Fitness Landscapes and Ecclesial Discernment, Part 1: Is the Ecclesial Landscape Simple or Rugged?

In this series I want to throw out an analogy to see if it my yield some new theological insights.

I want to suggest that ecclesial discernment is like a fitness landscape.

This analogy popped into my head due to some recent eccelesial reflections I've had. See my post on the missional church and the J-curve and my post on the Yes, but... Church. Both posts suggest that seeking the will of God in today's world is difficult and demands a degree of flexibility and experimentation. That is, it is not always obvious what God's Call is in the World. Thus, churches often grope experimentally through the ecclesial landscape. This image of groping brought to mind the concept of a fitness landscape.

Chapter 1:
Fitness Landscapes 101

A fitness landscape is a tool in biology to visualize evolutionary optimization. Imagine a grid upon which we sprinkle possible genotypes, let's say A, B, and C. The "distance" between any two genotypes is a geometrical expression of their "difference." Let's say these genotypes code for foot-speed in some generic African mammal. A is faster than B and B is faster than C. And the degree to which they are "faster" is expressed as the distance between them on the gird (which in this example is just a line). Okay, let's say that this mammal is under predation from a fast predator. Thus, there is a selection pressure upon the A, B, and C genotypes resulting in differential fitness. That is, the faster the genotype is the fitter within this particular ecosystem. This fitness can be represented as altitude on the grid, with greater fitness as "higher" and worse fitness as "lower." Once we denote these ideas of "distance" (degree to which the genotypes differ) and "altitude" (differential fitness) we have the idea of a "landscape," a visualization of the adaptive situation facing a group of individuals or populations expressing different physical traits.

A two-dimensional representation of a fitness landscape looks like this:

A colorful, three-dimensional fitness landscape looks like this:

Now, both of these pictures depict what are known as "rugged" fitness landscapes. That is, there are multiple peaks of relative "fitness." One peak might be the "best," but there are also other relatively effective "solutions" to the adaptive challenge. For example, some combination of traits (only moderate foot-speed combined with good visual acuity and an instinctive wariness) might create a fairly "fit" organism (btw, every trait is a dimension in the landscape; higher order landscapes cannot be visualized but they can be mathematically modeled). This slower but keen-eyed and wary mammal might not, potentially speaking, be the "best" it could be (it could be faster), but it is "fit." It can survive, avoid predation, and reproduce.

Some landscapes are not rugged. These simple landscapes have only a single adaptive peak. In my example above, with genotypes A, B, and C coding for foot-speed, the adaptive landscape looked like this:

In this simple fitness landscape if we sprinkle the genotypes A, B, and C upon it we will see that A (the fastest genotype) will be higher up the slope than B (that is, A is more fit, visualized as A being "higher" on the landscape than B). Below B is C, the slowest genotype (or, more correctly, the genotype coding for the slowest phenotype).

Okay, to summarize:

1. A fitness landscape is a way of representing both the differences between and the fitness of different genotypes.

2. Distance in the landscape is simply "difference" or "distinctiveness." That is, if two genotypes are very similar they are "close" in the landscape. If very different they are farther away.

3. Altitude in the landscape represents fitness. That is, given the differences among the genotypes (those animals competing against each other in the ecosystem) some are more fit than others. This is expressed by their relative "heights" on the landscape.

4. Landscapes can be either simple or rugged. If simple, there is a single optimal design that defines "fitness." It is a landscape with a single peak. A rugged landscape has multiple peaks or optima. One of these genomes may be "best," but there are numerous other adaptive "peaks," difference clusters of genotypes that can thrive in the ecosystem. To simplify the distinction think of it this way. In a simple landscape there is only one "right" answer to the adaptive question. In a rugged landscape there are multiple "right" answers as well as there being, potentially, a "best" answer to the adaptive question.

Chapter 2:
Our first Question: Is the Ecclesial Landscape Simple or Rugged?

Okay, now that you have endured a little lecture on fitness landscapes, what is the point? Well, I'd like to use this idea of a fitness landscape to pose to you some theological questions based upon analogies with fitness landscapes. The analogies may be faulty, but if they hold a wee bit we might be able to come at some old problems in some fresh ways. This blog is all about "theological experimentation." So, let's experiment.

Here is the analogy I'd like for you to consider. Let's say there are various ecclesial "genotypes." That is, different churches have different ecclesial DNA. This DNA is how a church combines various theological and ecclesial "traits" which express themselves in the overt life of the church (the "phenotype" if you will). I think it is safe to say that this metaphor is somewhat accurate. That is, depending both on what you believe and what you do as a church you get a certain ecclesial "expression." If this holds we can express the similarity and distinctiveness of these expressions via the distance visualized in a fitness landscape. Churches with similar expressions are "close" and more dissimilar churches are father apart.

Okay, now the experimental part. Could we express God's pleasure, favor, or endorsement of a given ecclesial expression as "fitness"? If so, we can use the fitness landscape dimension of altitude to represent God's differential "pleasure" at a given church expression.

I think this idea is plausible. If the seven churches of Asia in Revelation are any indication, God expresses his pleasure differentially across church expressions.

