Games with what you could call celebrity endorsements are not unknown. But Richard Dawkins: Evolution is something of a different breed. Professor Dawkins is one of the world’s foremost scientists as well as perhaps its greatest populariser of science - fitting into a noble tradition of thinkers who went the extra mile to explain their discoveries for the general public.
This article originally appeared on Kotaku UK. Read their preview of Richard Dawkins: Evolution and BritSoft Focus feature on its director Gordon Ross.
Dawkins has published countless books over the years, including the likes of The Selfish Gene, Unweaving the Rainbow, Climbing Mount Improbable, and perhaps most infamously The God Delusion, which takes off like a rocket to rain hellfire on what religious thinking inflicts upon society. The most obvious starting point, then, is why such an eminent thinker is getting involved with videogames.
“I think I wasn’t really very familiar with the so-called ‘gaming community’ but I have become a bit more familiar with them now,” says Dawkins. “And I think they’re a very good audience for science and for my kind of science in particular, evolutionary science and scepticism, and so I’m very glad to be given this opportunity of, as it were, breaking into a very flourishing and interesting community of people.”
As a long-term fan of Dawkins’ work, I stretch perhaps a little too far here and ask if he sees the game as something of an ‘extended phenotype’ of his own - one of his books is named The Extended Phenotype, and posits that any effect a gene has on its environment should be considered as part of its phenotype. I should have realised, of course, I was talking to a real scientist.
“I hesitate to use the phrase ‘extended phenotype’ in other than a rather restricted way, so I would use the ‘extended phenotype’ for a beaver dam or a termite’s mound. I am reluctant to use it for human buildings, although superficially you might think that was the same as a beaver dam.”
“I think the distinction is that there’s got to be a genetic difference between the phenotypes, or between the genotypes that produce the phenotypes, and that’s true of beaver dams, and it’s true of termite mounds, and it’s true of birds’ nests. So you can actually select, artificially select, genes that make birds build nests in a certain way. And there must have been evolution of birds’ nests going in particular directions thanks to certain genes. That’s not the case, at least I presume it’s not the case, with buildings, or with computer games. I mean, I suppose it is possible that there are-, indeed probable that there are genes that make for being a good architect or a good programmer, but that doesn’t mean you can see that there are genes for Romanesque architraves or something like that. It doesn’t work like that. Whereas you could do that for the equivalent in birds’ nests.”
A flop! “A very interesting flop!”
Getting back to the specific concept behind this game, what is it about the medium that interests Dawkins?
“In 1986 I wrote a book called The Blind Watchmaker, in which I included my own computer game, and this was, sort of, before I suppose before computer games got going in a big way. So this was, and still is, actually, a kind of game in which you see on the computer screen a table of phenotypes, of bodies, of forms, biological-like forms.”
Dawkins is referencing his Biomorphs, which can be seen here:
“So if you’ve seen them, that was I think quite a successful attempt to use a computer game to explain something about evolution,” Dawkins continues. “It was explaining the power of selection. In that case it was artificial selection, where the human sitting in front of the computer screen chooses which offspring of a parent to breed from, and the offspring then moves to the centre of the screen and becomes the parent of the next generation, which is a matrix of mutant children, and then you choose which of those mutant children to breed from, and so on and so on and so on.
“And after a hundred generations, you’ve moved away to some totally different form in a very instructive way. And some of those forms did indeed-, some of them are quite beautiful, and some of them were quite biological. Some of them looked like insects, others of them looked like trees, and then later, in my later book Climbing Mount Improbable, there were colour ones which were really very beautiful-looking, like stained glass windows or looking like flowers or butterflies.”
The point being that here Dawkins is using software alongside his own arguments, in order to make the player prove his point - putting them in the position of the watchmaker.
“Exactly. But that was artificial selection, and I gave up, I didn’t feel I was capable of dealing with natural selection, there would have to be no human selector. The human eye would not be involved. It would have to be - survival for its own sake would be the criterion for selection. That’s what happens in nature, but it’s much much more difficult to implement that on a computer screen.”
I ask Dawkins about previous games that, to lesser and greater extents, have taken some sort of evolutionary theme - the example I use is Spore. Dawkins knows Will Wright, and remembers speaking to him about the game during its development, but unfortunately can’t recall the specifics. I suggest that Spore didn’t really have much to do with evolution in the end, and ask about the principles underlying this new game’s design. It’s all well and good to say you’ll make a game about evolution, but what are the foundations, the rules?
