Posted by: salamandercandy | October 19, 2006

A sorely needed map of Iraq as an adaptive landscape

An entertaining thought occurred to me a few days ago. I was actually thinking long and hard about my own research when, for whatever reason, the idea for this blog post just popped into my head. Basically, I believe that a useful comparison for our current political situation in Iraq is that of the adaptive landscape from the field of evolution. You may be wondering to yourself, what exactly is an adaptive landscape? To the best of my limited abilities, an adaptive landscape is basically a representation of particular combinations of genotypes (or phenotypes) and their respective fitnesses. In three dimensions one can imagine a landscape peppered by particular combinations of genotypes with correspondingly variable levels of fitness.

By no means do I claim to be an expert in adaptive landscapes, but I have been able to glean a few useful characteristics from various sources. First, one can become stuck on a local peak even if it is not the highest peak in the adaptive landscape. This is because, as you can see from this figure, that in order to get to another peak one would have to traverse an area with significantly lower fitness. To move off of a peak, some sort of “push” has to occur such as drift in conjunction with selection (See Wright’s shifting balance theory). Another property of adaptive landscapes is that when you run into a “hill” you will climb it (i.e., you will not go around it) because even a slight increase in fitness is better than staying on the plane of low fitness. The evolutionary implications are certainly very interesting and useful, but how about its political implications? One could imagine an adaptive landscape for the current situation in Iraq, for example. Instead of genotypes controlling the x,y position on a plane, imagine that the position of a peak is controlled by types of government. The height of the peak is no longer fitness, but rather some sort of measure of political/humanitarian well being. In this example we will consider political stability as a proxy for fitness. Below, I have inserted a high quality figure depicting such an adaptive landscape – created by yours truly in a sophisticated program known as Microsoft Paint.

One can see that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was at a medium level of political stability (“fitness” ) for the region. However, the vast majority of peaks on the landscape are in fact of lower fitness. This is due to the political instability and trying socioeconomic factors of the region. Note that this representation of an adaptive landscape is only one snapshot in time, however, the true adaptive landscape is perpetually dynamic. Also note that there are in fact several peaks with higher fitness throughout the landscape. These peaks represent governmental regimes where George Bush and the current administration imagined that we would end up after this endeavor. Such peaks have been named “democracy” and “free society.” Does this mean that such regimes are the only kind that can lead to high levels of general well-being? Absolutely not, however, for reasons of convenience I will stick to the general parlance that is currently being thrown around in the political arena. If one were to take a probabilistic (and hence realistic) view of this landscape, we would have been able to see that we were/are much more likely to end up on a peak of lower fitness – such as “Islamofascism” or “Talibanism”. This is for two reasons: 1.) There are far more peaks of lower fitness than higher fitness and 2.) the widths (or circumferences for 3 dimensions) of the peaks with higher fitness are much smaller than those with lower peak heights. This is due to the greater difficulty (or smaller number of combinations of genotypes) in achieving this type of political system. The main point of this exercise is to demonstrate that in order to get to a peak of higher fitness we need to be able to see this adaptive landscape so that we know what direction to travel. Even if we could see the true adaptive landscape could we actually control our direction? So where are we right now on this landscape? Well, ever since Operation Iraqi Freedom, the peak of medium political stability that was “Iraq under Saddam” has been completely wiped off the face of the landscape. I believe we are currently wandering around aimlessly on the plane. What peak we will hit only remains to be seen, however, the options are not looking good.

To what other scenarios could this adaptive landscape be applied? The simplest ideas are to change the z axis from political stability to other measures of interest. Ideas that spring to mind are general happiness, religious fanaticism, and economic measures (e.g., GDP). The shape of the surface would be different for each idea. Of course, the adaptive landscape metaphor could be extended to completely different situations. Relationships spring to mind (x axis: you, y axis: your partner, z axis: happiness). The secret to love, therefore, is to not get stuck on a local optimum, but to keep searching the adaptive landscape until you find your global optimum. However, at this juncture, Wright would probably be shaking his head disapprovingly at me…



  1. Insightful and appropriate mental model. However I have a few minor whines:

    First, you left out the Marianas Trench-sized chasm Bush and Co are proudly marching into.

    Second, I’m finding it very hard to read nothing into your decision to place ‘Free society’ and ‘Democracy’ at opposite corners of your map. Probably you just wanted them both on there, and didn’t realize what the distance might imply to some.

    Finally, I do not believe political stability plays a significant role in the fitness functions used by Bush and Co. Their fitness functions (note, they don’t seem to act as if they all used a common fitness function) appear to range from ‘Patriotic War to Manipulate and Deceive America’ (Karl Rove) to ‘source of lucrative government contracts’ (Kellog Brown & Root) to ‘Beachhead for Iran Invasion’ (Rumsfield & Wolfowitz) to ‘One-Up Daddy’ (G. W. Bush) .

  2. you suck

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