversal in October or November of that year. In reality, it takes thousands of years for a pole reversal to happen.

    This is one rabbit hole I’d recommend bailing out of immediately. For good measure, you might want to toss a grenade over your shoulder as you leave.

    But I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. 🙂

  18. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    As Allan Miller notes about human beings, “We divert ‘flow’ through complex systems…” This speaks of ‘intentionality’ or ‘plan’ or ‘purpose’ to the ‘design in [human] nature’ that we make as persons.

    Well, I was thinking of us as ‘systems’, rather than us as intentional or unintentional diverters of flow in our contrivances. In certain clades, the act of replication that involves about 20 minutes of material-accumulation in others takes about 20 years, generating the most ridiculous complexities to achieve pretty much the same result. We are complex systems. We are also constructors of such, of course.

  19. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    Yaarrgh! I’m no physicist, but I gagged on the picture of the atom! Gravitational attraction? By neutrons? And somehow if there were no energy feed, electrons would just fall into the nucleus?

    Strange how a free neutron decays, with the release of energy and an electron … which suggests that the electron is not going to reverse that process without the input of energy. They don’t ‘fall’ into the nucleus unless you make them.

  20. Gregory
    Ignored
    says:

    keiths,

    I’m curious, have you ever studied ‘systems theory’ or thought about how ‘grand theory’ relates to evolution, Intelligent Design, laws of nature and the topic of ‘design in nature’? Laszlo was mentioned as a ‘grand theorist’ in comparison with Bejan. What you wrote to your friend about Laszlo is an unnecessary tangent to the main theme of this thread, which is ‘design in nature’ by Bejan.

    Please try to stay on topic.

    Thanks,
    Gregory

  21. Gregory
    Ignored
    says:

    Allan, thanks for your follow-up. 

    In regard to human beings as ‘systems,’ it is very hard, if not impossible to speak of ‘unintentional’ wrt ‘diverting.’ Likewise, as ‘constructors,’ we have choices and goals and methods we use to achieve or attempt to reach them.

    Here is what Ackoff and Emery, systems theorists, wrote about “Purposeful Systems”:

    “A purposeful system is one that can change its goals in constant environmental conditions; it selects goals as well as the means by which to pursue them. It thus displays will.” (1972)

    And here is precisely where Bejan’s language is most confusing. First, he says ‘design in nature’ doesn’t have anything to do with ‘designer(s).’ But at the same time he admits that as an engineer (human being) he is a ‘designer.’ So the term ‘design’ in Bejan’s use seems to carry both a teleological/purposeful and a non-teleological/without purpose meaning at the same time.

    I wonder if you would take a shot at this question, Allan: “In the English language does ‘design’ without a ‘designer’ make any sense, given that English includes the verb ‘to design’ / ‘designing’?”

    It may just be that because Bejan’s native language is not English that ‘design without a designer’ is possible for him to consider. Likewise, it may be that because he doesn’t believe in a transcendent divine creator, Bejan’s ‘design in nature’ may be easier for skeptics to accept than for IDists.

  22. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    The only people I know who have trouble with the concept of design without a designer are creationists. Until I started posting at UD it never occurred to me that design implied a designer except in cases where we have independent reasons to assign the origin of an object to a specific maker.

  23. Gregory
    Ignored
    says:

    petrushka wrote: “cases where we have independent reasons to assign the origin of an object to a specific maker”

    Which kind of cases and reasons might those be? By a ‘specific maker’ do you mean simply to posit a distinction between human-made and non-human-made?

    I know many people who conclude ‘design implies a designer.’ In fact, most ‘design theorists,’ such as Horst Rittel and Bela Banathy assume that ‘designing’ relates directly to human-thought/made ‘designs.’ But they were not speaking about ‘design in nature’ as Bejan does.

    Is Bejan not making the same faulty analogical leap as IDists are doing (e.g. mousetrap to biological information)? He speaks unapologetically of ‘design in nature’ whereas the term ‘design’ is usually related to human-made designs. If not, then why does Bejan blame the English language for the notion that ‘to design’ requires someone who actively ‘designs’? Perhaps the English language is entirely clear that ‘design implies a designer’ and it is Bejan and not the English language that is wrong.

