September 19, 2008

What Spore Teaches Us About Intelligent Design: The Four Lessons of Casey Luskin

I'm proud to note that I've added numerous points to my geek cred scale recently by purchasing a copy of EA/Maxis' computer game, Spore. I haven't had much time to play it, but I have managed to take a species of mine all the way to the galactic phase. My little critters, the Shub, are gleefully jetting about the galaxy, although their home world, Mloukhiye, is currently under attack. You can see a Shub there on the right. Cute, no?

I like Spore. It's a fun little game, and that's all it is. I wouldn't dream of using it as a tool with which to instruct students about evolutionary biology for a very simple reason; it's nothing like evolutionary biology. It lacks most of the mechanisms that we see driving evolution in the real world. There's no random mutation in Spore, for instance. Nor is there sexual selection, genetic drift or gene flow. In fact, Spore is essentially The Sims with characters that aren't necessarily human or even human-like. In the real world, species don't jump from being cells to having legs because they eat enough bits of nutrient floating in liquid medium. They don't grow bigger brains because they sing duets with other organisms. The real world simply doesn't work like Spore. In other words, Spore isn't evidence for or against any empirical principle. It is, after all, just a fun little game.

That, of course, isn't going to stop the ID Creationism contingent from advancing the notion that this bit of electronic fluff from Electronic Arts somehow supports their notion of how the diversity of life arose on the planet. They are not, after all, under the constraint of testing hypotheses, nor even of rudimentary common sense, because the vacuous nonsense they assert as a theory (proving that they're not even under the constraint of English usage) is just that — vacuous. They could as easily maintain that the existence of pie is evidence that prayer has the power to turn the head purple. We are thus treated to platters of blather such as an article in The Christian Post in which Casey Luskin, better known to sentient beings everywhere as Captain Clownie, yammers on about how a computer game is evidence of, and teaches users about, his favorite content-free fairy tale:

'Spore' Game Helps Players Understand Intelligent Design
Fans of a video game about evolution include young Christian teenagers and intelligent design proponents

By Katherine T. Phan
Christian Post Reporter

While the latest video-game craze, "Spore," touts the theory of evolution, taking gamers from a single-celled organism to complex civilizations, some say it also promotes God and intelligent design...

Players start the game with the task of feeding a single-cellular amoeba that eventually lays an egg after it has consumed enough blob-like nutrients in its 2-D world. The egg allows gamers to edit their simple organism into a more complex creature - with seven legs, one eye and purple skin if they so desired.

At each egg stage, players can further "evolve" their creatures to have different body structures, physical capabilities and even bigger brains – all of which affect the creatures' abilities and personalities in the game...
Let's pause right here for a moment. In Spore, players do not "evolve" their creatures, they edit their creatures. There's a big difference here. See, you have to click this little button and a new window opens. The player then spends a few "DNA points" to buy arms and legs and eyes which they choose from a menu on the left side of the screen. That isn't evolution by any definition, of course. Is it intelligent design? Sure, assuming that the player isn't a member of the Discovery Institute, barring appropriate use of the word "intelligent" in this context. However, is it evidence for what Luskin and his Creationist clown car assert? Is this how the designer designs? Is he constrained by a budget of DNA points amassed by creatures eating blobs of algae? Well, the truth is... I don't know. Since one of the assertions these numbskulls make is that we can't know anything about their designer (whom, for the sake of simplicity, I'll refer to as Bob the Builder henceforth), he could be clicking away at a menu on some celestial computer somewhere and we could all be nothing more than critters in a pangalactic Sporepedia. However, I am unaware of the proponents of ID ever having advanced this notion beforehand... which, for their purposes, is just fine, since their vacuity isn't constrained by the requirement of predictiveness, anyhow. Unlike real scientists, IDolators are free to make it up as they go along. Everything they do is ad hoc.

And here we have the first thing that Spore really does teach players about Intelligent Design; one can say nearly anything (real biology is barred from discussion, of course), and ID pseudotheory can find a way to accommodate it. Chalk one up for Captain Clownie. We've all learned a valuable lesson. To continue with the article, then:
"Anyone can see that Spore is not really about evolution by the Darwinian mechanism; it's about evolution by intelligent design," Casey Luskin with Discovery Institute, a leading intelligent design think tank, wrote on the group's affiliated blog Evolution News & View...
Well-played, Captain! I agree entirely; anyone who knows anything about evolutionary biology can see that Spore is not about evolution by Darwinian mechanisms, nor by any other mechanisms seen in the real world. The thing is, so what? Computer games routinely violate the laws of physics; one might just as well state that Super Mario Brothers isn't about quantum mechanics. See, entertainment devices don't always seek to replicate the real world and Spore is not a teaching tool. It isn't science. It's a computer game from which precisely zero lessons about the universe in which we (by which I do not mean to necessarily include Captain Clownie and the Funtime Gang over at the DI) actually exist. In truth, Spore is about neither evolutionary biology nor about religiously-derived "alternative theories." It's about having a bit of fun.

But here we have our second lesson about Intelligent Design inadvertently brought to the fore by Spore: ID advocates can't tell the difference between a fantasy role-playing game and reality. Note that this is a notoriously poor sort of mindset from which to begin the genesis of anything useful to science. But they do go on:
The game even refutes many Darwinist objections to I.D., argued Luskin, including one objection that says detecting design requires knowledge about the designer.

