Edges are fun


There’s a DJ who played at some of our parties who had an album called Edges R Fun. I asked him why he’d called it that, and his reponse was to ask me what I thought. Which launched me into this (oversimplified) explanation:

Edges are very interesting, because all life happens at an edge. If you think of order as one phase of complexity, it is too rigid and unchanging to support life, like an ice crystal. At the other extreme is complete disorder, a plasma or gas. Not quite as disordered, but still unable to support life, is a chaotic system. Small changes in a chaotic system create unpredictable large changes in outcome, so systems cannot spring up. But in between order and chaos is a complex but not chaotic region which is where life happens. [NB this edge of chaos idea has become a buzzword, but bear with me.]

Life also happens on another edge: the point of energy transition from low entropy to high entropy form. Sunlight strikes the surface of the earth and creates heat, making this transition. In the presence of an environment which falls into that narrow region between order and chaos, this energy transition creates the self sustaining vortexes which we call life; slowing and spreading the energy transition by dividing it through chemical and other forms rather than allowing it to move directly from light to heat. This is to say that life is characterised by dissipative structures. To be complete: life is an emergent property of complex autopoietic dissipative structures.

What’s interesting is not that an individual organism dissipates energy in order to maintain its structure or that it consists of a circular network of production nodes (autopoiesis); that’s pretty much understood. What’s interesting is that ecosystems are also emergent autopoietic dissipative structures. Their elements co-evolve to exploit all available niches and make maximum use of the energy pathways. This brings in the metaphysical edge between individual and whole, organism and meta-organism. Society and culture bring for social animals a parallel layer; a separate meta-organism, the tribe, clan, or other social unit.

Life is most richly varied, ecosystems most complex, at the border between environments. Where the middle of a forest may have only one or two tree species and very few animal species, a clearing makes an edge which supports a greater diversity than either grassland or forest. A coral reef, between deep ocean and shallow, between air and water and coral shallows, is bursting with more life and more variation than the total of the environments around it.

At the 1999 New Year’s eve, I went camping to an astounding place. The closer one looked the more remarkable the environment. Eventually it became clear to me: it was a beach where a stream drained through some swampland behind the dunes and scrubby bush gave way to buttongrass in one direction and mangrove-like plants in the other. Fresh water gave way to salt; high oxygen to low; forest to grassland; ocean to land; sheltered to exposed. So many edges. It was home to an incredible variety of animals and plants, but more than that it was overwhelmingly beautiful.

Humans have the advantage of being social omnivores. They have the ability to take advantage of a wide range of edges of many different types, and therefore they are drawn to them. For life in general, but for humans in particular, edges are fun.

Mind you, I don’t think Nick really wanted quite so much information.

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