In a recent post at The Corner, John Derbyshire wrote that “we are actually quite close to a point where we CAN do evolution in the lab.” To make his point, Derbyshire cited an article by Carl Zimmer in the February, 2005, issue of *Discover* Magazine: “Testing Darwin: Scientists at Michigan State University Prove Evolution Works.”
We don’t buy it. Discovery fellow (and Ph.D. biologist) Jonathan Wells found the claims in Zimmer’s article laughable, and he was moved to write a satirical review that we are posting here. Although the tone is tongue-in-cheek, the quotes from Zimmer’s article are real, as is the force of Wells’ argument.
Darwinists at Michigan State University Prove Computers Work by Jonathan Wells
For centuries breeders have been modifying existing species by selecting desirable variations, yet this procedure has never produced a new species. Still less has it produced new organs or body plans. In 1859, however, Charles Darwin wrote that variation and selection explain the origin of species and all of life’s diversity, and his faithful followers are still looking for evidence that he was right.
Frustrated by the obstinate refusal of real organisms to obey Darwin’s dictates, researchers at Michigan State University have turned to computers. Using a software program called Avida, they have now succeeded in proving that if a computer is instructed to generate a program capable of doing basic arithmetic it can eventually … do basic arithmetic!
Naive amateurs might think that Darwin’s theory is supposed to be about the evolution of living things, and that neither computers nor computer programs are alive. But Darwin’s followers have cleverly overcome this naive objection by re-defining “life” to mean “that which evolves by mutation and selection.” Reporting on the Michigan State research in *Discover* magazine, science writer Carl Zimmer writes: “After more than a decade of development, Avida’s digital organisms are now getting close to fulfilling the definition of biological life.”
Zimmer backs this up by quoting several of the Michigan State researchers. One of them is philosophy professor Robert Pennock, who said: “More and more of the features that biologists have said were necessary for life we can check off.” Apparently mistaking a paper checklist for life itself — as philosophers sometimes do — Pennock concluded: “Avida is not a simulation of evolution; it is an instance of it.”
Another Michigan State researcher is microbiologist Richard Lenski, who has spent decades trying to produce new species of bacteria through artificial selection. Having failed at that, Lenski is now tempted to get rid of his smelly and uncooperative cultures and turn to Avida: “In an hour I can gather more information than we had been able to gather in years of working on bacteria.”
This leads Zimmer to conclude that “the Avida team is putting Darwin to the test in a way that was previously unimaginable.” Having moved beyond the old-fashioned prejudice that evolution is about living organisms that are actually alive, the team is now “beginning to shed light on some of the biggest questions of evolution.” Those questions include:
- How did eyes evolve? According to Zimmer, creationists irrationally claim that eyes show “signs of intelligent design.” Avida has “hit a nerve in the antievolution movement” by proving that this is false. All we need is “a patch of photosensitive cells” that has “evolved into a pit.” By simply plugging the parameters of this pre-existing eye into a carefully designed computer program, we can prove that eyes originated without the need for design.
- Why many species instead of one? If one plant in the forest does a better job of capturing sunlight than all the other species, Darwin’s theory might predict that it would eliminate all of its competitors; yet this doesn’t happen. Avida solves this problem by proving that a computer programmed to find more than one way to do simple arithmetic can (are you ready?) find more than one way to do simple arithmetic.
- Why be nice? The existence of altruism has always been a problem for Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest, because an organism can’t enhance its own survival by sacrificing itself for another. According to Zimmer, Charles Ofria (director of the Digital Evolution Laboratory)thinks that it may someday be possible to program digital “organisms” to work together if we can “get them to communicate.” The result could be an “altruistic” computer code that can solve “real-world computer problems.” Who needs Mother Teresa?
- Why sex? Sexual reproduction has also been a big problem for Darwinian evolution, because an organism that can reproduce by simply splitting in two seems more fit than an organism that cannot reproduce without the help of another. The standard explanation is that sex increases fitness by mixing genes that enable organisms to deal with different environments. To test this, Michigan State biologist Dusan Misevic has spent the past few years programming Avida’s digital “organisms” to “have sex” by exchanging chunks of computer code. Unfortunately, his efforts have met with such limited success that Misevic concludes: “We must look to other explanations to help explain sex in general.” Thank goodness.
- Is there life on other planets? Cal Tech digital-evolution researcher Evan Dorn has found a pattern common to life on Earth and “life” in Avida that he thinks may help us to recognize extraterrestrial life. According to Zimmer: “If Dorn is right, discovery of non-DNA life would become a little less spectacular because it would mean that we have already stumbled across it here on Earth — in East Lansing, Michigan.” UFO buffs, however, may want to hold out for something more substantial.
- What will life on Earth look like in the future? Zimmer writes that project director Ofria “acknowledges that harmful computer viruses may eventually evolve like his caged digital organisms.” Ofria himself said: “Some day it’s going to happen, and it’s going to be scary. Better to study them now so we know how to deal with them.” Like, by writing anti-virus programs?
- So the Michigan State researchers have proved that a computer can simulate undesigned eye evolution as long as it starts with a functioning eye and a suitably designed program; that a computer instructed to solve a simple problem can sometimes solve it in more than one way; that computer codes programmed to communicate with each other might someday be able to solve real-world computer problems; that computers don’t understand sex; that a computer in East Lansing, Michigan, may become the next Area 51; and that our future may be plagued by scary computer viruses.
These Earth-shaking results, according to Zimmer, “prove evolution works.”
It is rumored that the Michigan State team tried to sell its stuff to a video game company but was told that its simulations wouldn’t fool an eight-year-old. Not to worry, though: Given the publicly funded group’s inestimable contributions to science and human welfare, American taxpayers will probably continue to support this important work.