Is Social Physics the Answer?


Do you believe in Newton’s law that objects with different weights fall to the ground at the same speed? Do you accept that Maxwell unified electricity and magnetic theory to define the laws of electromagnetic waves? Do you recognize the validity of Russel and Darwin’s theory of natural selection? Can you appreciate the power of Einstein’s theory of relativity without understanding all its nuances? If you answer yes to all these questions, even if you are not a mathematician or physicist, then you are among those who see the importance of simple general theories that help us understand the world we live in.

All of the above can be reduced to mathematical equations. All quantify and reduce enormous information to relatively simple mathematical formulas. After all, E=MC2 is not that difficult to understand. For the physicist and mathematician, the search for a Theory of Everything is an exercise that rationalizes all that goes on around us. For the non-mathematician or physicist, we accept those laws we understand, but hesitate to accept the quantification of all that goes on around us. Some of us even rebel against simple supply and demand curves as explanations of our economic choices.

Geoffrey West’s Scale: The Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies is not an attempt to present a Theory of Everything for our social lives. Rather, through scaling theory he tries to provide “a powerful tool for forging a middle ground in which a quantitative framework can be developed for understanding and predicting the…behaviour of many broad aspects of such [complex adaptive] systems.” His assumption is that many parts of our social system can be reduced to a limited number of equations. 

Worried about dying? My doctor recently told me that I will die in twelve years. After slowly recovering from the shock, (Was he trying to tell me I had a slow but fatal disease?), he informed me that statistically, the average Swiss man dies at 84. He was using statistics to predict my death.

West is more sophisticated. He wants to know why we die, so he examines the relationship between size and heart beats in mammals and other animals to derive a formula that relates to all living beings. More importantly, he looks at how living systems need energy to survive and how the resilience and sustainability of living systems relate to all organisms. His social physics also includes cities and companies, not usually associated with living organisms. 

The battle to combat entropy by continually having to supply more energy for growth, innovation, maintenance, and repair becomes increasingly more challenging as the system ages. According to West, this fundamental fact underlies any serious discussion of aging, mortality, resilience, and sustainability, whether for organisms, companies, or societies.

The search to develop a quantitative science of complexity may not be your cup of tea. But, it is fascinating to read why in recent times the life span of human beings in developed countries is around 100 years. That doesn’t mean that we will all live to 100, but West shows how simple graphs can be drawn that reflect averages, just as my doctor predicted my demise at 84.

West’s system theory is ambitious. He shows how the energy needed to pump blood through our system can be related to all living systems, from huge mammals like whales to the growth of tumors. According to West, all living things have a somewhat similar quantitative relationship between the energy needed to survive and its distribution throughout the body.

Based on that concept, West then turns to cities and companies as living systems susceptible to quantitative analysis. His assumption is that looking at urban centers around the globe or selected companies allows one to derive principles and mathematical formulas that go beyond geography and culture. While the mathematical details may be beyond a laymen’s understanding, it is truly impressive to see how certain general theories can be applied to living organisms, cities and companies. There are similarities.

What is missing in the book is a serious discussion of the implications of what West has shown. First, if his formulas are applicable across living systems, cities and companies, where do they come from? While it is fascinating to read that there are certain generalities that can be quantitatively shown, the reader would appreciate some conjecture about where these laws came from. If I accept that there are defining laws to explain very diverse phenomenon, what or who is behind the laws? Is there some Great Mathematician that only people like West can understand? Is there a relation between a Grand Designer and these laws?

West also does not deal with the philosophical problem of free will. I understand, as my doctor explained to me, that I may live to less or more than 84 years. There are outliers. But, he affirmed, I will not live to 150. The system, my body, has its limits, as do all living organisms, and, according to West, as do cities and companies. (It is not without interest how CNN is highlighting companies that have existed for more than 100 years. Are they all outliers?) While human life expectancy has increased, according to West all systems have their limits, no matter what we do to change them. The laws of nature are immutable. 

Recent economic theory has moved on from simplistic supply and demand curves to emotional economics. Qualitative is competing with quantitative theory. West does not deal with emotions. He and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute are looking beyond consciousness or feelings just as the Human Brain Project is looking to how the brain functions to explain consciousness and emotions scientifically.

West’s book opens up a whole new world about how to think in a larger framework. Is that new world a Brave New World? While I’m not sure that that judgment is necessary, it is certainly a fascinating one to read about.



Lien permanent 5 commentaires


  • The evolution theory cannot be reduced to a mathematical model. Quite the contrary, it shows than nature is far too complex to be reduced to mathematical equations.

    It is only look at the weather forecasts to understand that.

    On the other side, many professional rely on mathematics for a living. They will not accept easily that what they publish is garbage. It is only necessary to think about the costs of the CERN. They MUST publish something new. Even if it is useless. Do you believe in the existence of the Higgs boson?
    Do you believe in black energy?
    Do you believe in black matter?
    Do you believe in the big bang theory?

  • "what or who is behind the laws? Is there some Great Mathematician that only people like West can understand?"
    Question curieusement naïve. Attendiez-vous une preuve de l'existence de dieu ?
    Il y a beaucoup de caractéristiques communes dans les lois physiques. Par exemple, la loi de Coulomb (interaction inversement proportionnelle au carré de la distance entre les deux charges) et la gravité (Newton conclut que la force agissante entre deux corps s’exerce en ligne droite entre les deux corps et est proportionnelle à 1/d2, où d est la distance entre les deux corps.)
    Autre exemple : il existe deux types d'aquifères : à porosité (sables, graviers) ou fracturé (karst). Mais on a constaté que l'on peut étendre aux aquifères fracturés les lois qui régissent les essais de pompage normalement applicables au système simple de l'aquifère poreux. Soit dit en passant, il s'agit aussi de circulation de liquide, comme le sang ou le flux des voitures dans une ville...
    Enfin, à propos de constantes, l'ADN des bactéries est construit sur les mêmes bases que le nôtre et celui de tous les animaux...
    Mais cela ne nous dit pas le pourquoi et le comment et il y a gros à parier que nous allons disparaître sans jamais le savoir...

  • En fait, après réflexion, ces théories de West me paraissent être une réponse scientifique aux utopistes fous qui pensent que certains humains, à coup de milliards de dollars, pourront être immortels.

  • Peut-on mettre en équations la réalité ? Jusqu´a une certaine approximation, probablement. Mais comment aller au-dela alors que nous ignorons ce qu´est la réalité ou meme si elle existe. Et si nous y parvenions un jour, pourrons-nous y survivre ou devrons-nous subir le sort du poete qui réussit a connaitre la Beauté, faveur interdite aux hommes ainsi que dans la nouvelle de Borges intitulée Le Miroir et le Masque ?

  • A new skin for a malthusian like ceremony ?

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