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Evolution by intelligent design: Spore's designs sweep away common objections to ID

I have thus far refrained from blogging about the new video game Spore that is being widely discussed in the media for one reason: anyone can see that Spore is not really about evolution by the Darwinian mechanism; it's about evolution by intelligent design (ID). Even in his recent September 2 New York Times article, "Gaming Evolves," Carl Zimmer reports that "Spore was strongly influenced by science, and in particular by evolutionary biology" but admits that "[t]he step-by-step process by which Spore's creatures change does not have much to do with real evolution." One biologist was quoted saying, "The mechanism is severely messed up." And just what is that "severely messed up" mechanism? The answer is obvious: as an article in Time Magazine points out, "You could read Spore equally easily as a model of evolution or of intelligent design, with you in the role of Intelligent Designer." And given that Spore's creatures are all intelligently designed, Zimmer's article unwittingly describes a game that sweeps away many favorite Darwinist objections to ID.

(Update: Spore creator Will Wright now acknowledges in a USA Today article the obvious point that Spore "has aspects of intelligent design.")

Objection 1: Functional similarity implies homology, refuting design. Darwinists commonly take functional similarity as evidence for inheritance from a common ancestor (i.e. homology) (except for when such similarities imply convergent evolution). But there are other possible explanations. Designers regularly re-use parts that work in different designs. In Zimmer's article, he reports that one biologist who played Spore "stretches the body to give it a neck" and "adds a pair of kangaroolike legs." But any cursory glance finds Spore's creature creators regularly re-use bipedal locomotion or long necks in their designs (for some cool examples, see here, here, here, or here). To be sure, inheritance from a common ancestor is one way to explain many similarities among organisms. But so is common design, as Spore's designs illustrate for us.

Objection 2: Clumsy design refutes design. Darwinists (including Zimmer) love to argue that clumsy or inefficient design necessarily refutes design. Not so, if you're using Spore's Creature Creator. For example, this poor catlike creature walks awkwardly on its back and would make a quick lunch for any predator. Or consider this creature that seems to be missing some vital organs. This creature seems a little topheavy for its one leg--not an elegant or efficient design for locomotion. This poor guy needs no explanation. Again, Spore's designs remind us that inefficient or clumsy designs can still in fact be designed. Hopefully this observation will help some Darwinists to abandon their misapprehension that design is detected based upon the "elegance" or "optimality" of the design, for in reality we detect design based upon the presence of an informational signature know to be uniquely produced by intelligent agents: complex and specified information.

Objection 3: Detecting design requires knowledge about the designer. Objectors to ID often say things like "ID should tell us the designer's identity," or, "Who designed the designer?" Browsing on YouTube I can find hundreds if not thousands of Spore creatures that were designed by people whose real names, parents' names, and tribes of origin I know nothing about. We don't have to know who the designer is, or who spawned the designer, to be able to detect design.

Objection 4: Computer simulations demonstrate evolution, thereby refuting design. As noted earlier, Zimmer's article makes it clear that Spore does not model biological reality. But he nonetheless claims that other computer programs do simulate real evolution, touting Avida as a simulation that "allows tiny computer programs to behave like real organisms" because they can "make copies of themselves and mutate (randomly changing lines of programming code)." Yet an argument can be made that Avida is little better than Spore at modeling evolution. As we saw in Objection 1, Spore users can pick from pre-defined parts in order to design functional organisms that can walk, jump, swim, etc. The phrase evolution by intelligent design again comes to mind, because the parts from which the designer can choose are intelligently designed to help ensure some level of functionality. In fact, the same criticism can be said of Avida, where the types "mutations" are pre-defined, such that there really aren't "randomly changing lines of programming code," but rather the Avida simulation swaps in pre-defined functional computer commands as "mutations." As William Dembski explains,

[The Avida] simulation requires that complex systems exhibiting complex functions can always be built up from (or decomposed into) simpler system exhibiting simpler function. This is a much stronger assumption than merely allowing that complex systems may include functioning subsystems. Just because a complex system can include functioning subsystems doesn't mean that it decomposes into a collection of subsystems each of which is presently functional or vestigial of past function and thus amenable to shaping by natural selection.

(William Dembski, Introduction to Uncommon Dissent (ISI Books, 2004).)

If anything, Avida's "evolution" represents exactly what Spore is: evolution by intelligent design.

Objection 5: Occasional fossils bearing "transitional" traits refute ID. Could Zimmer really write a New York Times article on evolution without touting the Darwinists' new favorite example of an allegedly transitional fish fossil, Tiktaalik? Of course not: Zimmer's goal is to tout evolution to the public, and the graphic accompanying his article about Spore is not the expected picture of a Spore creature but an entirely out-of-place artist's reconstruction of Tiktaalik.

Zimmer recently wrote a non-response to me that dramatically misstated my rebuttal that paleontologist Neil Shubin was flat wrong to claim that the fish fossil Tiktaalik has "a wrist." But Zimmer's new New York Times article states that Shubin and Spore-creator Will Wright apparently used Spore to recreate a "Tiktaalik" Spore-creature which reportedly "crawled on land and thrived." As I discussed previously, given that Tiktaalik lacks legs and feet, there is no evidence that it would "thrive" or "crawl" on the land. As one authority explained, if anything, "in the absence of legs [a fish] body would have dragged or flopped when the animal moved." It seems that Zimmer and Shubin are now resorting to fantastical video game simulations to tout Tiktaalik to the public as evidence for evolution.

Despite the fact that the real Tiktaalik would never "crawl" on the land, one cannot help but recognize that Spore's fantasy-Tiktaalik -- which could live in both aquatic and terrestrial environments -- was designed. This illustrates the fact that sometimes designers make designs that are intended for multiple environments, challenging claims that Tiktaalik's alleged transitional status necessarily refutes design.

Evolution Thrives Only in Spore's Fantasy Land
As I concluded in my response to Zimmer, "Tiktaalik's wrist exists in the minds of Darwinists with overactive imaginations." Zimmer now reports that Shubin was "enchanted" by Spore, and said, "you can't help but feel amazed how, from a few simple rules and instructions, you can get a complex functioning world with bodies, behaviors and whole ecosystems." Perhaps Shubin's enchantment and amazement stems from the fact that Spore is a video game that is intelligently designed to allow users to create fantasy worlds where evolution really can take place. It thus seems fitting that only in the fantasy world of Spore were Darwinists actually able to give their precious Tiktaalik a real wrist, thereby allowing it to "crawl on land and thriv[e]."