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...
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.
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.