The clash of civilizations: optimists versus pessimists

J. Peder Zane | Author, Design in Nature

A few years ago, I began assembling a doom and gloom file. Lickety-split it was filled with newspaper and magazine articles lamenting the “grim times” and “dark days,” the “hopeless epoch” we were being fated to live through. And none of these writers were fundamentalist Christians.

John Schwartz added to my pile Sunday with a column in The New York Times Sunday Review that asserted, “The dirty little secret of speculative fiction is that it’s hard to go wrong predicting that things will get worse.”

I started the file to document my belief that pessimism is the default mechanism for too many “enlightened” and “sophisticated” people. In fairness, fretting is not just fashionable, it also makes evolutionary sense. Our minds are hardwired to fix on threats, on phenomena that might harm us. We don’t ignore the good but back-seat it, focusing on whatever might imperil it. In short, we take what we’ve got for granted. Doom and gloom is also a safe position for commentators. Nobody blames Chicken Little when the sky doesn’t fall; we’re just relieved he was wrong.

And, as Hobbes observed, for much of human existence, life was “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” This historical reality shaped our thought for millennia so that even today, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, this mindset informs us. It also puts a new spin on the idea of the end of history: The past profoundly shapes our view of the present, but it also leads us to discount or ignore much of what we have accomplished.

I was reminded of this a few months ago when I toured a high school with my oldest daughter and saw the books taught in a course on 20th century world history. War, genocide and racism were the themes of these works, which cast that period as a series of tragedies. As my daughter turned crimson, I asked the teacher if the 20th century wasn’t also the period when we shook off monarchy and defeated ruthless dictators, developed medicines and crop technologies that expanded human lifespans beyond previous imagining, and invented the airplane and air conditioning as well as personal computers, cell phones and other technologies that have been a powerful force for human liberation.

I’ve had countless conversations of this kind and like almost everyone else I’ve button-holed, the teacher said, “Yes, but …” without offering much of a but at all. In fact, I don’t need to take too much space here detailing how much life improved during the 20th century (or how much better the 19th century was than the 18th, the 18th century’s advantages over the 17th, and so on) because no one denies it. Instead, they concede the point and then continue with their pessimistic groupthink.

My optimism has only increased since I began writing a book with Professor Adrian Bejan of Duke University about his great discovery, the constructal law. The constructal law is a first principle of physics that accounts for all design and evolution in nature. Briefly, it holds that shape and structure arise to facilitate flow. Raindrops on the hillside coalesce to form rivulets, streams and, eventually, the tree-shaped river basins that cover the globe because this design facilitates their movement. Lightning bolts form a similar tree-shaped pattern because this design is good for moving current (electricity) from an area (the cloud) to a point (the church steeple, or another cloud). It’s no accident that we find the same tree-like design in our circulatory systems, which ferry blood to all our cells.

Bejan also observes that all designs evolve with a direction in time — they configure and reconfigure themselves to enhance flow (to carry more current farther and faster per unit of useful energy consumed). Not every change enhances flow (just as not every random mutation in biological creatures increases adaptability); but those that do, stick. Put another way, things improve over time; that is, there is a physics basis for the idea of progress.

The key point here is the fresh perspective that the constructal law provides on human history. As Bejan has demonstrated in dozens of peer-reviewed articles, social systems are also flow systems that acquire design to move their currents. Transport networks, university systems, governments and economies all carry currents (people, ideas, policies, economies and governments) through evolving channels. Over time, these designs improve to carry more current faster, cheaper and more quickly.

The power of this discovery is that it allows us to see how indisputable improvements in the natural world — would anyone claim that water moves more easily seeping through the ground than by running in a river? — are a template for advancement in the man-made world. The vast improvements that have marked the history of civilization, from the early discoveries of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to the wonders of our age, are the story of inexorably greater flow. Like the evolving river basin, the history of civilization has a direction in time: toward greater health and comfort, greater human capacity (especially when coupled with machines) and greater freedom. The present may not be all we want it to be. But in just about every respect, today is better than yesterday. If we can be sure of one thing, it is that the world will be even better tomorrow.

This human connection — this unity — with all around us provides another fresh perspective. It focuses our minds on the length and breadth of history. History is a powerful phenomenon that courses through deeply entrenched channels. These channels evolve, but it takes a truly cataclysmic event to fundamentally alter their course.

