Review of Scale by Geoffrey West

I talk about the book Scale by Geoffrey West and how everything is a self-similar fractal.
June 8, 2021

Geoffrey West is a British physicist that works at the Santa Fe Institute in the USA. He lay on in this book, Scale, that by applying the precisional nature of physics to biology, we can see that most organisms are, in fact, self-similar fractals of each other. 

The following 440 pages are Geoffrey explaining this in the only way a Physicist could: laying out their hypothesis, testing and analysing the results. By which I mean it reads a bit like a Thesis. 

On the cover, Niall Ferguson describes it as a firework display of popular science. While I found the central premise undoubtedly interesting, it was lighting up my sky much by page 300. 

Scale is one of several books I have read about finding simplicity in complexity and sustainability in massive systems. 

On sustainability, West lays out the idea of a finite-time singularity: 

'In a nutshell, the problem is the theory also predicts that unbounded growth cannot be sustained without having either infinite resources or inducing major paradigm shifts that reset the clock before potential collapse occurs.'

To illustrate this later in the book, he posits that technological revolutions, such as the agricultural and industrial revolutions, have averted economic collapses. It reminded me about the technocratic view of this technological revolution saving humanity from climate collapse.  

I also drew comparisons for social structures such as communities of practice through the emergent behaviour of self-organisation: 

In general, then, a universal characteristic of a complex system is that the whole is greater than, and often significantly different from, the sum of its parts. In many instances, the whole seems to take on a life of its own, almost dissociated from the specific characteristics of its individual building blocks.

[self-organisation is] an emergent behaviour in which the constituents themselves agglomerate to form the emergent whole, as in the form of human social groups, such as book clubs or political rallies, or your organs, which can be viewed as self-organisation of its inhabitants. 

And this is where it got really interesting to me. I am fascinated by the relationship between hierarchical and distributed systems. Companies and organisations in the 20th and early 21st century are predominately hierarchical, but this seldom reflected in nature. Cities have various communities of interest that are all vying for control of the cities destiny: the council, community groups and businesses are all contributing towards its journey to the future, but no one entity is accountable for it. 

Later, Geoffrey goes one step further:

[through the structure of human social networks] we are led to the outrageous speculation that cities are scaled representations of the human brain... 

Cities are a representation of how people interact with one another, and this is encoded in our neural networks and, therefore, the structure and organisation of our brains. 

Mad huh?

I have to admit I struggled to keep up with Scale, but it's an enlightening subject that Geoffrey has piqued my interest towards. My takeaway is that no matter the technology or automation we develop to simplify the ever-increasing complexity of systems, they will always be a reflection of nature. Whether we like it or not, human beings are self-similar fractals of nature, and our mental fractals imprint onto the systems we develop: biases and all.  


Buy the book on Hive.

Cover photo by veeterzy on Unsplash