    “Until I started posting at UD it never occurred to me that design implied a designer…” – petrushka

    Why not? What kind of ‘design(s)’ were you thinking about? Your reasons weren’t mainly about contesting ‘creationism’ were they?

  24. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    I’m thinking of countless regularities in nature that form patterns that humans find pleasing and which artists use for subject matter or inspiration. When we see a pattern we might want to know how it formed. Is it an animal made artifact or is it the resolt of chemistry or geology or tropisms.

    Science generally looks for the most pasimonious explanation. For example, one might posit all kinds of explanations for the recurring fibonacci sequences in the dimensions of living things. A natural scientist might first look at constraints on the way things grow, but a theist might look first for a human-like architect.

    My personal favorite exposition on necessity driven form is an old Disney cartoon -“Donald in Mathemagic Land.” It’s on YouTube, I believe. It’s rather old and it’s simplified to appeal to kids, but it seems to speak directly to the issue of whether there are mathematical “channels” for form.

  25. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    I wonder if you would take a shot at this question, Allan: “In the English language does ‘design’ without a ‘designer’ make any sense, given that English includes the verb ‘to design’ / ‘designing’?”

    Yes, I think it makes sense as a metaphorical usage. Our language has to serve the purpose of adapting to phenomena it wasn’t devised for, and it is often better to use an existing word than to come up with a completely new one. So yes, design is more rigorously applied to systems produced by the intent of a designer, but – other than to avoid never-ending semantic debates with Merriam-Webster-wielding Creationists – I’m happy enough to use it to talk of spider webs, hearts, enzymes. Dawkins comes up with the term ‘designoid’ for objects that excite our tendency to classify all complex objects as artefacts but whose actual provenance is not known.

    As to your suggestion that it is difficult to think of ‘unintentionality’ wrt our diversion of ‘flow’, I’d say that we produce consequences unintentionally about as often as intentionally! No-one designed the English language, for example, and while the Internet was fundamentally designed, the Web as we see it today was much more the result of ‘accident’ than design. Or rather, the result of lots of little bits of intent whose overall structure was not the ‘design’ or intent of any individual or committee. Things happen, usage and choice determine what sticks. Not a million miles removed from the evolutionary process, minus the ‘choice’ part in other than a metaphorical sense.

  26. Mike Elzinga
    Ignored
    says:

    The terms “design” and “information” are both terms that lead to confusion about how they are used in scientific descriptions of the natural world. Some the engineering specialties that make use of these terms are not using them in the more restricted way that, say, physicists use them.

    Such usage in some of the engineering applications to signal processing is contributing to the usual conflations used by ID/creationists to infer sectarian “intelligence” behind the patterns found in nature and thereby conclude “ intelligent design.”

    In the case of “information,” simply applying that name to a mathematical expression doesn’t mean there is an “intelligent message” buried in the calculation. If someone wants to call the mathematical expression -∑p(i)logp(i) “information,” then there needs to be some restriction on the meaning of that word just as there is when the word “work” is used in physics. There is no implication of some message hidden in the calculation by some intelligence.

    One could also say that the calculations of an average and standard deviation give “information” about a set of measurements; but the word “statistic” is already a technical word that applies to each of these calculations. The use of the word “information” in this instance is simply an explanation of what the statistics tell us about a central tendency of that measurement along with how much the individual measurements in that set are spread about that central value.

    The expression for the calculation of what has been called entropy in statistical mechanics, and Shannon entropy or Shannon information in signal processing, is no different in this regard. What one chooses to name a mathematical expression can seriously distort what the calculation is all about in the minds of lay persons. When Clausius chose to invent the word “entropy,” he chose a word that didn’t have a lot of other meanings associated with it.

    Nevertheless, a lot of extraneous baggage got attached to that word. The result has been to cause many people to miss completely the entire set of relationships of that calculation to the other variables that characterize the macroscopic state of a thermodynamic system. We can use those relationships to test our understanding of microscopic models of a system from the measurements we take in the laboratory. If one wants to insist on using the word “information,” then the sense of that word in that context is that we gain a better understanding about the correctness of our microscopic modeling of the system.

