The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Intelligently Designed Evolution


It’s not something I haven’t to do, in the past few years, as much as I used to. And with two kids I have even less time for it. But, always the enthusiast, I keep up with news, and I know pretty early when the next big new thing is coming out. I start counting the days up to a year in advance, buy it as soon as its available, take it home and spend hours playing around with it, figuring it out, and just immersing myself in it.

That was the case with The Sims, and that’s been the case with Spore. Well sort of.

Now, my experience is somewhat compacted. Where there was once the ritual trek to Best Buy, GameStop, or Electronics Boutique, there is now the trip to my desk to purchase the game at the Electronic Arts online store, and download it. In this case, I downloaded it Sunday morning, waited a couple of hours — during which we went grocery shopping — until 1:00 p.m., when the downloaded game could be “decrypted” and played. Where there was the anticipation of getting the game home, there is now the anticipation of the kids’ bedtime, after which I can play to my heart’s content.

That part, the gameplay, hasn’t changed much — except that I don’t play for hours. But I could very easily play Spore for hours.

What is the difference between a game and a toy? Does a game that feels more like a toy — even a scintillating, empowering toy — fall short on its own terms? Or is it enough just to be a great toy?

Those questions came to mind again and again as I spent more than 60 hours recently with Spore, the almost impossibly ambitious new brainchild of Will Wright. Best known for his popular evocations of urban sprawl (SimCity) and suburban Americana (The Sims), Mr. Wright has spent the last eight years trying to figure out how to convey the vast sweep of evolution from a single cell to the exploration of the galaxy as an interactive entertainment experience. His answer, Spore, is being released in stores and online for PCs and Macs in Europe on Friday and in North America this weekend.

As an intelligent romp through the sometimes contradictory realms of science, mythology, religion and hope about the universe around us, Spore both provokes and amuses. And as an agent of creativity it is a landmark. Never before have everyday people been given such extensive tools to create their digital alter ego.

Beginning with all manner of outlandish creatures — want to make a seven-legged purple cephalopod that looks like it just crawled out of somewhere between the River Styx and your brother-in-law’s basement? — and proceeding through various buildings and vehicles, Spore gives users unprecedented freedom to bring their imaginations to some semblance of digital life. In that sense Spore is probably the coolest, most interesting toy I have ever experienced.

But it’s not a great game, and that is something quite different.

I’d written previously that I’m not your typical gamer. First-person-shooters aren’t my thing. and I’ve never been good at them. Besides — Except for World of Warcraft and City of Heroes (neither of which I’ve played in ages) — I have a philosophical problem with games centered around violence. (The one time I played Civilization online, my opponent politely asked that I turn of the “no warfare” option — which I’d always kept on when I played against the game’s AI—and then politely cleaned my clock.) I’m more interested in building things and telling stories than I am in winning or achieving a high score. (And, yes, I have the cheat codes. No, I haven’t used them. Yet.)

I’d also written that Spore, being the “evolution game,” would likely spark protests. (It has, but not for the reasons I predicted.) However, after playing for a couple of hour on Sunday night, after the kids went to bed, I realized something. Spore may be about evolution, but as I realized when I made changes to my creature with each generation, it’s also about “intelligent design.”

Q: There has been some discussion online about whether the game promotes evolution or intelligent design. What would you tell people interested in either side of that discussion?

A: I think the game is really trying to give an overview of evolution in a way that is very toy-like and caricature-like. We put the player in the role of an intelligent designer. When we first started the prototypes (of Spore) that wasn’t the case. We had the game carefully mutating things and it just was not emotionally engaging. When we put the players in the role of intelligent designer then people were much more emotionally attached to what they made.

But if you step back from it, you see creatures over many generations get more advanced. All this happens over billions of years. So, however you slice it, is definitely not a creationist universe. You might say it has aspects of intelligent design.

Great, so it has something for everyone. Actually, I don’t think it would be possible for it not to cast the player in the role of intelligent design, and still be a game anyone would want to play. At the very least, the engagement of the player would be minimal, giving a nudge here and making a tweak there, and waiting to see what mutations developed and took hold. And even if that would make for a yawner of a gaming experience, it would still cast the designers in the role of intelligent designers.

Perhaps Wright has touched on something that’s key to the whole evolution vs. I.D. discussion (because, to my mind, there is no “debate” and no real “controversy” beyond that created by the religious right); to many people, the “story” of evolution — without an engaged creator, or even a blind watchmaker — is less emotionally engaging and compelling.

Spore, for example, is a lot more interesting than the “biomorphs” that Richard Dawkins employed to explain the cumulative effect of natural selection The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design.

Of course, I’m no scientist. But it seems obvious to me that no computer program could truly simulate evolution and make it interesting, because there’d be a lot of sitting an waiting, even if sped up in the simulation, so that the millions of years it might take for a single mutation to be produced only took an hour or so. It would still be an hour of sitting, waiting, and watching. And that’s not counting the time it would take for that mutation to either prove advantageous and be replicated, prove detrimental and go extinct, or prove to be benign and lie dormant until the environment changes in such a way to make it relevant to survival. (And you’ll have to wait for the environment to change too.)

