Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Living in the "Century of Biology"

I just got done reading the Freeman Dyson piece in the latest New York Review, based on lectures he gave in 2004. The opening sentence is: "It has become part of the accepted wisdom to say that the twentieth century was the century of physics and the twenty-first century will be the century of biology." The rest of the article explores scenarios that would support this proposition. However, while most of Dyson's scenarios involve eventual roles for biotechnology as the new paradigm for solving the world's problems (poverty being highest on his list), I think he missed out on the real paradigm shift that is likely to be at stake.

The key to that paradigm shift lies in the work of Carl Woese, whom he cites at the beginning of his article. The most important take-away from Woese's work is that the shift away from physics entails a shift away from the reductionist thinking of physics. This is all about trying to explain the complex in terms of combinations of simple constructs, whether it is the detonation of a massively deadly bomb in terms of the behavior of subatomic particles or the sort of strategic planning for an enterprise that tries to abstract the consequences of specific actions into costs and benefits. When Woese speculates on a "new biology," he is thinking about (in Dyson's words) "the obsolescence of reductionist biology as it has been practiced for the last hundred years" (which is to say under the paradigm of physics as "normal science"). It remains to be seen just how the paradigm can (or will) shift; but, when we view agricultural practices through the lenses that Dyson offers, the shift may be in the direction of the sort of "living systems" theory that resulted in a 1000-page book by James Grier Miller back in 1978. This is a paradigm for dealing with an entire ecology with lots of tight couplings (and lots of loose ones, too). Miller (not cited by Dyson) tries to develop a paradigm that can scale from the level of the cell to the level of what he called "the supranational system" (thus anticipating globalization); and two levels below that top level is where he situates the "organization" (where strategic decisions are made on the basis of the cold figures of cost-benefit analyses).

To try to invoke the complexity of living systems to get away from the positivist paradigm of physics-based reductionism may be little more than invoking a new wave of romanticism to counter Enlightenment thinking; but one of my own "rehearsal" objectives is to try to stay one step ahead of the next paradigm shift. Miller, Woese, and Dyson all seem to be thinking about the world at large, rather than the world of the laboratory bench; and it is comforting to see Dyson give so much attention to the problem of poverty, even if I do not agree with everything he says. Personally, I am more impressed by Joel Salatin, whose Polyface Farm experiment was documented in Michael Pollan's recent book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. This is a farm whose operations are based on "a deep understanding of ecology" (in the words of Tim Flannery's review of Pollan's book in The New York Review). Those of us in the more mundane world of enterprise information systems might do well to take a cue or two from such ecological thinking, even if it means going back to Miller's 1000 pages in search of lessons to help us in these times of great and troubling complexity!

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