Fitness Landscapes and Ecclesial Discernment, Part 3: How the Emerging Church Should Search the Landscape

Chapter 5:
Searching Fitness Landscapes

To this point we have mainly considered the structure of the fitness landscape. Today I want to talk about the organism and how the organism searches for the adaptive peaks within the landscape. (In what follows when I say "organism" I'm speaking of the entire gene pool of the species.)

The heart of evolutionary search is the simple Darwinian two-step: Mutation and Selection. Imagine an organism on the slope of an adaptive mountain. Via the genetic shuffling (and possible mutation) during reproduction this organism will create new organisms: Offspring/children. These offspring fan out from the parent organism on the landscape. That is, they are not identical to the parent, but they are close, they are genetically very similar. Imagine the offspring, these genetic trial balloons, surrounding the parent in a circle. Kind of like this:

Only you have to imagine this target on the side of sloping mountain. Thus, although the offspring in a given ring are equidistant from the parental stock, some will be higher up the slope (say, those on the North side) versus those on the opposite side who will be lower down the slope (those on the South side).

Note what this means. Simply through a random process some offspring are pushed higher on the fitness slope (e.g., through genetic recombination or mutation these children might be faster or smarter) while some are lower. By definition, those higher up the fitness slope will out-compete and out-produce their siblings. Thus, the mean location of the target moves upward, higher up the fitness landscape. This process keeps repeating itself, generation after generation, moving the genetic "bull's eye" higher and higher until, finally, the summit of the fitness landscape is reached. The organism has optimized itself.

Now imagine the bull's eye is situated directly on top of the fitness peak. Like a wet towel draped over a lamp shade. If the population mean is at the peak of the fitness landscape any mutation significantly different from the parental stock is, necessarily, down-slope. That is to say, less fit. Thus, if the landscape stays stable the population will stay exquisitely perched on the fitness peak with any deviation being selected against. This creates the "stability" of the species. The species is, genetically, quiescent.

But let's say the landscape begins to change out from under the organism. The organism, via reproduction, will keep sending out genetic "feelers" (i.e., those genetic scouts known as "children") into the surrounding environment. If any of those scouts encounter an up-slope the population will move in that direction, climbing the new fitness peak. If the organism's gene pool fails to find any up-slope and remains for a length of time in an adaptive valley, the species will go extinct. The imperative is simple: Find and climb the fitness peak or die.

The point I want to make is that, via reproduction and mutation, the genetic "eyesight" of a population is very myopic. Children tend to look like parents which implies that for each generation very little of the fitness landscape gets explored. Children are short range genetic scouts. Thus, if the fitness landscape changes radically and dramatically, it will place the fitness peak very far away from the gene pool. Given the myopia of the gene pool, the organism will not know "which way to go," adaptively speaking. Groping blindly through the adaptive landscape the organism quickly goes extinct.

If the adaptive peak is very far away from the organism random genetic drift via genetic reshuffling (i.e., having sex) is too myopic and short range (because kids tend to look like their parents) to be an effective search strategy. Only if there is a dramatic mutation can the organism get the range it needs. But most mutations tend to be catastrophic, morphogentically speaking. Plus, a mutation is a one shot chance to land on an adaptive peak. Rarely if you throw a dart blindfolded and at random will you hit the bull's eye. But if you throw enough darts and have enough time, sometimes you can hit the target. Sometimes a mutation survives and lands on a distant slope. If so, a new population begins and starts climbing the new adaptive peak.

A final point I want to make is this. Imagine that the landscape changes and the organism begins its myopic search for a new fitness peak. Two peaks exist in the vicinity. One is simply a small hill. The other is Mt. Everett. The only problem is that the hill is situated close to the organism and Mt. Everest is further away. Thus, as the organism reproduces it sends out genetic representatives in concentric circles in all directions. Some of these representatives fall on the lower slope of the little hill. That is, just by chance, they are slightly more fit than all their other siblings. Thus, they out-compete and out-produce their siblings drawing the "center" of the population toward them and up the hill. Later, some of their off-spring fall further up the slope. And, slowly, the entire population climbs the hill.

