Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Hox in the Box: Evo-Devo on TV

A couple of posts back, I plugged the Spore game a bit, and I see that proprietor of Pharyngula asks if anyone has played the game yet? PZ shrugs his skeptical shoulders and says insouciantly (well, maybe…I just like the adverb):

I’ve played with the creature creator, which is actually rather fun…but it’s really just the most elaborate version of Mr Potatohead ever designed. What I’ve seen of the game itself puts me off a bit, though. It’s not going to teach one single thing about evolution, and actually teaches several things that are anti-evolutionary. It’s a design toy, not any kind of evolution simulator, but people are gushing over it as if it might actually improve the image of evolutionary biology.

Based on my admittedly limited experience with the Spore Creature Creator, I agree to a certain extent with this, but it might just spark some interest in evolutionary biology even if it doesn’t smack of full-blown accuracy. You know, sort of a gateway thing. I mean, the pulp science fiction stories I read as a kid weren’t scientifically accurate, but they did set my imagination to soaring and thinking about scientific principles. This new video game might just do that to young minds receptive to such things.

Like PZ’s Skatje, the elder fruit o’ my womb has been encouraging me to check the game out. Spawn the Elder is a video game fan boy, but he’s also an evo-devo fan boy, having read the popular books written by Sean B. Carroll and Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart (Endless Forms Most Beautiful and The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma, respectively) so he views the game with the appropriate perspective. Thus, he, along with his old mother (that would be me), was thrilled to watch the National Geographic Channel’s program last night, How to Build a Better Being. [Yes, you must suffer through an advertisement if you watch the clip from MSN-TV’s “The First Ten Minutes.” Long live running dog capitalist Amerika!]

Although the PR bits that I received in the Chimp Refuge banana box implied at a cursory glance that this might be a documentary about Spore itself, I was delighted to see that the major focus by far was on evo-devo.

The NGC program was very well done. The concepts of hox genes as “genetic tool kits” and how these play into development, morphology and evolution were presented at a level that a scientifically curious layperson could readily comprehend, certainly a bright middle-schooler. The scientists interviewed expressed a true joy and infectious excitement about their research. From fruit flies to Tiktaalik (the fossil fish) to the human hand to the radula of an abalone, the interconnectedness of life’s “genetic tool kit” is illustrated in a very accessible way. The laconic but clearly curious and intelligent Will Wright, the creator of Spore, acted as the nominative “host.”

Spawn the Elder and I really geeked out over this TV show. And what precipitated it? A plug for a video game. So even if “Spore” doesn’t reflect absolute accuracy of evolutionary processes, the fact that evo-devo showed up in popular culture, even if it is on the high numbers of cable TV, made me swoon!

I highly recommend the NGC program. Catch it on the rebound.


  1. #1 Larry Moran
    September 11, 2008

    I didn’t get a chance to see the program.

    As you know, there’s a lot of opposition to evo-devo. Some of us think it’s a lot of hype with very little substance. Some of us don’t think that evo-devo is making any significant contribution to evolutionary theory.

    How much time was devoted to the opponents of evo-devo? Were there any scientists who explained why Kirschner and Gerhart are wrong?

  2. #2 Reginald
    September 16, 2008

    I don’t know, it looks like the game just doesn’t have that much replay value.

New comments have been disabled.