Systems biology in wartime

June 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

Walter Fontana has taken a great leap forward (backward?) in the “cite the oldest paper” stakes by offering up this 1948 opinion piece by Warren Weaver.  (Weaver, W. 1948. Science and Complexity.  American Scientist 36, 536.)  One amusing thing about this piece, at least for me, is its lessons in the ways that writing has changed over the last 60 years.  The first sentence, “Science has led to a multitude of results that affect men’s lives” would instantly be edited today to avoid a charge of sexism; and while the last sentence of the first paragraph, “Still other aspects of science are thoroughly awesome” has a modern ring, what he probably meant was awe-provoking, not AW-sum.

Anyway — back to the science.  Weaver starts by describing the physical science of the 17th-19th centuries as being focused on (largely) two-variable problems that he calls “problems of simplicity”.  The life sciences, however, could not make progress in the same way: “The significant problems of living organisms are seldom those in which one can rigidly maintain constant all but two variables. Living things are more likely to present situations in which a half-dozen, or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously, and in subtly interconnected ways. Often they present situations in which the essentially important quantities are either non-quantitative, or have at any rate eluded identification or measurement up to the moment. Thus biological and medical problems often involve the consideration of a most complexly organized whole.”

Yes indeed.  Just look at this heroic recent study on autism disorders, which identifies over 200 rare gene copy number variants (CNVs) that are over-represented in autism disorders; the authors estimate that their findings probably explain about 3% of the autism risk in the population.

Three percent.  Better than nothing, but still. Lots of job security there for disease geneticists. (Or maybe not)

Weaver goes on to draw a distinction between “disorganized complexity” — problems with so many variables that statistical techniques become useful — and “organized complexity”, problems where there are many variables that are “interrelated in a complicated, but nevertheless not in helter-skelter, fashion.” Problems of living systems, economics and politics fall into the category of “organized complexity”, and resist statistical analysis: for example, “how does the original genetic constitution of a living organism express itself in the developed characteristics of the adult?”  These problems of “organized complexity”, from the point of view of physics, are a “great middle region” between problems of simplicity and problems of disorganized complexity.  The important characteristic of these problems, organization itself, is one that “science has as yet little explored or conquered”.  Walter, who seems to like wide-open spaces — the desert, the sky, the field of aging — loves the idea that we are “settlers” in this vast unexplored territory between the two regions known to physics.

Weaver asks, will we ever be able to learn to deal with the problems of organized complexity? He sees hope in two recent developments that arose “out of the wickedness of war”: computers, and interdisciplinarity.

“The first piece of evidence [that we will one day be able to address these problems] is the wartime development of new types of electronic computing devices. These devices are, in flexibility and capacity, more like a human brain than like the traditional mechanical computing device of the past. They have memories in which vast amounts of information can be stored. They can be “told” to carry out computations of very intricate complexity, and can be left unattended while they go forward automatically with their task. The astounding speed with which they proceed is illustrated by the fact that one small part of such a machine, if set to multiplying two ten-digit numbers, can perform such multiplications some 40,000 times faster than a human operator can say “Jack Robinson.” This combination of flexibility, capacity, and speed makes it seem likely that such devices will have a tremendous impact on science. They will make it possible to deal with problems which previously were too complicated, and, more importantly, they will justify and inspire the development of new methods of analysis applicable to these new problems of organized complexity.”

[Help, please: could someone please translate the “Jack Robinson” standard for me so that we know what kind of computing power he was talking about?]

As for interdisciplinarity: “Inaugurated with brilliance by the British” [ha!] “…[t]hese operations analysis groups were … mixed teams. Although mathematicians, physicists, and engineers were essential, the best of the groups also contained physiologists, biochemists, psychologists, and a variety of representatives of other fields of the biochemical and social sciences. Among the outstanding members of English mixed teams, for example, were an endocrinologist and an X-ray crystallographer. Under the pressure of war, these mixed teams pooled their resources and focused all their different insights on the common problems. It was found, in spite of the modern tendencies toward intense scientific specialization, that members of such diverse groups could work together and could form a unit which was much greater than the mere sum of its parts. It was shown that these groups could tackle certain problems of organized complexity, and get useful answers.”

Walter tells me that he read this while working at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) and was so excited by it that he put it in everyone’s mailbox.  George Cowan then told Walter that he was influenced by Weaver’s writings when he founded SFI (which explicitly focuses on the study of “organized complexity” as defined by Weaver) in 1985. This prompted Walter to ask Murray Gell-Mann: given that the challenge of complexity was clearly recognized in 1948, why did it take until 1985 to found the Santa Fe Institute? Gell-Mann’s answer was that desktop computers became affordable in the 1980’s. And why Santa Fe? Because of the rich source of people who knew how to use computers effectively at nearby Los Alamos.

So, there you have it. Systems biology was invented in World War II.  Unless someone else has found an older article…

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§ One Response to Systems biology in wartime

  • Ratio club

    It is amusing to think that “interdisciplinarity was inaugurated with brilliance by the British”. Weaver was quite right, although it seems to have been downhill since then. There is an interesting photograph of the post-war Ratio Club, which was somewhat like the Macy Foundation Conferences on cybernetics in the US but was founded in memory of the brilliant Cambridge psychologist Kenneth Craik. Notice Alan Turing seated on the ground along with the physiologist William Rushton and the neuroscientist Horace Barlow and Ross Ashby, one of the pioneers of cybernetics, standing in the middle. An eclectic, if gender-challenged, group

    Weaver was a mathematician who ran the Rockefeller Foundation’s science programme. Before WWII it was private foundations, not Governments, that supported science. It was Weaver who first coined the phrase “molecular biology” but he was referring to the pre-WWII synthesis of biology and physics (X-rays, radioactivity, ultracentrifuges) that culminated in Crick, Watson, Franklin & Wilkins work on DNA and not the new biology that emerged from it. Molecular biology’s roots in mathematics and physics were rather quickly forgotten.

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