    The idea that we see “design” in nature is a throwback to the more primitive human tendency to anthropomorphize the natural world; it is not the removal of “materialistic blinders” that permits one to “go where the evidence leads.” It is a severe restriction on one’s thinking. It does not allow for the fact that patterns occur in nature regardless of how some sentient or semi-sentient creature interprets the patterns based on its own internal states and cultural history.

    The word “design” comes with the same emotional/socio/political baggage as does “information.” These words conjure up relationships and connections to “intelligence” that are not necessarily there in most cases.

    One of the most important lessons from the emergence and maturing of science is the lesson that human bias creeps into observations. That lesson has led to entire sets of strategies in research that reduce or cancel out such bias. One of those strategies has been to restrict the range of the meanings of labels or to invent labels that do not suggest relationships that do not exist among data.

    Unfortunately the rapid proliferation of highly specialized disciplines and sub-disciplines often leads to the use of the same word or words for entirely different concepts. Further confusion comes when politically active sectarians deliberately conflate these different concepts and retreat into primitive anthropomorphic “theorizing” in making the case for “intelligent design” in nature.

    My own opinion is that Bejan’s work will ultimately appeal only to the kinds of people who gravitate toward woo-woo anyway. It doesn’t have the power of emphasizing the relationships we already find in physics, chemistry, and biology without requiring us to tip-toe into anthropomorphic descriptions. His work doesn’t appear to add anything useful, and it has the disadvantage of promoting the kinds of biases science has struggled for hundreds of years to mitigate.

  27. Neil Rickert
    Ignored
    says:

    Gregory asked:

    Yes, exactly. So, what does it mean to you, Neil? Is ‘design in nature’ something ‘real’ or not? Iow, do you believe in/ accept the reality of either ‘internal design in nature’ or ‘external design of nature’?

    We still have the question of what do we mean by design.

    For me, it is reasonable to say that a bird designs the nest, and that a spider designs its web.  However, I do not believe that the bird or spider is making a grand plan, and then building to the spefications.  So it is design in a weak sense of having some sort of drive to build a nest, then applying ad hoc methods, together with feedback, to get a working structure.

    In the same weak sense of design, I think it reasonable to say that populations of biological organisms are redesigning themselves.

  28. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    I think it is better to say that populations are shaped by a combination of positive and purifying selection. Drift is what passes through the sieve of purifying selection. One of the selectors is constraint in the form of physical dynamics. Things have to fit together and be strong enough to do a task. Legs have to reach the ground, so to speak.

    Populations will explore all the nearby variations in form that don’t kill them. They will find the bottom of the pond.

  29. Alan Fox
    Ignored
    says:

    For me, it is reasonable to say that a bird designs the nest, and that a spider designs its web.

    I disagree. There is evidence that some birds improve their nest-building skills with practice but there is no evidence that the innate ability of spiders to construct webs involves any ability to design. In fact, the quality of web construction appears to tail off as a spider approaches the end of normal life-span. I would agree that the environment acts as a designer on spider genes to produce spiders that build webs that improve survivability in the particular niche occupied by the particular spider species.

  30. keiths
    Ignored
    says:

    Gregory,

    You brought up László, you lauded him, and you told us that his approach was similar to Bejan’s:

    Yes, I agree with your general assessment of Bejan’s approach. Indeed, it is not so much different than that of imo one of the greatest (grand theorist) living evolutionary thinkers, Ervin Laszlo, from nearby Hungary.

    Since you brought him up, it’s completely appropriate for me to point out that László is a crackpot whose ‘approach’ seems to be:

    1. Learn a tiny bit of science.
    2. Get most of it comically wrong.
    3. Make wild extrapolations from your errors and label them a “theory”.
    4. Get Deepak Chopra to endorse the whole mess, and plaster his hyperinflated plaudits on the back of your book.

    I’ll never get back the hour I wasted on László, but I can save others here from the same fate.

    As for Bejan: let’s hope you’re wrong and that Bejan’s approach is very, very different from László’s.

  31. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    I grew up with bantam chickens running loose in the yard. A rather common thing in the south of my childhood. I observed the mother hens learning to be mothers. In general the first couple of broods were killed by the mother stepping on them. Later ones died because the mother was inept at defending them. After three or four efforts some would survive.

    Whatever “instinct” is, it isn’t very specific.

    One thing that seemed inate was the attempt to defend the young. Unfortunately the early efforts were likely to do more harm than the enemy.

