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Education or Obfuscation? Avida in Science Class


What is a mark of a great teacher? One is the ability to take complex subject matter and explain it in a way that your audience can relate to. The opposite would be confusing students with high-tech equipment — for example, a computer program that supposedly demonstrates evolution.

A paper in The American Biology Teacher this month recommends a student version of the program Avida for classrooms, Avida-ED. The authors note:

[I]t can be difficult to engage students in authentic scientific practice around the topic of evolution, mainly because biological evolution can be difficult to observe. An option that overcomes limitations posed by biological model organisms is digital evolution. Populations of digital organisms — mini-programs similar to computer viruses capable of self-replication — evolve in minutes and can produce large quantities of data in a short time. An example of digital evolution software is Avida, a research platform that was developed to model and test hypotheses about evolutionary mechanisms in a highly controlled and fast system. Avida allows biologists to investigate evolutionary questions that are difficult or impossible to test in organic systems (Adami, 2006), and has been used as a model system in well over a hundred experimental evolution studies for many kinds of evolutionary hypotheses (e.g., Clune et al., 2010; Grabowski etal., 2013).

So the idea is that Avida speeds up speciation. The paper goes on:

Software that simulates evolution is available for educators (e.g., SimBio’s EvoBeaker), but Avida goes further in allowing teachers to incorporate authentic research experiences on evolution in the classroom. Chief among the many advantages of using Avida to study evolutionary processes is that it constitutes a true instance of evolution rather than a simulation of it (Pennock, 2007b). We will not repeat the argument here, but the key point is that Avida implements the causal mechanisms of evolution, producing outcomes that are not predetermined but can be studied experimentally. Digital organisms in Avida (aka “Avidians”) replicate, mutate, and compete with other organisms for resources in their computational environment (Fig. 1). The system possesses all of the requirements necessary for evolution by natural selection to occur (Dennett, 1995). This is why it is especially useful to evolutionary biologists for basic research, but it is also compelling to teachers who want their students to actually observe evolutionary change in the classroom in real time. [Emphasis added.]

Let’s see here. A “true instance of evolution,” without true organisms. A computer simulation is not a “simulation.” Students can “actually observe evolutionary change in the classroom.”

Strong statements! But perhaps inaccurate? Yes, way off the mark.

Is it true that the program “implements the causal mechanisms of evolution, producing outcomes that are not predetermined but can be studied experimentally”? Of course not. In their recent book Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, Robert Marks, William Dembski, and Winston Ewert, of the Evolutionary Informatics Lab, offer a more sober perspective.

On evolutionary simulations (Avida and others):

When software engineers perform a computer search, they are always looking for ways to improve the results of the search and how to better incorporate knowledge about the program being solved into the search algorithm. Evolution computer programs written by Darwinists, on the other hand, are aimed at demonstrating the Darwinian evolutionary process. The efficiency of the search is of secondary importance.

Despite these differences, the fundamentals of evolutionary models offered by Darwinists and those used by engineers and computer scientists are the same. There is always a teleological goal imposed by an omnipotent programmer, a fitness associated with the goal, a source of active information (e.g. an oracle), and stochastic updates.

On Avida in particular:

Avida is a computer program which, its creators say, “show[s] how complex functions can originate by random mutation and natural selection.” …[C]ontrary to the claims of the authors, the source of the success of Avida is not due to the evolutionary algorithm, but to sources of information embedded in the computer program. A strong contribution to the success of Avida is [a] stairstep information source embedded in the computer program….[T]he sources of information can be mined more efficiently using other search algorithms.

At the Evolutionary Informatics Lab website, you can try out an Avida-like program, Minivida, and test for yourself how preprogramed information affects outcomes.

It’s time for a bit of honesty in evolution education! Avida shows that evolutionary processes require intelligent design to hit predetermined targets. That’s the candid takeaway from a lesson about this software. Since we don’t recommend trying to bring ID into public school classrooms, there are undoubtedly more effective uses of class time than playing with Avida-ED.

Photo credit: janeb13, via Pixabay.