Thursday, May 21, 2009


I picked up 'Spore' the other day. While the game itself is fun, if a bit simple and a tad too easy, I have to berate it for getting evolution wrong.

In 'Spore', their concept of evolution is a progressive Intelligent Design. The creature in question depends upon the player to add parts which may or may not be related to anything you've actually done in the game. Some may point out that there is a token evolution in that if you are a consistent predator, you can only unlock predator style parts, but I dismiss that as part of any normal game mechanics. According to the game, I can 'evolve' from a snake to a giraffe within one generation with no intermediates or anything resembling logic.

It's innocent enough but it's irritating to me when the thing it touts as mimicking in the game is essentially shafted. There could have been ways of incorporating the idea without sacrificing it.

One confusing aspect was the transition between the 'tribal' stage and the 'civilization' stage. Because I'm a coward, I befriended the tribes of other creatures rather than outright killing them. At the end of the stage, there were tribes of intelligent snakes living alongside my terribly unoriginal dinosaurs (partly due to laziness, as the shape is easy to transition from the beginning cell stage). Upon progressing to 'Civilization' those snakes... just disappear. I scoured my planet's surface to no avail, those snakes were in oblivion. I guess in between winning the 'tribal' part and progressing to the 'civilization' era, my little band of saurians killed off their snake friends in a wonderful show of "et tu, brutus?"

Despite those complaints, it's immense fun as long as you don't think too hard about it.

Just that that evolution blunder really gets under my skin. It's just what the world needs: another wrong take on evolution. It was bad enough after Pokemon, after which I found a lot of people viewed evolution as leveling up and the next generation as always better or more powerful than the previous one. One confused individual thought that chimpanzees actually had leveled up into human beings (which is why we are physically weaker than chimps?).

Perhaps because it's a complicated and counter intuitive idea. The creature or plant in question doesn't have a say in it. There's no overreaching mind guiding it. It just is. And we, as creatures who designed and developed tools for thousands of years, cannot visualize this. A bronze tool is better than a stone tool, so we designed more bronze tools afterward. On outward appearances, camouflage is better than none at all, so stick insects must have designed their appearance to look like twigs. And chameleons have to be at the pinnacle, since they can change colors to fit in at will. Even better designed, since they're lizards which are obviously much better than insects because lizards are closer in relation to us than bugs. And that makes sense to us, because we ourselves design camouflaged clothing to blend in.

Or something. There's more to it than that.

But it doesn't work that way. Evolution is more of a pressure. It's a sort of balance between what's there, what could possibly be there, the drive to reproduce, and the environment in which that reproduction occurs. Sex drive is easy: everything wants to reproduce and make more of itself. That's about it.

However, factors can impede or facilitate this. Namely, the environment. The environment itself doesn't have a distinct conscienceness, it's just there. It more or less sets the boundaries. It's called 'natural selection' but that's something of a misnomer because it's not actively choosing anything. It behaves more as a filter. Picture it as a giant filter. For instance, it's hard to reproduce when you're melting due to your environment being a lava flow. The lava flow is not choosing you in particular, anymore than it would choose chickens as victims, either. It's just that the environmental filter we passed through didn't involve lava flows. So there was no particular reason why anything related to surviving and reproducing in a lava flow was necessary.

Then there's the 'what's there, what could be there'. It's also known as mutation, although not always does one need an entire new feature. In fact, sometimes you don't need to add anything at all. It all depends on natural selection. A mutation that enables a person to live in lava is not going to do well since there's no apparent need. Mutations themselves are random. Most of the time they're horribly bad, as anyone with muscular dystrophy and other genetic diseases will tell you. Sometimes they're neutral. Occasionally they're beneficial.

Mutations do not automatically mean something brand new. Often it's a retooling of some previous implement. For example, our spinal columns did not have to be 're-engineered' from scratch just because we became bipedal. Instead, our hips and spinal curvature adjusted from a horizontal to a vertical weight bearing. In fact, it's this hijacking of that nature which causes a lot of back problems and pains.

