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Spore: Hype or Educational Use of Evolutionary Algorithms?

SporeBy now you’ve probably seen the fascinating user-designed creatures – from unicellular microbes to bizarre looking bug-eyed, multi-limbed predators that acquire civilization and eventually fly off to explore the galaxy. Spore, the computer game by Will Wright, author of SimCity, SimEarth, and The Sims, was released in September 2008 to much fanfare. The New York Times initially reported that Spore takes its clues from evolutionary biology. A more recent article in Science magazine suggests otherwise, “… the problem isn’t just that Spore dumbs down the science or gets a few things wrong – it’s meant to be a game, after all — but rather, it gets most of biology badly, needlessly, and often bizarrely wrong.”

Four scientists — two evolutionary biologists, a sociologist, and a NASA astrophysicist — played Spore with gonzo scientist John Bohannon. The scientists were asked to grade the science in the game: the grades ranged from an F in Genetics and Natural Selection to a B in Astrophysics and a B+ in Sociology. Bohannon set out to answer the question whether a game in which you play a species-tweaking god helps you to understand Darwinian evolution or whether it supports intelligent design. His conclusion? Neither. Spore’s creatures pass traits acquired during their lifetimes to their offspring — this is Lamarckian evolution, a theory popular in the early 19th century. Educational, perhaps, but misleading if the game is being promoted as teaching modern biology.

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