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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Darwinism and popular culture: The Spore game subtly mocks the Darwinian fairy tale

American high school student RGR has been, he tells me, following the debates on the validity of Darwinism since the release of Ben Stein's Expelled
Until then, I had never questioned the validity of Darwinian natural selection. A little independent research has convinced me of Darwinism's improbability. I'm still a firm proponent of common descent, but I see now that Darwinism can't account for much of the development of life.

A while ago, I read an article of yours referencing the upcoming videogame "Spore". I agree that this game is a sign of Darwinism's weakening hold on pop culture, and I think the game will be an excellent demonstration of how common descent is compatible with non-Darwinian evolution. I was pleased all the more when I saw a trailer for the game on Youtube, and noted the language with which it was described.

I think RGR is on to something there. The Darwinian narrative is treated ironically, not reverently. The assumption is that it is okay to doubt, to think that design is more plausible. No wonder militant atheists, whose creation story is Darwinism, are outraged, as Reuters reports:
As a simulation of evolution from single-cell organism to space-faring civilisation, Will Wright feared his latest creation, Spore, would draw criticism from religious groups. But so far, the game's creator has revealed, the portrayal of religion in the game has only drawn the ire of angry non-believers.

[ ... ]

Life in Spore is created according to the theory of panspermia - which hypothesises that it has been seeded on Earth from elsewhere in the universe. But it's the mere presence of religion in the game's civilisation stage that has raised hackles amongst some in the gaming community.

"I didn't expect to hit hot buttons on the atheist side as much; I expected it on the religious side," Wright revealed. "But so far I've had no critical feedback at all from anybody who is religious feeling that we were misrepresenting religion or it was bad to represent religion in the game. It was really the atheists."

[ ... ]

Wright, however, who described himself as an "atheist", insisted that with Spore he was not trying to pronounce on the issue one way or the other: ...
Wright doesn't seem to understand that materialist atheists permit no doubt, whereas traditional theists and non-materialists do. He had carefully vetted his game with the traditionals (who like it), not understanding that it is the New Atheist fascists he has something to fear from. Well, a few years of their 24/7 hostility will soon teach him, I fear. Here's Johnny Minkley's Eurogamer interview with him.

Meanwhile, one prof friend confesses that he "spent too much time learning how to make Spore creatures last night" but he nonetheless recommends the free trial version.

Significantly, a teacher grouses:
It's not great as an aid to teaching evolution, since the premise is actually intelligent design. Or, more often than not, unintelligent design. An accurate evolution game would not be a game at all, because everything would get on without any input from the player.
He should teach is class to play Bingo, shouldn't he? That gets rid of the design element.

I wonder if the makers will be forced to issue a disclaimer to the effect that the premise of the game is natural selection acting on random mutations? I remember when the creators of the stunning March of the Penguins had to issue a disclaimer that the film didn't really support intelligent design (of course it does). The best they could come up with in response is that the penguins, after all, change their mates every year ... (Now, if the blubbery birds could just do colour as well as black and white, maybe Hollywood would call ... )

Oh, and here's a fun spoof on March. Spoof's premise: In French, the film was "Marche des Empereurs". Recall who France's "Empereur" was ...

Update: A friend writes to say that Brian Eno, who scored Spore, argues,
Spore has some of that (in that it gives you some sort of feel for how evolution might work), but I could imagine going further in that direction.

For example, a few years ago I found myself wondering, "Why do the leaves of trees take all the different forms that they do?" If you accept the theory of evolution, then you will also accept that these shapes aren't just arbitrary designs that God came up with in an idle moment, and so they must be the result of climatic conditions and physical forces and structural constraints and materials issues. So I could imagine a piece of software that would allow you to specify a climate — such as "tundra with powerful winds," and to see what possible leaf shapes that might allow. For instance, it couldn't be big, wide stiff leaves, because they would get shattered by the wind or weighed down by the weight of snow. And so it has to be a spiny form of foliage, but held on the tree in such a way as not to collect snow. And, since it has to photosynthesize in a northern climate, it has to keep its foliage ...
So Eno avoids the problem by assuming that design would be random but that neo-Darwinian evolution (survival of the fittest acting on random mutations in one of many possible environments) would not be.

So that' s the story this time ...


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