Now, let's tie it all together. The things best able to endure will reproduce. Usually this means a good allocation of energy and time. Natural selection will cut down those lesser abled, with mutations filling in the blanks on occasion.

The next consideration is that these things are occurring in tiny increments. Eyeballs and arms do not just suddenly appear, they slowly flow and develop over time in baby steps. Think of it as tweaking, or better yet, imagine it as adjusting the temperature of the shower. You just don't open up the head and have it the perfect temperature, but instead twist and adjust until the temperature is just right.

Now, let's look at the big picture. You have something attempting to survive and reproduce. The environment takes its toll upon the population, the ones who are able to reproduce (not necessarily the best or the brightest) will survive. This acts on an incremental scale, and flash fractures will not have the time to survive (jaguars transplanted to the south pole are just not going to do well), they won't have time to survive to reproduce, and they 'evolve' into extinction. Mutations, good or bad, thrown into the mix will help or hurt in the general aim. And it all works without any specific design in mind.

Perhaps we should look at an example. Something that's easy.

Let's say that we have a bunch of lizards. One day, some of our intrepid lizards wander into a cave, which collapses and traps them inside. They survive, but now they're stuck in the cave. The cave is obviously completely dark, but our lizards have good senses of sound and smell. Overall, they manage fairly well, aside from being in perpetual night.

Now, let's say one thing that pops up on occasion is near sightedness. Out in the world, being near sighted meant being unable to see dangers and opportunities at a distance, so near sighted lizards were eaten. Since they were eaten, they weren't able to reproduce and thus near sighted lizards are really rare. But in the cave, there's no way to see their own paws in front of their faces, so being near sighted isn't really all that bad. It slowly creeps into the population.

Now, let's say some of those lizards develop really bad eyesight. And that trait, too, does fairly well, because there's no need for efficient sight. Some of those bad eyes might be due to deformed eyes due to faulty eye genes or something. But it doesn't matter, because in the land of the eternal dark, the blind are on par with the sighted.

So, we get eyes in these lizards which are mostly useless. They remain there, but over this amount of time (long time), the genes governing them have not been subjected to the natural selection filter of broad daylight where it's necessary to spot that hawk swooping at you. Since there's no pressure, there's no quality control and things run wild.

Now, let's look at something else. Let's say one mutation causes skin coloration to degrade. Not by a lot, just a little, just slightly. They look just a little pale. And because of that, more energy can be directed towards sexy lizard time or other activities which will help the lizard with it to reproduce a lot. Lizards that spend a lot of energy developing full pigments (in the egg) and then maintaining that pigment (the cells need food/oxygen) will be left slightly out of the race, like a slightly overweight runner in a marathon.

Then, there's an even lighter color due to less pigment, so even more energy can be freed up. Those fully colored exotic lizards are progressively left behind. They spend a lot of energy trying to maintain the metabolism or whatever to keep the pigment, which doesn't aid in camouflage (the environment is totally dark) or in mating (it's hard to look attractive when no one can see) or knock some of the sunlight out (as with melanin, which in the cave is pointless). Eventually, you can reduce this all the way down until you have lizards which are complete albinos. Notice we didn't just have white lizards pop out over night. It was a progressive shift. It would be like watching paint dry, and then fade.

This shift can occur ever so slightly that we don't or can't notice. Sometimes, rarely, it can occur quickly. For instance, if you had type O blood during the Black Death, you were at a severe disadvantage as, if I recall correctly, people of that type had immune systems that did not recognize the disease, or something along those lines. Type O took a big hit. These days, while still rare, it's not such a disadvantage because there's medical treatment which enables someone to contract and survive the plague. The environmental pressure is removed.

The main goal is to get the next generation out. The best way to get there will usually win. The 'best way' may not necessarily be THE best way, but it works better than something weaker or nothing at all. Rarely (in fact never) will something completely new suddenly develop, what usually occurs is a hijacking of something else that 'jury rigs' to something else. But there's no deliberate attempt to adapt. It's all pressure and advantage.