This is important to remember as we think about 9/11, what is has changed and not changed in America and the world. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times provided one response, which I largely agree with:

“Ten years later, it is even clearer that 9/11 has not provoked a seismic change in the arts. While there were shifts in the broader culture — like an increasingly toxic polarization in our politics, and an alarming impulse to privilege belief over facts — such developments have had less to do with 9/11 than with the ballooning of partisanship during the Bush and Obama administrations, and with unrelated forces like technology, which gave us the social media revolution of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and which magnified the forces of democratization, relativism and subjectivity.”

What’s missing from her description is an acknowledgement of the pessimistic view that has informed much of the coverage of events since 9/11. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the alleged torture of suspected terrorists, the criminal actions at Abu-Ghraib, the tense relationships between the West and Islam and continuing claims about the mistreatment of American Muslims have all been used to paint the United States as a brutally imperialistic, deeply intolerant nation.

In fact, in the long view of history, we see that post-9/11 America reflects the inexorable advancement of those essential mechanisms that allow people to flow more easily: human rights and freedom. We also observe an expanded definition of compassion that extends beyond respect for members of our tribe or nation and increasingly includes our enemies. It is of a piece with the long march of American history in which women, African-Americans and other once-marginalized groups have been provided greater and greater access to the blessings of liberty (though sexism and racism have not perished). It is telling that the once-taboo subject of same-sex marriage has enjoyed increasing acceptance during the last decade.

War is brutal; terrible, inhumane actions are inevitable. But when we compare how the United States has prosecuted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with those in our recent past, we see a nation that should give us hope about our capacity to change for the better.

Compare the firebombing of Dresden and other cities during World War II with the current commitment to limit civilian casualties and to investigate such dreadful mistakes when they occur. During the Vietnam War many explained away American misdeeds with the comment that “life is cheap over there.” Such barbarous thought, though not completely gone, is now wholly unacceptable in mainstream discourse.

To see moral evolution in action, contrast America’s current approach with those of our enemies who routinely murder civilians through suicide bombings and other planned attacks.

The wide coverage of America’s alleged torture since 9/11 routinely casts such conduct as a sign of a sickness in the American soul. I would argue that the fact that such techniques have been used so sparingly, and have been the subject of so much debate within and outside of government, is further proof of our moral evolution. The same is true of the treatment of Muslim-Americans since 9/11. Assigning collective guilt (especially upon the innocent) is absolutely unacceptable, but the relatively rare instances of mistreatment of Muslim-Americans stands in stark contrast to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

To be clear, the question here is one of scale. The United States has engaged in many regrettable actions since 9/11, but far fewer than we have in the past.

A final thought. Every year, my discussions with a dear friend always seem to return to the atomic bombings of Japan. He always maintains that they were a murderous and unnecessary act, especially the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki. I always counter that they saved hundreds of thousands of American lives, including perhaps my father’s and grandfather’s, by ending the war.

I am especially critical of what I see as his desire to make the U.S. the bad guy in a war where, to my mind, we were clearly on the side of the angels. Of all the noble and savage actions that marked that war, the obliteration of those two Japanese cities are poor candidates as short-hand symbols for our nation’s efforts.

At root, our disagreement seemed to center on our view of America. To my mind, he has a dark view of a sinful nation too willing to treat “the other” as less than human. I’ve always had a sunnier perspective of a nation that has been forced to take unpalatable steps in the movement toward a greater good.

During our most recent bark-fest, in the shadow of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I began to see things in a different light, recognizing how both pessimism and optimism are necessary to society’s evolution. While I believe my view of the bombings is correct, I also see that it only gets us so far. To only say they were necessary can stifle the flow of further examination. It was the right thing to do, case closed.

To his great credit, my friend’s incessant critique is of a piece with larger moral arguments that are transforming America into an ever-more compassionate nation. It has contributed mightily to the moral sensibility that informs our conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Great storytelling revolves around conflict because life does. Almost every significant issue provides us with a paradox, that each of us resolves based on our own experiences and understandings. In the final tally, pessimists need optimists to remind them of the central fact we are not treading water; life is getting better and better. Optimists need pessimists to guard against complacency, to identify the problem amidst the goodness.

As Bejan notes, imperfection can never be eliminated; an optimal state, an Eden, is unattainable. Systems continuously evolve because there is always room for improvement. The trick for us is to find a way to appreciate all that we have accomplished while never forgetting there is more work to be done.

J. Peder Zane is co-author with Adrian Bejan of “Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization,” which Doubleday will publish in January.

Correction: This article originally stated that John Schwartz’s column appeared in The New York Times Book Review. It actually appeared in The New York Times Sunday Review.

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