  32. Alan Fox
    Ignored
    says:

    Maybe our resident biochemist, Allan Miller, could speculate on how instinct could be transferred from parent to offspring. An orb web spider goes through the bottle-neck of a single cell embryo and generally receives no further input from the parent other than provision of stored food yet it is able to build a perfect web. Where else than in the DNA could the instinct for web construction be stored? What forms would such information take?

  33. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    Most such insect behaviors are comprised of a few simple rules. Not sure if that helps.

  34. Freelurker
    Ignored
    says:

    Gregory,

    I am an engineer who has been participating in the ID debate for about seven years. My specialty is the relationship between ID and engineering; most of the times I have spoken up have been when IDists have been misrepresenting engineering (which happens just about every time they try to associate the things that IDists do with the things that engineers do.) One of my degrees is in Systems Engineering, and I have studied General Systems Theory.

    I have been aware of Bejan’s work for some time, based on articles on the Internet, but I haven’t yet read his book. So far, I’ve seen Bejan use the term “design” the way it is commonly used in engineering. He’s no pioneer in this.

    In engineering, a design is an arrangement (a pattern) of parts. (I have seen Bejan use the term “configuration” interchangeably with “design,” which is consistent with what I am saying.) Performing an act of design means coming up with an arrangement of parts. When we read a design specification or attend a design review for a system, we expect to learn about what its parts will be, how they will be arranged, and how they will interact to fulfill the system’s purposes (its requirements). 

    (Note that, in engineering, purposes and intents are most closely related to the concept of requirements, not design.)

    As you have probably noticed yourself, IDists have their own jargon. The above is simply not what IDists mean by “design,” according to their own definitions. Michael Behe defines “design” as “the purposeful arrangement of parts.” He says that he has detected such design in, for example, the bacterial flagellum. But notice that he does not claim to be one of the people who discovered the arrangement of parts in the flagellum. He learned about that from scientists working in labs. Also note that he does not claim to have discovered the purpose of the flagellum, or the purposes of its parts. So what is this “design” that Behe has detected? It’s a free-floating purposefulness. (Dembski calls it the “complement of regularity and chance.”)

    So, if Bejan is saying that he is finding design in nature and, by that, he is meaning that he is finding regularly occurring arrangements of parts, then he is being consistent with the common use of “design” in engineering. (Regardless of whether he attributes the arrangements to flows.) Now, as to whether these patterns are ultimately attributable to a conscious designer, engineers haven’t found it useful to assume this, any more than scientists have. Not that anyone has proven it one way or the other.

  35. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    Maybe our resident biochemist, Allan Miller, could speculate on how instinct could be transferred from parent to offspring.

    I wouldn’t want to oversell my qualifications! This would actually be a better question for Elizabeth – it is a development/neuroscience issue. But yes, as I think you are saying, it can only be in DNA. Vogueish ‘epigenetic’ signals do not persist over multiple generations.

    But I would say that ‘instinctual’ patterns of behaviour would be the norm. When a single-celled Euglena responds to the light hitting its eye-spot, there is no neuronal link, but there is a simple ‘behavioural’ response. A certain clade of worm-like organisms developed neuronal connections that convey signals from part to part of a multicellular body, by a DNA-enregistered control ‘plan’, that includes both the switches inside neuronal cells that distinguish them from other tissues, and by the extracellular connectivity that enables them to form pathways, and to link up to muscle cells enabling ‘info’ to become ‘action’. Generational consistency in the formation of those pathways enables quite complex and sophisticated, but wholly ‘programmed’ (ignoring ALL ID connotations of that word!) behaviours to emerge, preserved by their emergent benefits for the organisms that possess them. 

    As a layer upon that, certain organisms have developed an additional ability, to shortcut the ‘natural’ process and conceive and execute novel designs and behaviours, a significant part of which is the ability to mentally model outcomes and choose among options, before ever letting those designs loose upon the real world.

  36. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    On spiders, “Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating” by Leslie Brunetta and Catherine Craig looks like it may be a good read. I’m seeing if I can get one at my local library.  I’d expect them to go into both the behavioural and chemical aspects of webslinging (one has to wade through a lot of extraneous stuff when one Googles “Spider web mutation”!).

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