Okay, if both "distance" and "altitude" are reconfigured we can express the entire ecclesial world in one simple diagram: An ecclesial fitness landscape. (Given the vast number of theological and ecclesial traits this landscape will be many orders of magnitude beyond our ability to visualize. So, we'll work with 2D and 3D diagrams not as accurate models but as useful tools for intuitive visualization. A "toy" landscape to intellectually play with.)

I think this is cool. One picture expressing all ecclesial expression along with a measure of God's relative pleasure (if we could know it) of that expression. If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, this picture would surely fit the bill.

Okay, an A+ in coolness (I'm grading myself) is fine, but what about insight? Can this idea of a fitness landscape create new insights? I don't know. This series is devoted to trying to find out.

So, here is our first question posed by the fitness landscape idea: Is this ecclesial fitness landscape simple or rugged?

And a related question is: Is this issue interesting?

If the landscape is simple then there is a "best" church expression (God's ideal given human fallibility) relative to all other church expressions. Thus, all church expressions could be be ranked from "better" to "worse" on the landscape relative to the optimal design. I find this notion dubious. My guess is that the landscape is rugged. That is, although there may be an "ideal" expression (and there might not be one), there are probably multiple "peaks" of ecclesial optima. In short, particular expressions that might be very, very different might be equally pleasurable to God. This seems right to me. Do you agree? Is the landscape simple or rugged?

Okay, if the landscape is rugged why should we care?

Well, for lot's of reasons. If the landscape is rugged tons of very, very interesting issues arise. I'll get to these later. For today, however, I see one obvious implication.

If the landscape is rugged no single metric can be applied to churches. You can't rank the churches from best to worst. Further, very, very different churches might actually be equally favorable to God. I think this is important in that most of the church folk I know seem to be assuming that the landscape is simple. They, obviously, don't phrase it that way. Only you, dear reader, will now be able to frame it this way (e.g., "Sam, aren't you assuming the ecclesial fitness landscape is simple? Might it not be rugged? Have you considered that fact?). But many church folk tend to assume a "better-worse" metric when they evaluate church expressions. Further, this assumption is tied to the idea that church "differences" are strongly correlated with Divine favor. That is, if God favors us (I'm assuming you think God is somewhat favorable of the church expression you participate in) and another group is very, Very, VERY different from us, can God equally favor them as well? Many people assume not. They assume that location is strongly correlated with altitude. In church terms, God's favor is highly correlated with being like us.

What I'm suggesting is that a fitness landscape is a nice way to illustrate the implicit theology behind certain ecclesial conversations. One way of sorting those implicit assumptions is to note who assumes the landscape is simple and who assumes it is rugged. This difference seems important.

And that, to me at least, seems worth reflecting on.

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5 thoughts on “Fitness Landscapes and Ecclesial Discernment, Part 1: Is the Ecclesial Landscape Simple or Rugged?

  1. Fantastic metaphor! I like this illustration. We often talk about the church in organic terms, but this carries the notion of the church as organism quite a bit further.

  2. Wouldn't it be easier to start with the individual rather than the church when evaluating what kind of fitness landscape we are on and where we are on it? Or whether thinking in these terms is even useful? I'm curious why you decided to start with the more complex system.

  3. Excellent metaphor! And fitness, as an evolutionary concept, illustrates the pressure for organisms (or organizations) to constantly adapt to changing conditions/demands. That is, the fitness landscape is constantly changing. Taken individually or at the micro level, this process appears as natural selection; but from a wider perspective this implies teleology. Dawkins' and Dennett's are two examples of micro-level views, since they propose that evolution has no goal. Your blog demonstrates the higher-level view, which is that we are evolving toward something, not just surviving.

  4. I like using a model that has the word adaptive in it, though I will leave out the evolution word when I take it on trips. The rugged verses smooth distinction you make is cetral to the theological debate about ecclesiology to begin with. Many ecclesiologies represent what are sometimes referred to as essentialist. That is they appeal to some predictable ideal for justification. However, others argue for an acutalist ecclesiology which might justify a congregation apart from an ideal church. These justifications might change, but would be more likely to be theological and eschatological rather than eccelesial. The church contextualized is an actual church, even in its limitations. These limitations become expressions of God's grace and precisely the opportunity to move deeper into the life of God. These limitations are not simply the errors or shortcomings of the church, but a confession of the church's finitude and an expression of its willingness to give its limited life away in each new context for the sake of incarnation. Clearly, this is more of a missional impulse. So, let's see if there is other learning from your analogy, making it more of a metaphor. Or is it simply illustrative. I think that your analogy might break down at the level of stimulus for adaptation. It might lean too heavily on environment. Incarnation is expressive of more than just fitness of success in a context. But you've no doubt anticipated that objection and have several "facts" to overcome it.

  5. First, is this a metaphor or an analogy? I always get those two confused.

    The focus on church was simply a product of what I had been thinking about at the time. My thinking isn't very systematic. I blog about what pops into my mind. As for usefulness, that is the meta-question of the series.

    You sole my thunder! I'm blogging on just that issue in Part 2.

    As I said with Pecs, the use of a fitness landscape might be interesting/illuminating or it might not. Here's my hunch: It will just repackage current issues or thinking in the field. The question will then become: Will this particular packaging be helpful for pedagogical purposes? Or will it prove a distraction (i.e., you can make these same points in a much more direct and simple fashion)?

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