Scitech | Evolution simulation gets the facts wrong

And intelligent Design gets a little boost

It begins when you crash down to earth as a microorganism on a meteorite. As the computer game, called Spore, progresses, you evolve from tiny cell, to sea creature, to land animal, to a civilization capable of intergalactic domination. With each new evolutionary step, you direct how your organism evolves by changing its form or giving it more brainpower. Spore, as an evolution simulator and civilization-building game, is addicting. But it’s also inaccurate.

Spore does a rudimentary job portraying some of the criteria for evolution, such as the passing of traits from parent to offspring, and the superiority of some traits over others for reproduction and survival. The game falls short on other crucial criteria for evolution. It doesn’t portray variation between individuals or high mortality, two important aspects of the process. Nor does it portray random mutation that causes new forms. Instead, it does just the opposite, having the player – an intelligent being – direct the evolutionary path that the creature takes.

This not only makes the game “un-evolutionary”, but worse, it instills the game with a tint of creationism. Divinely directed evolution is the basic idea behind Intelligent Design, a modern, prettified version of creationism.

Creationism holds that life was created and guided by one or multiple higher beings. As such it is the main competititor with evolutionary theory. Its popularity is mostly due to public misunderstanding of how evolution works. Creationism is not a scientific theory, and therefore is not considered seriously in the scientific community.

Aside from failing to portray random mutation, Spore also warps the chronological scale of natural history. In less than 20 minutes, you can see your microorganism grow into an aquatic creature and then grow legs to climb onto land. In about the same amount of time, you can play through the next phase, in which your creature develops an adequate brain for social behaviour with members of its own species. Much more time is spent on the following three phases: the tribal phase, civilization phase, and final outer-space phase. To get a flavour of how inaccurate this is, recall that if the history of life on earth was condensed into a 24-hour video, human civilization would last less than one second. Of course, that would make a disastrous game.

Spore also misrepresents evolution by giving it a direction. No matter how many times you play through the game, you’ll always end up as an advanced race of beings, zooming around the universe. Real evolution has no direction: whales are mammals that returned to the sea, ostriches are birds that returned to land, and it’s possible that humans might one day return to the trees. Civilization isn’t an inevitable product of evolution, but a chancy one.

One must remember, of course, that Spore is a game. It’s entertainment. This is no different than all the other sci-fi nonsense that we enjoy. And indeed, this is a game to have fun with – so long as we don’t take it too literally.

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