None of that seems to matter to people who are disappointed that the media hasn’t joined them in crowing that Spore sweeps away objections to intelligent design, thereby “proving” the validity of I.D., because in that realm, the burden of proof is apparently on the skeptic, while the believer is permitted another approach.

One of the problems with arguing against ID on the part of some is that they fail to understand that it is, in large part, an argument by analogy . What this means is that we take an example of something that we know to happen and use this as an analogy for something about which we wish to theorize. This is done, for example in the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial) program where the argument goes like this – ‘We know that no signal from outer space could arise by chance, it must come from an intelligent life form, therefore if we detect one, we have discovered extraterrestrials.’ This is essentially the type of analogy used by the ID people. They are essentially saying ‘we know that complex systems which are irreducibly complex and therefore require a whole lot of things to fall into place simultaneously do not happen by chance in the real world.’ Secondly, biological systems are also much more complex than the technology we observe to be designed, therefore, the conclusion is that these systems have been designed by an intelligence.

This analogical argument is the central piece of argumentation supporting ID. It needs to be shown to be false to disprove ID. In other words, it needs to be demonstrated that life, in a very complex way can arise by chance. This would basically be another form of ‘spontaneous generation’ disproved by Pasteur and formulated as the scientific law of Biogenesis – life only comes from life. It would also need to show, not just the spontaneous generation of life but the spontaneous development of complex structures in the DNA blueprint itself in an organism, in order for it to develop these irreducibly complex systems.

There are, of course, arguments against irreducible complexity.

But I think there’s another factor involved in the attachment to Intelligent Design and the implication of a designer: an unwillingness or inability to say “we don’t know.”

Scientists, at least those I’m familiar with, say “we don’t know” alot, because they’re in the business of formulating hypotheses, testing them, replicating experiments with tangible results, and comparing those results over and over again before they can even say “we reasonably sure” let alone “we absolutely know.” Even Richard Dawkins stops short of saying there is no God, saying instead that the existence of God is highly improbable.

Without giving too much away, the opening sequence in Spore (EA is known for its entertaining movies and message that play while the game is loading) shows how life arrives on the planet that serves as the gaming environment, but it leaves open the question of where that life came from in the first place.

Now, that might seem like a good place start if I were an I.D. advocate, pointing out that open question as a “gap” through which to shoehorn the possibility of the designer implied by “Intelligent Design.” And opening up the question of who that designer might be, for which someone somewhere no doubt has a ready answer.

And that’s the difference, to me, between I.D. and science. Science is comfortable with leaving the question open; comfortable with saying “we don’t know” until such a time as there’s evidence that can be tested, experimented upon, and those experiments replicated, etc., because they’re comfortable with uncertainty. After all, it’s no sin to say “I don’t know.”

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. It is an issue that applies to everyone, including both Buddhists and nonBuddhists. Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves. We sometimes think that dharma is something outside of ourselvesósomething to believe in, something to measure up to. However, dharma isnít a belief; it isnít a dogma. It is total appreciation of impermanence and change. The teachings disintegrate when we try to grasp them. We have to experience them without hope. Many brave and compassionate people have experience them and taught them. The message is fearless; dharma was never meant to be a belief that we blindly follow. Dharma gives us nothing to hold on to at all.

Nontheism is finally realizing that thereís no baby sitter that you can count on. You just get a good one and then he or she is gone. Nontheism is realizing that itís not just babysitters that come and go. The whole of life is like that. This is the truth, and the truth is inconvenient.

Or a designer, for that matter.

But faith is, in some important ways, diametrically opposed to uncertainty. In fact, it demands certainty. Or else.

But after watching the program, and the clear connection between “Intelligent Design” and religion, I came upon my own definition of irreducible complexity. It is not the point at which a biological system is so complex that it can only have been created by an intelligent designer. It is the point at which some people simply stop thinking about that or any other biological system. It is a boundary on the map of human knowledge beyond which are written the words, “Here be dragons.” And at that boundary, some people stop asking questions. They have to, because hell yawns beyond that boundary.

When you have to believe something in order to get into heaven, and you will spend all of in hell if you don’t believe it or if you believe anything else, at some point you stop asking questions. You have to, if you don’t want to go to hell.

It is as though you are standing in a room, and at the other end of that room is the gate to hell. You arm is outstretched, and in your hand is the key to that date. Every question asked and answered by scientific inquiry is a step that takes you closer to that gate. Ask one question, and you take a step closer. Answer another one and you take another step. Keep asking and you’re walking across the room. Before you know it, the key is in the lock, and one more question may turn the key.

But not only must you stop asking questions, but you must stop others from asking questions if you believe in a “designer” that punishes entire cities and entire nations for tolerating disbelief. Because every step they take, every inquiry, every question asked takes them towards that gate that must stay locked, not just to keep out what’s on the other side, but because if the gate is ever opened, only one thing can be worse than what it unleashes, and that’s if it unleashes nothing at all.

It can be a sin to say “I don’t know,” then, because that’s one step closer to the gate and what is or is note behind it. So, it’s understandable that some people reach for a computer game to further support what not just what they believe, but what they know and what they must not question, but must still somehow prove.

Seems like a lot of trouble, compared to just playing the intelligently designed computer game, and relaxing with the uncertainty of whether there’s any intelligence involved with our presence on the planet. Especially considering recent signs pointing to a negative answer on that one.

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