Once situated on top of this little hill the organism goes quiescent again. On top of the hill, even if its elevation is modest, the offspring of this population will fall down-slope. Thus, they will be selected against forcing the population back up the slope.

The problem with this outcome is that the organism is locked into a local optima when a better optima, the nearby Mt. Everest, is there for the taking. But the organism can't climb off the hill and migrate over to the Mt. Everest. That whole route (down-slope and across a valley) is less fit compared to where the organism currently sits. There is nothing to pull the organism through that journey. Thus, again due the myopia of the search strategies, organisms are at high risk to get stuck on sub-optimal solutions. Again, the only way to get this organism off the smaller peak is to send out a dramatically different mutation which can "jump" off the peak. With luck the mutation might just land on the slopes of Everest. More likely, the mutation will plummet into a valley and die. But given enough time...

To summarize:

1. Organisms climb adaptive peaks by sending out "scouts" into the locale terrain.

2. If higher terrain is encountered the gene pool moves uphill until it summits the adaptive peak.

3. Once it has summited, the organism stays on the peak until the landscape changes.

4. Generally, the "scouts" of the gene pool are myopic.

5. Given this myopia of the search strategies, gene pools cannot find distant adaptive peaks.

6. Further, the myopia of the search strategies means that organisms are at risk to get stranded on sub-optimal peaks (i.e., they cannot "see" the higher peaks in the distance).

7. The only way to find a distant peak or get off a sub-optimal peak is to "jump" across the landscape. This "jump" is a mutation. By definition, a mutation is a genetic expression very dissimilar from the parental stock (recall, distance in a fitness landscape = genetic similarity; thus a "jump" = genetic dissimilarity). However, mutations are, inherently, risky and prone to failure.

Chapter 6:
How the Emerging Church Should Search the Landscape

What could Chapter 5 possibly have to do with the emerging church?

Well, the parallel I want to draw is between myopic search strategies and mutations. Recall, I've suggested that the ecclesial fitness landscape is rugged and changing. What this means is that previously optimal church expressions are sinking, they are less fit than they once were. Thus, like an organism's gene pool, some churches (like the emergent movement) are setting out to search the fitness landscape. They suspect that there are newer optima out there. Somewhere.

So, the question is, how to search the landscape?

First, note that I'm assuming here that a search is necessary. That is, the emerging conversation is a conversation precisely because the direction of search isn't crystal clear. No consensus has been reached about where the new optima exist. There are a variety of proposals on the table and lot's of good ideas. But you get the feeling that we are searching. Talking and searching. On the lookout for those newer church expressions.

Because if we could clearly SEE where we need to go the entire metaphor of the fitness landscape breaks down. The fitness landscape explains how a blind search procedure might find a peak. That is, a fitness landscape provides us a metaphor for how a search could be effective WHEN WE DON'T KNOW WHERE TO SEARCH.

If we KNOW where to search, well, we don't need dumb, myopic experimentation to find Mt. Everest. We just go to Mt. Everest directly. The search is direct because it is specific and goal-directed.

But what if we are not sure what the emerging ecclesial expressions should look like? What if the optimal church expression in the coming century is something we haven't even seen or thought of yet? What if it is so new and different we can't yet imagine it? If this is the case, and I'm guessing some people think there is something like this out there waiting to be discovered, then how should the search proceed?

Here, I think, the search through a fitness landscape provides some insight. Let me explain.

If the landscape is changing subtly around our churches, nothing drastic needs to be done. Myopic experimentation will find those newer optima. That is, the churches of today can spin out closely-related "children" and observe their performance. The fittest of these, known through the signs of God within that church, will be "selected" by us. That is to say, if the ecclesial fitness landscape is only slightly changing the new church optima are close at hand. Some low-risk experimentation should quickly sniff out these newer forms.

But what if the ecclesial landscape is changing radically and dramatically? There will be differences of opinion on this, but I think I hear some of the emergent leaders making this claim. That issues like post-modernity are radically reconfiguring the ecclesial landscape. If this is so, then the newer adaptive peaks may be very, very far from traditional church expressions. Given their distance, in addition to the fact that we don't yet see where these peaks are located, how can we find them? Well, the fitness landscape metaphor suggests an answer:

Mutation. You have to jump across the landscape.

