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The Need for Biological Thinking to Solve Complex Problems

“Biological thinking and physics thinking are distinct, and often complementary, approaches to the world, and ones that are appropriate for different kinds of systems.”

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How should we think about complexity? Should we use a biological or physics system? The answer, of course, is that it depends. It’s important to have both tools available at your disposal.

These are the questions that Samuel Arbesman explores in his fascinating book Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension.

[B]iological 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. Beyond that, the types of interactions can often be uniform throughout an entire system, such as satellites orbiting a planet.

Biology is different and there is something meaningful to be learned from a biological approach to thinking.

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 into the operation of the amoeba, how it provides the core genetic information involved in the many functions of the entire cell.

Arbesman makes an interesting point here when it comes to how we should look at technology. As the interconnections and complexity of technology increases, it increasingly resembles a biological system rather than a physics one. There is another difference.

[B]iological systems are distinct from many physical systems in that they have a history. Living things evolve over time. While the objects of physics clearly do not emerge from thin air—astrophysicists even talk about the evolution of stars—biological systems are especially subject to evolutionary pressures; in fact, that is one of their defining features. The complicated structures of biology have the forms they do because of these complex historical paths, ones that have been affected by numerous factors over huge amounts of time. And often, because of the complex forms of living things, where any small change can create unexpected effects, the changes that have happened over time have been through tinkering: modifying a system in small ways to adapt to a new environment.

Biological systems are generally hacks that evolved to be good enough for a certain environment. They are far from pretty top-down designed systems. And to accommodate an ever-changing environment they are rarely the most optimal system on a mico-level, preferring to optimize for survival over any one particular attribute. And it’s not the survival of the individual that’s optimized, it’s the survival of the species.

Technologies can appear robust until they are confronted with some minor disturbance, causing a catastrophe. The same thing can happen to living things. For example, humans can adapt incredibly well to a large array of environments, but a tiny change in a person’s genome can cause dwarfism, and two copies of that mutation invariably cause death. We are of a different scale and material from a particle accelerator or a computer network, and yet these systems have profound similarities in their complexity and fragility.

Biological thinking, with a focus on details and diversity, is a necessary tool to deal with complexity.

The way biologists, particularly field biologists, study the massively complex diversity of organisms, taking into account their evolutionary trajectories, is therefore particularly appropriate for understanding our technologies. Field biologists often act as naturalists— collecting, recording, and cataloging what they find around them—but even more than that, when confronted with an enormously complex ecosystem, they don’t immediately try to understand it all in its totality. Instead, they recognize that they can study only a tiny part of such a system at a time, even if imperfectly. They’ll look at the interactions of a handful of species, for example, rather than examine the complete web of species within a single region. Field biologists are supremely aware of the assumptions they are making, and know they are looking at only a sliver of the complexity around them at any one moment.

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When we’re dealing with different interacting levels of a system, seemingly minor details can rise to the top and become important to the system as a whole. We need “Field biologists” to catalog and study details and portions of our complex systems, including their failures and bugs. This kind of biological thinking not only leads to new insights, but might also be the primary way forward in a world of increasingly interconnected and incomprehensible technologies.

Waiting and observing isn’t enough.

Biologists will often be proactive, and inject the unexpected into a system to see how it reacts. For example, when biologists are trying to grow a specific type of bacteria, such as a variant that might produce a particular chemical, they will resort to a process known as mutagenesis. Mutagenesis is what it sounds like: actively trying to generate mutations, for example by irradiating the organisms or exposing them to toxic chemicals.

When systems are too complex for human understanding, often we need to insert randomness to discover the tolerances and limits of the system. One plus one doesn’t always equal two when you’re dealing with non-linear systems. For biologists, tinkering is the way to go.

One plus one doesn't always equal two when you're dealing with non-linear systems. Click To Tweet

As Stewart Brand noted about legacy systems, “Teasing a new function out of a legacy system is not done by command but by conducting a series of cautious experiments that with luck might converge toward the desired outcome.”

When Physics and Biology Meet

This doesn’t mean we should abandon the physics approach, searching for underlying regularities in complexity. The two systems complement one another rather than compete.

Arbesman recommends asking the following questions:

When attempting to understand a complex system, we must determine the proper resolution, or level of detail, at which to look at it. How fine-grained a level of detail are we focusing on? Do we focus on the individual enzyme molecules in a cell of a large organism, or do we focus on the organs and blood vessels? Do we focus on the binary signals winding their way through circuitry, or do we examine the overall shape and function of a computer program? At a larger scale, do we look at the general properties of a computer network, and ignore the individual machines and decisions that make up this structure?

When we need to abstract away a lot of the details we lean on physics thinking more. Think about it from an organizational perspective. The new employee at the lowest level is focused on the specific details of their job whereas the executive is focused on systems, strategy, culture, and flow — how things interact and reinforce one another. The details of the new employee’s job are lost on them.

We can’t use one system, whether biological or physics, exclusively. That’s a sure way to fragile thinking. Rather, we need to combine them.

In Cryptonomicon, a novel by Neal Stephenson, he makes exactly this point talking about the structure of the pantheon of Greek gods:

And yet there is something about the motley asymmetry of this pantheon that makes it more credible. Like the Periodic Table of the Elements or the family tree of the elementary particles, or just about any anatomical structure that you might pull up out of a cadaver, it has enough of a pattern to give our minds something to work on and yet an irregularity that indicates some kind of organic provenance—you have a sun god and a moon goddess, for example, which is all clean and symmetrical, and yet over here is Hera, who has no role whatsoever except to be a literal bitch goddess, and then there is Dionysus who isn’t even fully a god—he’s half human—but gets to be in the Pantheon anyway and sit on Olympus with the Gods, as if you went to the Supreme Court and found Bozo the Clown planted among the justices.

There is a balance and we need to find it.