"Browsing on YouTube I can find hundreds if not thousands of Spore creatures that were designed by people whose real names, parents' names, and tribes of origin I know nothing about. We don't have to know who the designer is, or who spawned the designer, to be able to detect design," wrote Luskin...
I'm unfamiliar with the argument that Luskin says we "Darwinists" bring up in regard to IDiocy. I am, however, familiar with two arguments that he may have crammed together here. The first is that if design is present, it should be detectable and the second is that if there is a designer present the designer should also be detectable and because that designer can be observed, even indirectly, it absolutely follows that we could say something about the nature of that designer based upon how Bob the Builder designs. We could infer, for instance, what kind of design regime it follows, what sorts of tools Bob uses, etc., all of which perforce tell us something about this veiled designer.

Captain Clownie, of course, puts his foot right in it when he says that he can't tell anything about the people who designed the Spore creatures he's found on YouTube. This may be indicative of the extent of Luskin's brain damage, since anyone lacking his degree of cognitive impairment can say any number of things about the designers of Spore creatures without even looking at the creatures themselves. For example, it's a sure bet that every single person who has designed a Spore creature has used the Spore creature creator to do so, and we can thus infer that such individuals also have access to at least one computer and furthermore know how to use it, could we not? We can make some educated guesses about what colors these designers favor, particular if we can find several of their creations and note what they have in common in this regard. More importantly, we can test our hypotheses about these junior Bobs by sending them an email and asking a few questions. Some might choose not to respond, but at least a few of them would and we could expand from our initial hypothesis to build a profile of one or more designers, look for commonalities between them and ultimately come up with some idea of what unites the kind of people who make creatures for Spore. In fact, you can bet your bottom dollar that there are people working at EA who do just this kind of thing for a living. In case Captain Clownie missed it, then, here's a clue; this discipline is called marketing. Even if Luskin didn't investigate the creators of those Spore critters on YouTube, other people make a living doing precisely that. In fact, they did so before anyone ever bought the game, and the information they uncovered was used to make predictions about who would buy Spore and how many buyers there would be long before the game itself ever hit the shelves. If they were correct, they might get a nice bonus. If they were wrong, they might get fired. This works just like science; what's known prior to an experiment (in this case, the launch of a product) is used to create a hypothesis which is then tested, evidence for and against the hypothesis is gathered, and the hypothesis is either conditionally accepted or rejected.

Here, we learn our third lesson about ID Creationism — it doesn't lend itself to inquiry. As soon as a bit of useful agitprop is formulated, inquiry ceases. Luskin didn't find anything about to say about the Spore creators because he didn't even trying once he could make some statement in support of an a priori conclusion. We have learned that Intelligent Design is, in fact, exactly the opposite of the search for the truth about the world in which we live — a most valuable lesson, indeed.
Benjamin Cormack, writing on the gaming Website suggested Spore may even help players understand, in a small way, the heart of God.

"As you guide and care for your creations, you may actually develop an almost parental sense of pride in watching them grow, kind of like children or sea monkeys," he wrote...
Well, that's a very long way from Captain Clownie's assertion that it isn't necessary to infer anything about Bob the Builder, isn't it? Cormack is certainly saying something about God (and, after all, that's precisely who Bob the Builder really is!) Of course, it's also a tremendous leap of logic and certainly a category error. It's based on a major statement about the nature of the designer — this designer has human emotions and, not only that, applies them in an entirely human way. Bob the Builder forms attachments to the things it creates.

We get yet another lesson about Intelligent Design, then. It has no problem with contradicting itself in order to accommodate any opinion about anything at all, so long as that opinion is one in contradiction of sound science and reason. This is, of course, a major advantage of being vacuous.

It turns out, then, that Captain Clownie is absolutely correct in his assertion, shared with numerous other IDolators, that Spore teaches players about Intelligent Design. He's just wrong about what lessons those players can learn. What Spore has done is simply to bring the termites out of Bob the Builder's woodpile to make the usual round of silly statements that those of us who still have a few working brain cells firing away can then dissect using that most incisive of scalpels, reason. In summation, we who are still in possession of this valuable faculty and who hold it in esteem learn the most valuable lesson of all about Intelligent Design from the reaction of one of its leading advocates to Spore. That is, they aren't very good tool-users. They tend to apply a cudgel when what's called for a nice, sharp blade.

The ability to use tools is a major part of what makes us humans. To be a bad tool user is, in a sense, to be an inferior human being. I would submit, then, that the ultimate lesson one can take away from all of this is about Casey Luskin himself and, based upon their assent to Captain Clownie's arguments, about the leadership and members of the Discovery Institute. They don't know how to use the one tool that makes all other possible — reason. They're not so much a think tank as they are a holding pen for the chronically deficient who have benefited from the relaxed requirements of fitness that good tool-users have engendered. Natural selection having failed to remove them from the ideological gene pool so far, we shall have to wait for the effects of some other factor to lead in the end to their inevitable extinction. Surely the very fact that this rubber-nosed know-nothing can assert that one can learn about the real world by playing a video game should be enough to demonstrate how jejune is the black hole of intellect termed "intelligent design" for all of humanity. At least, I would like to think it that obviously stupid.

I also suspect, sadly, that someone will come along to dash my hopes any minute now.

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