2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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Founder, The Whole Earth Catalog; Co-founder, The Well; Co-Founder, The Long Now Foundation; Author, Whole Earth Discipline

Fitness Landscapes

The first time I saw a fitness landscape cartoon (in Garrett Hardin's Man And Nature, 1969), I knew it was giving me advice on how not to get stuck over-adapted—hence overspecialized—on some local peak of fitness, when whole mountain ranges of opportunity could be glimpsed in the distance, but getting to them involved venturing "downhill" into regions of lower fitness. I learned to distrust optimality.

Fitness landscapes (sometimes called "adaptive landscapes") keep turning up when people try to figure out how evolution or innovation works in a complex world. An important critique by Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert of early optimism about artificial intelligence warned that seemingly intelligent agents would dumbly "hill climb" to local peaks of illusory optimality and get stuck there. Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman used fitness landscapes to visualize his ideas about the "adjacent possible" in 1993 and 2000, and that led in turn to Steven Johnson's celebration of how the "adjacent possible" works for innovation in Where Good Ideas Come From.

The man behind the genius of fitness landscapes was the founding theorist of population genetics, Sewell Wright (1889-1988). In 1932 he came up with the landscape as a way to visualize and explain how biological populations escape the potential trap of a local peak by imagining what might drive their evolutionary "path" downhill from the peak toward other possibilities. Consider these six diagrams of his :

 

[Image credit: © Sewall Wright, The Role of Mutation, Inbreeding, Crossbreeding, and Selection in Evolution, Sixth International Congress of Genetics, Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Botanical Garden, 1932.]

The first two illustrate how low selection pressure or a high rate of mutation (which comes with small populations) can broaden the range of a species whereas intense selection pressure or a low mutation rate can severely limit a species to the very peak of local fitness. The third diagram shows what happens when the landscape itself shifts, and the population has to evolve to shift with it.

The bottom row explores how small populations respond to inbreeding by wandering ineffectively. The best mode of exploration Wright deemed the final diagram, showing how a species can divide into an array of races that interact with one another. That jostling crowd explores well, and it can respond to opportunity.

Fitness landscapes express so much so economically. There's no better way, for example, to show the different modes of evolution of a remote oceanic island and a continental jungle. The jungle is dense and "rugged" with steep peaks and valleys, isolating countless species on their tiny peaks of high specialization. The island, with its few species, is like a rolling landscape of gentle hills with species casually wandering over them, evolving into a whole array of Darwin's finches, say. The island creatures and plants "lazily" become defenseless against invaders from the mainland.

You realize that for each species, its landscape consists almost entirely of other species, all of them busy evolving right back. That's co-evolution. We are all each other's fitness landscapes.