16 May 2013

Time to Innovate: On sex and water fleas

In Steven Johnson's 2010 book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, he references the intriguing ability of Daphnia to respond to challenging times like drought, the onset of winter, or other environmental disturbances by altering its method of reproduction.  This microscopic crustacean, commonly called a water flea, reproduces itself in hospitable times through parthenogenesis (that is, asexually).  During the phase of asexual reproduction, every offspring is an exact genetic copy of the female parent.  To deal with the challenges of a changing environment, the female Daphnia switch and begin to produce male offspring enabling sexual reproduction to take place.  The benefit of sexual reproduction in Daphnia is that the eggs fertilized in this way are stronger than those produced asexually making them better able to withstand the harsher environment.  The presence of males also enables the sharing of genetic material which can help strengthen the Daphnia population.  (Though I am not a huge fan of Wikipedia, I did reference it to confirm Johnson's account of the sex life of water fleas.)

Johnson writes that "when the world gets more challenging - scarce resources, predators, parasites - you need to innovate" (108).  Innovation in this case is the ability to change from doing what is already being done by connecting in new ways in order to adapt to new situations.  Connecting to share new genetic material can be a risky endeavor since it introduces the possibility of bad combinations or errors that are then passed on to future generations.  However, it is also essential to the survival of the Daphnia.  Overcoming the difficulty of sharing holds more reward than playing it safe.  Indeed, "(striving) to connect, not protect" is a lesson from Daphnia and is applicable in today's ministry context.

Striving to connect will look different for each ministry context.  For some, it means churches partnering in an ecumenical way to address challenges facing the whole community.  For others, it is creative, connective partnerships between organizations who find that their resources are no longer sufficient to have the desired impact.  Connections are not always without risk, but the rewards can be significant - not only for the immediacy of ministry, but also for the health of the congregations or organizations involved in the partnership.  Ministries that only want to protect instead of connect are not as risky . . . they are also not as rewarding.