“Well we had been back and forth on this quite a lot,” says Dawkins. “And I think what I’d tried to convey to Gordy [Ross], and which he has taken up in a big way, is that you really do need to have a population of individuals, some of which survive and some of which don’t. I think before I came along he rather more had in mind a kind of ecological game, and I think that I tried to persuade him to shift it to be a more natural selection kind of model.”
Given the game will have a big population and players can watch some sort of natural selection play out over that, I wonder how it operates in terms of timescale. Natural selection can take place over a couple of decades or alternatively over millennia. How do you decide how quickly you see those impacts, because the game has to be fun, without losing track of the purpose?
“It’s a very shrewd question [...] because evolution is an incredibly slow process and would be extremely boring if you had to wait for that sort of length of time,” says Dawkins. “But occasionally it does go very very fast. I mean, some of the work on the Galapagos Islands on Darwin’s finches shows that it can go extremely fast. And in Lake Victoria the cichlid fishes, I mean, we know that Lake Victoria is only a matter of tens of thousands of years old, not millions of years old, so all the evolution of the cichlid fishes in Lake Victoria has taken place in a matter of tens of thousands of years, and that’s about 450 separate species all evolved from one ancestor in that period.
“But even tens of thousands of years is a long time,” laughs Dawkins. “So I think Gordy is right that in keeping the balance you have to get there.”
Gordon Ross explains that, basically, what the game will do is have a faster pace than real life. “What we recognised is, for example, larger animals tend to be inactive a lot of the time, not doing much,” says Ross. “So we kind of have a situation where our animals are hungry more often, therefore have to hunt more often, therefore are active more often, and so what would be potentially years of activity in normal circumstance, for our alien creatures, you know, they get on with their lives at a faster pace.”
How do I actually observe this evolution? The word ‘oversight’ comes up and, I have to ask the question, is Richard Dawkins making a god game? The notion gets a belly laugh but I do wonder whether, as an expert on the topic, Dawkins is making sure some of his favourite examples are included.
“No, that would be being too godlike, I think,” laughs Dawkins. “We want to say ‘Wait and see what emerges.’”
To change gear, I often feel that educational videogames don’t really understand the form - often there’s this sense that it’s almost treated like a textbook, rather than an interactive piece of software. I ask what Dawkins see as the strengths of an interactive medium in terms of communicating ideas.
“I mean, you’re right that books aren’t always boring, but they can be boring because you feel that’s what there is there, it’s fixed, it’s on the page, it’s in print and it’s fixed there,” says Dawkins. “Whereas in a videogame you are in a way exploring uncharted territory, you’re seeing things that nobody has ever seen before, or in a good one that’s the way it could be. So these are not monsters that have been pre-written by somebody and are sitting there waiting to be discovered. They actually emerge, and they are emergent properties, which is just like real life. So there is something very exciting about wandering through a kind of wonderland of unknown forms, forms that have never been seen before, that are being created before your very eyes by processes which are analogous to those that are going on in nature and producing real animals and plants.”
Dawkins later returns to this topic to say that his attitude largely comes from finding that, when he created the Biomorphs program, it taught him a few things.
“I do think it’s a very promising approach to education. And possibly to actually not just education of young people, of students and children, but educating yourself as a scientist. I think you actually get insights from playing around with computer games. I mean, I certainly did with my biomorphs. I actually learned some biology, got some biological insights and biological intuitions, from my own biomorphs when I was doing The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable.”
We’ll get back to the videogame itself shortly. But as we move onto the purpose of it, we’re in the context of the British and American education systems, and this is obviously a time of great political upheaval within these societies. I can’t help asking, when talking to probably the most high-profile British intellectual around, how he feels about what was for me the most emblematic moment of Brexit, which was Michael Gove saying, ‘The British people have had enough of experts.’
“I think that remark of Michael Gove was possibly the single-most deplorable thing that came out of the whole Brexit campaign,” says Dawkins. “In a way even worse than the lie about the, whatever it was, £350 million a week that was on the bus. To say you mistrust experts, ‘We’ve had enough of experts, you are the experts here,’ the point has been made often enough almost to become a cliché that if you want to have your appendix out you go to an expert surgeon, you don’t go to some amateur. If you’re going to get in a plane, you want a pilot who knows how to fly a plane and is an expert, a real expert, a professional. To say, ‘We’ve had enough of experts,’ is a truly shocking thing to say.
