Edgeware - Primer


From physics envy to biology envy

There has been an implicit hierarchy of sciences with physics as the most respectable and biology as the conceptually poor cousin. Physics is i_3.gif (9019 bytes) enviable because of its rigor and immutable laws. Biology on the other hand is rooted in the messiness of real life and therefore did not create as many elegantly simple equations, models or predictable solutions to problems. Even within biology there was a hierarchy of studies. Mapping the genome was more elegant, precise and physics -like, hence respectable, whereas evolutionary biology was "softer," dealing with interactions, context and other dimensions which made prediction less precise. Physics envy was not only evident in the physical and natural sciences but also in the social sciences. Economics and management theory borrowed concepts from physics and created organizational structures and forms which tried (at some level at least) to follow the laws of physics. These were clearly limited in their application and "exceptions to the rules" had to be made constantly. In spite of the limitations, an implicit physics envy permeated management and organization theories.

Recently, we have seen physics envy replaced with biology envy. Physicists are looking to biological models for insight and explanation. Biological metaphors are being used to understand everything from urban planning, organization design, and technologically advanced computer systems. Technology is now mimicking life - or biology - in its design. The poor cousin in science has now become highly respectable and central to many disciplines. Complexity science is a key area where we witness this bridging of the disciplines with the study of life (or biology) as the connecting glue or area of common interest.

For health care leaders, the shift from physics envy to biology envy provides an opportunity to build systems which are sustainable because of their capacity to "live". Living organizations, living computer systems, living communities and living health care systems are important because of our interest in sustainability and adaptability. Where better to learn lessons about sustainability and adaptability than from life itself.

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All Components of Edgeware Primer Copyright 2000, Brenda J. Zimmerman.
Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto, Canada.
Permission to copy for educational purposes only. All other rights reserved.