Is Social Physics the Answer?

By Daniel Warner


A review of “Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies” (Penguin, 2017)


December 18, 2019


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.





For the most part, Newton, Maxwell, Russel/Darwin, and Einstein were examining physical phenomena in their searches for general laws. But what about social phenomena? Can the social world be reduced to mathematical laws similar to those in the natural world?

Geoffrey West’s Scaling 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 heartbeats 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.


Daniel Warner is a former deputy director of The Graduate Institute in Geneva.


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