“And, I mean, I’d put it more strongly by saying that Brexit, the idea of leaving the European Union, is such a complicated matter, such a complicated economic, political, historical question with ramifications that hit everything in all sorts of ways, this is a matter for people with a PhD in economics. It’s not a matter for people like me. I should never have been given the vote on Brexit. Unless you’ve got a PhD in economics, nor should you.
I mean, there are precedents. This is a major constitutional change, and in other countries, like America for example, an amendment to the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Congress, and then it has to be ratified by three quarters of the state legislature. Cameron turned this highly important constitutional change, complicated constitutional change, turned it over to a simple majority of the British public who know nothing, mostly, about the topic. So I’m not saying one way or the other: maybe Brexit is a good thing, maybe it’s a bad thing. But I’m not qualified to say, and nor are most of the British people who were given the vote.”
Dawkins has two foundations, one in the UK and one in the USA. When he looks at America now, and the recent election of Trump precipitating what one might call a war on science, how does he feel scientists should be reacting?
“I think you’re quite right, and it was for this reason that when I set up my two foundations, one in Britain and one in America, I put most of my resources into the American one, because America is the place that really needs it, even before Trump came along, because more than 40% of the American public, for example, thinks the world is less than ten thousand years old, which is a very very major non-trivial error.”
And now, as you say, we have an administration, not just the President but the Congress as well, pretty much embarking on a war on science. And climate change is, I suppose, the most serious part of that because it’s potentially disastrous, and very very disastrous, but my own field of evolutionary science is also under threat educationally. And so yes, I think we have a war on science, and I think that the whole scientific community in America needs to be mobilised and to become-, and to, as it were, get out of the ivory tower and become politically involved.”
And so we arrive back to Richard Dawkins: Evolution. I once wrote a history of videogames and, within that, gave an entire chapter over to The Oregon Trail - an educational game from the 1970s, designed by a teacher, that eventually proved wildly successful in the US education system. It strikes me even now as one of the most important games ever, not least as a proof-of-concept for communicating ideas to children. Is that where we’re going with something like this?
“I am delighted with that suggestion,” says Dawkins. “I’m ashamed to admit it hadn’t really occurred to me that it would be good to put this to TIES. TIES is the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science, which was founded by the US Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. It’s run by a splendid middle-school teacher called Bertha Vasquez, who’s a brilliant teacher and who’s running courses for middle-school science teachers to teach them how to teach evolution. So they’re not courses for children. They’re courses for teachers to pass on the skills and knowledge that Bertha has, and the resources, and I could well imagine that Gordy’s game would be a brilliant resource for her to use.
“I didn’t know about The Oregon Trail. It sounds a little bit like something called The Ancestor’s Trail, which is a pun on my own book The Ancestor’s Tale, which is a book that I wrote jointly with Yan Wong, and it’s in the form of a pilgrimage. It’s not a pilgrimage to a place. It’s a pilgrimage to a time. It’s a pilgrimage to the origin of life. And we cast it actually as a kind of Chaucerian pilgrimage, with pilgrims marching from the present to the past, and the human pilgrim is being joined successively by first of all the chimpanzee pilgrims. We’re marching backwards in time, and when we get to six million years ago we’re joined by the chimpanzee pilgrims, and then when they get to eight million years ago we’re joined by the gorilla pilgrims, and then at twelve million years ago we’re joined by the orangutan pilgrims, and so on back to the origin of life.
“So that, again, is using the idea of pilgrimage, and that hasn’t, as far as I know, become a computer game, but it easily could. The Ancestor’s Trail is not a computer game. It’s a physical walk, in which people spend a weekend walking through delightful countryside enacting the Ancestor’s Tale walk, and so some people start off as human, some people start off as chimpanzees, some people start off as insects, and so on. And at the end of the day they have a great barbecue and a picnic and discuss what they’ve learned. I think it would make a good computer game, actually.”
I finish by asking what Dawkins hopes, when the game is done, what people will take away from it. What would make this a successful project?
“Well, I hope it’ll be entertaining and fun, but of course I also hope it will be educational, and I hope it will bring people to understand evolution who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to it.”
Rich Stanton is acting editor of Kotaku UK.