Thursday, January 29, 2009

when cross-disciplinary studies go bad

I have long respected the work of the Santa Fe Institute, home to "multidisciplinary collaborations in the physical, biological, computational, and social sciences" in pursuit of an "understanding of complex adaptive systems," which are found everywhere from cells to cities. I was therefore disappointed by a recent article on Santa Fe Institute President Geoffrey West, who appears to believe that mankind is on the path to "imminent destruction" (to his credit, those are the journalist's words, not his.) Beyond the sensational conclusion, I was put off by the surprisingly questionable logic employed by the theoretical physicist and the disconnect between his conclusions and reality.

West is an expert in universal scaling laws, and has focused his recent research on "[understanding] the dynamics of organisms, their structure, their organization, how they grow, how they evolve, how they live and how they die." He adds, "I wanted to see in what way an elephant is just a blown up mouse or a blown up human being, or in what way we are just a blown up cell." West's research has succeeded in uncovering principles of scale: "the pace of life gets slower and slower the bigger you are - in a very systematic, predictable way. You can do this from ecosystems down to cells. All of biology, pretty much across the whole spectrum, obeys this kind of behavior." The differences between the mouse and the elephant exemplify these principles.

How do these principles hold up when applied to human societies? According to West, not well. Greater size in human societies, be they cities or firms, does not lead to greater efficiency. West concedes that larger human societies bring about more wealth produced per capita, but argues that as "the number of patents that are produced goes up, the greater the number of AIDS cases there are, the greater the number of crimes there are, and the greater the amount of pollution that is produced."

Whereas larger organisms will have less disease and consume less energy relative to its size, West found that disease and energy consumption did not decline, leading him to conclude that human societies do NOT benefit from economies of scale like organisms in nature. From West's perspective, human societies grow less efficient as they grow larger. In nature, large animals use less oxygen per gram of weight than small ones, while humans seem to have a unyielding demand for money (the connection between oxygen and money being that each is a "vehicle for transforming goods into something useful"). And while the pace of organisms slows with greater size, activities within human societies grow more rapid with size, from bank transactions to the speed of walking.

It's hard to know where to start in rebuttal. First, if we are to test the applicability of scaling laws in organisms to scaling laws in human societies, it's important to properly assign our roles and keep them consistent. This should be straightforward, as small organism: large organism what small society: large society.

I will note that West fails to maintain the integrity of this relationship; for instance, when he argues that the pace of societies speeds up with size (unlike organisms), he is not talking about society, but its components. The speed of walking or activity of humans within that society is not the speed of society. Individual human beings: society is analogous to cells: organism. Once again, human accumulation of money (in surplus of what is necessary for reasonable expectation of survival) is not analogous to organisms' consumption of oxygen. There are in fact numerous reasons why this analogy doesn't hold, but there's no reason to go beyond the logic found in an SAT handbook – the analogy is violated by comparing a part (man) with a whole (organism).

To restate, West is, in theory, comparing the scaling laws of organisms to the scaling laws of human societies, so the wholes are organisms and societies; analysis of the parts of the wholes (e.g., cells and humans) may indeed be relevant, but they must be contrasted with one another, not with the wholes, to maintain consistency.

Perhaps more striking than the bizarre logic employed is the contrast between the reality and West's perception of cities. He sees larger human societies as more inefficient, yet the greater the size of human settlements, the more efficient they are – whether we are talking about environmental impact or otherwise. He sees the prevalence of disease canceling out the wealth created by economies of scale, but in what world is this born out? Wealth creation has allowed those who participate in the economies of scale to live longer, better lives. Economy of scale has given societies more productive, healthier cells, to the benefit of the whole (the society) and its parts (man).

The societies and the people who are least healthy, the least productive, and the least well-off are those who are least able to participate in the economies of scale. They are the mice. Their lives are short, nasty and brutish. These people and these societies would love to cope with the problems West associates with societies of great scale, and few if any members of large societies would trade their New York residency for a few acres in New Guinea.

West misses an opportunity to demonstrate the scaling laws of organisms actually apply quite well to human societies. From cells to human beings, living things are better able to survive in large vehicles – be they organisms or societies. That is not say greater size is always evolutionary advantageous, but is to say the principles of greater efficiency and durability West found in large organisms applies to large societies as well.

Finally, as the article nears the end, West argues that human society is unsustainable because "the pace of life is constantly quickening and the time between major innovations is necessarily getting shorter." He apparently believes it's a bad omen that while "it may have taken 50,000 years to go from stone to iron, and it may have taken 100 years to go from steam and coal to oil … how long did it take to go from being dominated by computers to being dominated by information technology, as being distinct from computers?"

Wow. And the final head-scratcher: "Products are coming out one after another. I have in front of me this marvellous Mac, but it is already becoming outdated. It's not only that we are on this treadmill that is getting faster and faster, but we are accelerating it."

Perhaps I'm missing something, but I am not sure why any of this is supposed to worry me. Notice that there is no resource depletion argument being made: he's not arguing that we're going to consume our ecosystem into nothingness. Apparently, the human productivity and technological innovation that has come with larger webs of cooperation and exchange have put us on a path to disaster.

Given Mr West's credentials, I'm wary of being too critical
–especially, when judging his work through the lens of a journalist– but I am left at a loss.

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