Recall that to find a distant peak or to jump off a sub-optimal hill, myopic reproduction is too short range. The experimental off-shoots (the "children") of the existing church are going to look too similar to the "parental mold." Thus, a more dramatic experiment is needed. A mutation. A really different church expression.

But recall that these mutations are high risk. There is no guarantee that they will land on the far peak. Many will fail. But if we throw enough experiments out there some will find their mark. And when they do we'll discover that new way of doing church previously unimaginable.

So, if my metaphor holds, these questions face the emerging church:

1. How dramatic has the ecclesial landscape changed?

2. If it has not changed very dramatically, close-range ecclesial experiments should find the "emerging church" very easily and quickly. No big shakeups are needed.

3. If the landscape has changed dramatically, more radical and dramatic ecclesial experiments ("mutations") are called for. We have to "jump" across the landscape.

4. For this strategy to be successful we have to:

A. Tolerate a lot of crazy looking, mutant churches.

B. Expect a lot of failure.

C. Be willing to throw lots of these experiments out there. The more we thrown out, the quicker we find Mt. Everest.

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9 thoughts on “Fitness Landscapes and Ecclesial Discernment, Part 3: How the Emerging Church Should Search the Landscape

  1. Can this be applied to the personal faith journey? I'm thinking of Fowler's "Stages of Faith".

  2. I don't have anything to say. Except that the "blind search" metaphor is awesome. And "mutant churches" would be a good name for a Christian rock band.

    And that you worship at the temple of Tolerance and should be ashamed of yourself.

    Cough. Just jokin' about that last one.

  3. The problem I have with all this, is the necessarily implied low view of tradition. In a "changing fitness landscape" that we have to be adapting to, to get to the top of the global maximum, tradition could just be seen as something that is "holding us back." Something that needs to be changed to get on top. In fact, if the landscape changes sufficiently, one must be prepared to throw it all out the window or risk extinction.

    This is unacceptable to me. What is it that Christianity stands on, if not tradition? If we throw out tradition, we risk losing our identity altogether. This is the reason why I know many people who are converting from evangelical circles to Catholic or Eastern Orthodox ones, because these are traditions with some meat on their bones.

    In other words, I could this thinking as leading to the supreme justification of unorthodoxy. Joseph Smith was just a "mutation" that put him higher on the fitness landscape.

  4. Anonymous,
    I think it could be applied to individuals. I haven't thought deeply about that angle, but on the face of it I think it could work.

    I know you are joking, but I really do like the idea of ecclesial experimentation. Most churches are too judgmental of people who want to try new things and think outside the box.

    A rejection of tradition is contingent upon appraisals about the shape of the landscape. For example, I said in this post that if the landscape is not overly rugged then emerging church forms are going to stay very close to traditional expressions. Further, to go with your example, older forms may be the new optima. That is, Orthodox expressions may be on the rise given how they express the life of God in our current Western context. In this sense, older forms may now be most “fit.”

    Thus, a "low view" of Tradition is only in play if one feels convinced that the landscape has radically changed that all available expressions seem sub-optimal. If this is the case (and I noted that this claim is controversial), then, yes, one has a low view of Tradition. But the issue is less about Tradition and more about the current ecclesial situation (the shape of the landscape).

    Another way to say this is that if one has a "high view" of Tradition this person feels that once the traditional expressions found the optima in the early years of the church the fitness landscape has changed very little since that time. Old optima are still the optima. In this post, I painted this view when I described the summitted and quiescent gene pool.

    A final take is this. I'm trying to do some explanatory work about the dynamics underneath the purely descriptive labels captured by labels such as high or low views of Tradition. I'm suggesting that these different views of Tradition are not simply biases, but are driven by models of the fitness landscape. The High and Low Traditionalist are where they are because both look out their window and think they see different things. What they see explains their High or Low views.

  5. [Haven't read the other comments, so I apologize if this is redundant.]

