Overcomplicated technology and the need for biological thinking

Overcomplicated technology and the need for biological thinking

Within physics there is a distinct trend toward unifying and simplifying the phenomena observed.  It is embodied by the work of Einstein or Newton or James Clerk Maxwell, who developed a handful of equations to explain the workings of electricity and magnetism. Simplification, even oversimplification, is often revered within the realm of physics.

Biologists, as a rule, have a greater comfort with diversity and bundles of facts, even if they are left unexplained by any single sweeping theory. A smaller, more qualified and modest model is just fine. Of course, this is not always true, as Charles Darwin was clearly a unifying force within biology, and many other types of biologists also tend toward this unifying approach.

I term these two perspectives physics thinking and biological thinking.

Both of these traditions seek the development of theories that are general and predictive. However, the two modes of thinking go about this in different ways, and their differences, driven by the properties and relative complexity of the systems they study, can be examined through their relative comfort with abstraction. For example, the use of mathematics to abstract away details at a grand level is found everywhere in physics, but less often in biology.

Abstraction has its place, but it is not in assuming spherical cows. When details are abstracted away in biology, not only is information lost, but you often end up losing significant portions of what the world contains and fail to explain what’s important, such as the edge cases. Biological thinking and physics thinking are distinct, and often complementary, approaches to the world, and ones that are appropriate for different kinds of systems.

How should we think about complex technologies? Are they biological systems, or physics systems? Which mode of thinking does technology require?

To answer that, we can explore the characteristics of each type of system and compare them to what we know about technology.

First, biological systems are generally more complicated than those in physics. In physics, the components are often identical—think of a system of nothing but gas particles, for example, or a single monolithic material, like a diamond. Physical interactions can often be uniform throughout an entire system, such as satellites orbiting a planet.

Not so with biology. In biology, there are a huge number of types of components, such as the diversity of proteins in a cell or the distinct types of tissues within a single creature; when studying, say, the mating behavior of blue whales, marine biologists may have to consider everything from their DNA to the temperature of the oceans.

Not only is each component in a biological system distinctive, but it is also a lot harder to disentangle from the whole. For example, you can look at the nucleus of an amoeba and try to understand it on its own, but you generally need the rest of the organism to have a sense of how the nucleus fits in to the operation of the amoeba, how it provides the core genetic information involved in the many functions of the entire cell. As our technologies become more complex and intertwined, it’s clear that they resemble biological systems more than those of physics.


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