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Darwinian Theory Proved by Video Game? Robert J. Marks Begs to Differ

This is a sort of story that makes us roll our eyes, yet it’s catnip for many reporters. Here’s a recently released video game, “Darwin’s Demons” from Polymorphic Games, that seems to prove the veracity of Darwinian theory in explaining how new animals emerge from unguided evolutionary churning.

From an admiring article in the Spokane, WA, Spokesman-Review, “Evolution always wins: University of Idaho video game uses mutating aliens to teach science concepts”:

The release was timed to follow International Darwin Day on Feb. 12, which honors Charles Darwin and his groundbreaking work on how organisms change over time through the natural selection of characteristics that allow them to compete, survive and reproduce.

In the arcade-style game, players defend their spaceships against hordes of ever-evolving aliens. The fittest aliens, who destroy the most spaceships, produce the most offspring.

“The nastiest, meanest aliens have the most babies. They shoot more projectiles, fire faster and move down the screen more aggressively, said Barrie Robison, a professor in UI’s Department of Biological Sciences.

Within a few generations, the aliens turn into formidable foes, with genetic adaptations designed to outwit the gamers’ individual style of play.

From the game trailers, it looks pretty junky actually. Oh, by the way, you paid for it:

A National Science Foundation grant for evolution studies helped pay for the project.

Do you see where this is going? They’re going to use it on students to teach evolution. As Professor Robinson says in a press release from the University of Idaho, “We’ve begun developing support materials for teachers and students to help them use ‘Darwin’s Demons’ to demonstrate and teach evolutionary concepts.”

Gee wiz, says the web publication Big Think. They observe:

Polymorphic is hoping to see players regularly running their own evolutionary experiments. Of course this will require that they understand Darwinian principles.

Uh huh. The problem, of course, is that “Darwinian principles” only satisfactorily explain relatively limited evolutionary adjustments, so I’m afraid that students will be deceived. Writing at CNSNews, our friend Robert J. Marks of the Evolutionary Informatics Lab draws the distinction between evolution and adaptation. Dr. Marks, who is Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Baylor University, is co-author of a new book, Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, that those students could profitably be assigned instead. (See physicist and CSC research coordinator Brian Miller’s review here.)

Dr. Marks writes (amusingly, as always):

Darwin’s Demons only adapt. And there is a difference between undirected Darwinian evolution and designed adaptation….

Adaptation differs significantly from Darwinian evolution. Humans have unquestionably adapted to discoveries in medicine, sanitation practices and improved nutrition. We are healthier and live longer than we did a few centuries ago. Marvel’s X-Men celebrate new human super powers obtained through Darwinian evolution. Some who mock [intelligent design] say ID proponents should quit believing in the fairy tale of a designer. In extrapolating adaptation to Darwinian evolution, perhaps these critics should quit believing in comic books.


I broke my wrist a few years back and couldn’t use a keyboard. Rather than attempt one-armed typing, I purchased Dragon Naturally Speaking speech recognition software which I still use on occasion. Even after I regained function of my wrist, the hands-off software still came in handy because I can speak quickly but still look at my fingers when I type. Every time I open the program, Dragon asks my permission to look at my old documents and emails to assist in better correlating of my recent utterances with what I write. Dragon is adapting and is more accurate for me than it used to be. But I have no expectation that the software will ever evolve to the point where it alone begins to respond to my email or even composes a complete sentence.

Like Darwin’s Demons, Dragon is not evolving — it’s adapting exactly as its designers intended. And there will be no adaptation beyond the intended use. Don’t wait for it to do something for which it was not programmed to do. As currently written, the program will give little strategy in winning at Super Mario Brothers or offering investment advice.

Adaptation is common in engineering. Adaptive designs are robust and able to perform in a wide variety of scenarios.

Adaptation is also ubiquitous in nature. When I first heard about the beaks of the Galapagos finches changing in accordance to environment and food sources variation, I remember thinking that finch beaks were well designed. They adapted. Likewise, people who lose their sight often develop higher sensitivity to sound and touch.

Bottom line:

What’s the difference between evolution and adaptation? Darwinian evolution requires creation of specified complexity where there was none. Computer programs, including video games like Darwin’s Demons, are incapable of being creative. Adaptation, on the other hand, uses available pre-programmed resources to improve and ultimately optimize performance.

Adaptation, if anything, demonstrates intelligent design, not Darwinism. Of course they won’t tell you that at the University of Idaho, or most anywhere else. Instead they’ll stick you in front of a video game and tell you the stale, old fable.