It requires a lot of thinking to probably wrap your head around it, and there is a high chance that I've fumbled somewhere up in there. I believe it's due to this that people tend to simplify it or ignore it and such. It can be really difficult to really follow it through. Simplifications might also overlook the idea itself.

For instance, there's the popular "only the strongest survive", and the belief that it leads to selfishness and cruelty. How can we explain why people are nice? And why we think we should be nice? I do not know. That's the honest answer. I'm not that smart to be able to venture a guess. Does that mean there isn't an explanation? No.

"Survival of the fittest" has been used for social evolution. Capitalism usually employs this. Democracy too, to a degree in that the best ideas will survive a harsh look by the populace. The melting pot can be a variant of it. Parts of a culture are absorbed, and those which for whatever reason don't get through the filter (which isn't an active choice per se, it's more a passive feeling) don't join the general mass culture.

It does lead to a rather uncanny valley of culture. You look at it from the outside, and you see some familiar things, some unfamiliar. But, for better or for worse, it's become the culture. What you see has passed through the mental filters of the public and survives to continue on. It doesn't mean that what floats to the top is the best, or that what's dropped is the worst. It just... is.

Second Life is no different. We can see a steady progression, almost evolution in Second Life. There's the obvious in the game and grid appearance. Obviously way back in the day there was no windlight nor prim hair, and you had to walk fifteen (15!) miles from where you could teleport to where you wanted to go. That kind of evolution was Linden driven, Linden directed, with some small input from the residents. All things considered, it's not really evolution at all.

There has been a social evolution of sorts. There was a time where using the default linden skin and hair was only an indicator that you were poor. Over time, we've come to associate with newbies, or day old alts about to grief you, your spouse, and your children. This came about due to hard learned experience. The 'pressure' of learning too late that your house was filled with crap because a day old alt filled it with feces forced one to try to identify potential griefers. Some of those traits were young avatars, with default skins and hair. Now, newbies really feel an honest pressure to spice up their avatars early, and the Lindens are now even offering hair to complement the new 'newbie look'.

There's been less pressure to not consider Second Life a 'game'. I suppose back in the past this was a reaction, an attempt to separate it from those other games, like World of Warcraft, which everything on the internet is compared to at some time or another. These days? Everyone knows what Second Life is. Plus, everyone's tired of correcting newbies. I can remember when I swung the game label about in 2007, I was given a verbal beat down. 2009? No one cares.

Names were normalized. I can't remember meeting anyone with numbers in their name. Aside from one person (who used a 1 instead of an i in order to get his preferred name), everyone tended to chose fairly pedestrian first names. Now every Tom, Dick, and Harry57 has some form of counted names. Part of it may be due to such a massive influx of people who all want the name 'John'. Plus, a good number of them turned out to be fairly A-OK people.

It's an unconscious evolution. A few people have pointed out this progression, but for the rest of us it just slowly passes over us. It occurs in tiny steps.

If you told me two years ago that people would be asking the Lindens to not change things, I'd have called you crazy. But some of the Linden moves, such as attacking ageplay and moving adult content to a separate isolated continent, have people now asking them to stop changing things. After the implementation of Windlight, a good portion of Second Life felt that while it was pretty, it only added to the lag. Linden Lab's attitude towards grid repair changed, people's attitude towards the Lindens and the Grid changed.

I wonder how Second Life will evolve in the years to come. I can't recall the specific site, but one person suggested that Second Life itself has stabilized. The first few years were the initial testing phase, then a tremendous expansion as Second Life opened up, and now it's approaching a more stable population (since during the explosion the retention rate was abysmal). Now we're settling into a more stable pattern (whether this is the era of bots or a dedicated core of users is debatable) and probably cruise on that for a while.

Could it be a long and slow death? Or a peaceful glide into obscurity? Or a slow recovery to super stardom and the days of 900,000 concurrency? Who knows how its evolution will play out.


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