Sorry Darwin: New Video Game Proves Adaptation Is Ubiquitous – Not Evolution

Robert J. Marks II
By Robert J. Marks II | May 2, 2017 | 3:39 PM EDT

Darwin's Demons (Youtube Screenshot)

A new video game, Darwin’s Demons, claims to demonstrate Darwinian evolution. But Darwin’s Demons only adapt. And there is a difference between undirected Darwinian evolution and designed adaptation. The name Darwin’s Demons is scientism’s seductive labeling intended to imply otherwise.

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 ID 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 just finished watching a YouTube video about a smart solar panel that turns itself to always face the sun.  At night, the panel folds itself up and tucks away.  Like a mattress in the bed of a pickup truck traveling on Interstate 35, the large flat solar panels need to be secured against the forces of wind.  So the smart solar panel detects strong wind and retreats to its safe compartmental home when there is wind danger.  Such built-in adaptation is a characteristic of good engineering design. Some of us are old enough to remember the sound of a duck choking on a kazoo when phone and fax modems initialized. The sound was the fax machine adapting its operation to its connection using a primitive neural network.

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. Like New York lawyers removing their suit jackets when transitioning from air conditioning to the outside heat, snakes shed their skins to adapt to increasing size. Some mammals grow heavier coats of fur in preparation for winter. Salamanders in caves quit wasting resources on maintaining their never-used eyes.  In some cases, like changes in finch beaks, adaptation is heralded as manifestation of Darwinian evolution.  Such is the claim of Darwin’s Demons

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.

I recall pumping quarters into an arcade machine to play Space Invaders in the late 1970s.  The game has the same motif as Darwin’s Demons except the graphics and processing for Space Invaders is cruder. When a level is mastered in Space Invaders, the next level is designed to be more difficult. Levels ultimately become so difficult that the player eventually loses.  In Darwin’s Demons, higher levels of play are determined by adaptation to the players’ performance and an increased skill of the Demons.  In Space Invaders, there is no adaptation because the difficulty increase at higher levels is simply scheduled. The writer of Darwin’s Demons software may show the effects of adaptation – but none of the purported creativity of evolution is present.

The current crop of Darwin’s Demons will gain consciousness and take over the internet only in a comic book.

Robert J Marks II is Distinguished Professor of Engineering in the Department of Engineering at Baylor University, a senior researcher at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab and the co-author of Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics along with William Dembski and Winston Ewert.