Posted by: DrAlanRae | January 2, 2008

Order for Free (New Year, New Life)

This has been a strange time for me. As I come up to my own 60th birthday my mother in law has just died – almost the last of that generation. It comes at the time in the year where the light is just starting to return, the plants are beginning to grow again in the glasshouses and I have been reading a really difficult book about spontaneous organisation. (At home in the Universe by Stuart Kaufmann)

About how at a certain level of complexity we suddenly obtain order for free so crystallising the structure on which natural selection can get to work to produce the wonderful ecosystems that we see by using random walks to scale peaks in fitness landscapes.

Kaufman presents evidence that whenever a collection of chemicals contains enough different kinds of molecules, a metabolism will crystallise from the broth. This argument means that networks “don’t have to built one component at a time; they can spring full-grown from a primordial soup.”

Essentially if half of the components interact in some way, then a phase transition occurs to provide a “metabolism”. All it has to then is get inside a lipid bi-layer (membrane to you) and life is away. Kaufman believes that any old collection of chemicals will do.

As the number of chemicals in the system increases, the ratio of the number of reactions to chemicals increases exponentially. If you think this is like the number of connections versus nodes in a network you are right – that’s exactly what’s going on.

“When the number of catalysed reactions is about equal to the number of chemical dots, a giant catalysed reaction web forms and a collectively autocatalytic system snaps into existence. A living metabolism crystallises. Life emerges as a phase transition”

I don’t think it wants to be worshipped – I don’t think it wants to tell us to adopt bizarre behaviours to demonstrate how holy we are. I don’t think it thinks about us at all. But we are part of it. For me – it’s enough for me to be part of this self directing pageant.

Things die, things come into being.

Spontaneous organisation has fascinated me all my life – how do things come into existence, in the natural world and in the human world. What are the underlying principles whereby order appears for free and supports itself as a dissipative structure? At what point does the informal need to become formal. What role does consciousness play in it?

As we go into a New Year we might look out for how these principles affect us in this evolving cyber-space playground of ours.

It seems that evolution occurs on the edge of chaos. Apparently if all of the nodes in your network have 2 inputs you get orderly behaviour that cycles through a number of patterns that curiously are the square root of the number of members. If you have less it becomes frozen – if you have 4 or 5 the system becomes chaotic unless you damp it by allowing only a fraction of the inputs to have a positive effect.

I’ll be looking out during 2008 for evidence of this working here – and what it might mean for the evolution of collaboration in social networks.


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