    I'll throw one other notion in here: I think Christian "DNA" is quite rich and adaptive already. By that, I mean, we have a history of adapting to a lot of fitness landscapes. Plenty of latent bilogical systems are ready to kick in during the adaptive process, including ancient liturgies, mystical traditions, and rich trinitarian doctrines.

    "Different" landscape does not mean "new" landscape. It may well be similar to landscape we've adapted to and survived before. For that reason, I don't think blind experimentation is quite what we are talking about. Instead, we may SOMETIMES be talking about - to use your analogy - making use of adaptive mechanisms that have been around (but dormant) for centuries.

    The emergent journey doesn't necessarily have to be one into the totally new and unfamilar. However, it may have to reach deeper and further back into Christian history to discover the nature of the new territory it is facing.

    Make sense?

  6. Richard, I think you've hit on a very rich overlap between spirituality and science. For scientists, the focus is always about what happened after "the beginning," which might have been a big bang but possibly some cosmic recycling. (What existed before, or behind, scientists don't even try to imagine.)

    But the tricky thing about the evolutionary process is that though it seems to be driven only by "natural" processes that have no purpose, in the larger picture evolution is moving toward complexity and information rather than equally toward entropy. Some scientists (e.g., Paul Davies) tentatively posit a "natural" explanation for how this might be the case, but many of us remain unconvinced.

    So my point is that your description of the fitness topology has explanatory power, graphically demonstrating that life is teleologic rather than static-quo (pun).

    Christianity sometimes gives the impression that the universe was created as a sort of divine diversion to stave off boredom, but it would seem much more rational that the universe was created as a process with a purpose. While the evolutionary process is only clearly seen across large spans of time, it is almost certainly not a random process. And since we have consciousness and agency, it's our obligation to help keep things moving in the right direction, as best as we can know.

    Thanks for your work!

  7. Matt,
    I agree with you (and Pecs as well, who voiced here similar sentiments). It is very unlikely that there is something "new under the sun" regarding theology or church expression. However, I like this idea of experimentation and trial and error to explore the ecclesial landscape. Even potentially "crazy" experiments. (Obviously, Phase 2 of PMC is rattling around in my head!)

    I've been thinking in terms of metaphor. I had not thought about this idea being a unifying structure. That is a very interesting perspective. Thanks!

  8. Keith,

    I hope you don't see this as trying to pick a bone with you, but you made a comment that really hit a nerve with me. It is an argument that I hear Christians making all the time, and I couldn't pass on the opportunity to debunk it, once again.

    The argument: Evolution is not entropically favorable and therefore is breaking natural laws.

    The key to understanding why this argument is bs, is a little chemical thermodynamics. For a chemical reaction to be spontaneous (i.e. possible), there are three variables that have to come out favorably. Entropy is one of the variables. But there are other parts of the equation: Enthalpy and temperature. In other words, a chemical process can be spontaneous even though it is not entropically favorable. The other variables can outweigh what you lose in entropy. For example: Every breath you take, oxygen is associating with the hemoglobin in your red blood cells. This is not entropically favorable (the O2-hemoglobin complex is more ordered than having the constituents by themselves). But what is lost in entropy is paid for by a gain in enthalpy. So the process happens spontaneously.

    Putting this in the context of the second law: the entropy of isolated systems can decrease, as long as the entropy of the universe increases. This is happening. Our sun is burning out.

  9. Hi Pecs,

    Thanks for your response.

    Evolution is indeed a wholly natural process, and (as Davies demonstrated in The Fifth Miracle) does not violate the 2nd Law though it moves toward more order rather than toward entropy.

    As with the fitness landscape metaphor, my perception is that the evolutionary process is a random one but, from a sufficient distance, appears to be moving toward increasing order (at the expense of entropy, as it were). Entropy is necessary in (local) closed systems; but theorists continue to debate boundedness at the cosmic level.

    Closer to home, the psychological / philosophical experience of meaningfulness naturally assumes increasing order and purpose; otherwise one is left with the unpleasant existential position of a domain-restricted purposelessness.

    The human mind is limited in what it can conceive, but I believe this uncertainty also permits us to rationally postulate that the evolutionary process may be teleological.


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