It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
Charles Darwin “On the Origin of Species”
If you really want to see lots of good stuff in the natural world, go to the edge. In wild places, edges are where two living communities join. It is where a prairie meets a woodland, where cold waters mix with warm continental currents and where the ocean splashes onto the shore. The inspiration for one of our greatest ideas, Darwin’s famous tangled bank is along an edge where he took his daily walk. These are the places that contain some of the greatest abundance and diversity of life anywhere. Edges can be very productive places.
Productivity is increased along an ecological edge because the neighbouring communities make complimentary contributions to one another. These resources often have value because they are lacking within the uniformity of the community opposite. The open prairie allows sunlight into the forest edge, oxygen-rich cold waters upwells into continental waters and the ocean brings marine life onto the shore. These ingredients increase the fertility of both communities simultaneously. Through the confluence of distinct communities, edges in the natural world are a showcase of productivity.
With edges, the natural world again produces a model for us to embrace. Through this example we see how new and productive connections can be formed when distinct communities interact. As it turns out, the productive environment that is created by an edge, not only is a boost for life; it is also a boost for our ideas. “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table” writes Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From. In bringing together more parts, the possibility of them interacting in new and innovative ways is greater than if they existed in isolation. Creating edge environments where ideas can collide and stick yields productive outcomes.
Our greatest ideas do not spontaneously come to light. They are rather a recombination, (deliberate or otherwise) of the thoughts of others, filtered through a fertile environment. Darwin’s grand idea came about not only as the result of his personal experiences on the Beagle and on the trails of his estate. Also crucial to his process were his volumes of correspondences, the influence of his grandfather and the spark of Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. His revolutionary idea (and those of all others) are grown out of a network of ideas. When Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants” he wasn’t just being humble, he was being truthful. The process of being creative may not simply be sitting down and coming up with innovative ideas. The first step may well be the recognition that the process of creativity requires you to position yourself in a fertile environment.
Productive environments are neither uniform nor isolated. They encourage a blending of ideas to re-combine in order to solve a problem. This process is most effective in environments where communities of thoughts come up to one another and produce an edge of creativity. This is not only true of where the natural world comes to life, but also where new ideas come to life.