The clash of civilizations: optimists versus pessimists

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.