Friday Sprog Blogging: trying to understand Pokemon.


Pictured above: Not anything to do with Pokemon, but rather an imagined scene from Okami, in which, as far as I can gather, a solar-powered wolf battles a garlic bulb.

Dr. Free-Ride: Can you explain some stuff about Pokemon to me?

Elder offspring: Sure! How much time do you have?

Dr. Free-Ride: Look, I don't want to get into the issues of which ones are best in a battle or anything like that. I'm just trying to understand what kind of critter they're supposed to be.

Elder offspring: OK, we'll talk about battles another day.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah ... we'll do that.

Elder offspring: Pokemon are creatures that at some times could be pets, but at other times could be tools for battling. But, be good to them, or they may not obey you.

Dr. Free-Ride: Like children?

Elder offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: On this whole evolving thing... I know that the story is that Pokemon "evolve" into different forms.

Elder offspring: When they evolve they're growing levels -- they get stronger, and occasionally they learn new moves to use in battle.

Dr. Free-Ride: You learn new moves to use in soccer, but that doesn't change you into a different kind of creature.

Elder offspring: No, it doesn't.

Dr. Free-Ride: We've talked about how saying they're "evolving" doesn't really fit how we talk about "evolving" in real life. Evolution can take a loooong time, and you don't really see the changes in the individual animals. You see them in the animals' offspring, and their offspring.

Elder offspring: What Pokemon do is more like a metamorphosis. Like a caterpillar makes a cocoon and metamorphoses into a butterfly, or the same kind of things with a bee.

Dr. Free-Ride:That's what I thought.

Elder offspring: The Pokemon is changing because you make it happy enough to. Or you could use a stone that matches the Pokemon's type.

Dr. Free-Ride:Hmm, that's not quite how a metamorphosis works in real life, either. Caterpillars don't need to be happy to become butterflies, do they?

Elder offspring: They just have to not get eaten, make their cocoon, and wait a little while.

Dr. Free-Ride: So, in Pokemon, do the same lower-level Pokemon always transform to the same higher-level Pokemon?

Elder offspring: Sometimes they don't! For example, in the morning, Wurmple transforms to Silkcoon, which transforms to Beautifly (a butterfly Pokemon). But, in the afternoon, Wurmple transforms to Cascoon, which transforms to Dustox (a moth Pokemon).

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmm. Kind of like rainbow and steelhead trout?

Elder offspring: Kind of. Also, a Pokemon has to battle or it won't go to the next level. Almost like a karate class.

Dr. Free-Ride: Are there any important ways we're like Pokemon?

Elder offspring: We can learn new things.

Dr. Free-Ride: Where do Pokemon come from?

Elder offspring: Eggs.

Dr. Free-Ride: Eggs? Where do the eggs come from?

Elder offspring: Pokemon mate! They do. And, the children Pokemon could know some of the moves their parents learned.

Dr. Free-Ride: Sounds kind of Lamarckian.

Elder offspring: Huh?

Dr. Free-Ride: Don't worry, I'll explain Lamarck to you before you explain Pokemon battles to me.

* * * * *
Possibly redeeming feature of Pokemon: According to Wikipedia, "The concept of the Pokémon saga stems from the hobby of insect collecting". Insect collecting is science-y.

For those who have asked, at the moment Elder offspring feels Pokemon Sapphire version is the best.


More like this

Younger offspring: (Singing, to the tune of "Head and Shoulders") Head and thorax, abdomen, abdomen. Head and thorax, abdomen, abdome-e-e-en. Bulgy eyes and antennae. Head and thorax, abdomen, abdomen! Dr. Free-Ride: Let me guess: you've been learning about insects? Younger offspring: Uh huh! Dr.…
A conversation with the younger Free-Ride offspring at the elder Free-Ride offspring's soccer practice this week: Dr. Free-Ride: Hey, can you tell me about the science you've learned in kindergarten this year? Younger offspring: No. Dr. Free-Ride: Why not? Younger offspring: We haven't really…
Dr. Free-Ride: I know you have some views, maybe, or questions, or something, about the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations about children, adolescents, and television. Although it's not actually just television, it's other screens, too. So, first off, can I get your general reaction…
On a busy weekday morning as members of the Free-Ride family prepare to get out the door: Elder offspring: Let's check if you have psychic powers. Younger offspring: How can you check if I have psychic powers? Elder offspring: We'll see if you can tell which Pokemon is on the card before I flip…

One of the more interesting things about Pokemon is that it tries to model entire ecosystems (and has a heavy conservation message - I'm talking about the TV show rather than the game)...

By afarensis (not verified) on 13 Oct 2006 #permalink

Next time you bring sprogs to campus, let me know and I'll bring my Pokemon. I'm partial to Psyduck.

Very cool! I wish I had more like "Elder offspring" in my HS biology class!

By nerdwithabow (not verified) on 13 Oct 2006 #permalink

Other than the O. mykiss reference I'm totally confused.

By Uncle Fishy (not verified) on 13 Oct 2006 #permalink

Dr. Free Ride,

Maybe you and the sprogs could do a little home trial of the games from this company and give us all a review?

"The company began with a simple observation. According to a study by a trio of British zoologists in Science magazine, by age 8, kids in developed countries can recognize more Pokemon animals than real ones. We want to change that by creating games which are fun and challenging, but which are also based on real science."

They have a blog and have contributed to the Tangled Bank but I haven't bought a game yet, looks like only one is up for sale at this point.

I think there are herpetologically themed Pokemon (is that the right plural?) too...I remember my nephew had a sort of turtly looking thing. I've always assumed my bewilderment resulted from cultural constraints (those things are, to me, quintessentially Japanese), but I guess it's more ontogenetic.

I've said parts of this elsewhere, but here's my spiel on Pokemon. I never got onto the games, so this refers entirely to the TV show, and that mostly the first couple of years (after a while I drifted off.)

Pokemon is "shamanism for kiddies". For more information on "real-life" shamanism, read Michael Harner's Way of the Shaman, wherein he used his experiences as an anthropologist to found a "modern school" of shamanism. His Foundation for Shamanic Studies has a site at From here on, I'll be talking about the Pokeworld.

Beginning with background: Our modern culture rigidly divides the external world from the "internal worlds" (various states of consciousness) which a shaman works with. In contrast, the tribal cultures which originate shamanic practices see these worlds as adjacent, much closer than our view. The fictional Pokeworld fuses "real" and "shamanic" worlds entirely, into a world sharing features of both (similar to the viewpoint of a young child). The pokemon themselves correspond to the shamanic spirits, each representing some feature or aspect of the world. This is not limited to "nature"; there are machine pokemon, and even some representing "pollution" or more abstract principles.

There are various types of "masters", corresponding to different sorts of shamans (warrior, scholar, healer, artist, etc). Each of these favor different ways of "addressing" the pokemon, but some pokemon can only be dealt with in their own specific manner. Combat is most commonly shown, but it's also possible to "bond" a pokemon by gift or loan from another master (as Ash starts out), by rescuing or being rescued by it (many of the "NPCs" the heroes meet), by fully understanding it (the "Professors"), by some specific initiation, or simply by having the right bloodline, profession, or powers. A few powerful pokemon are beyond capture, but even in these cases, it's possible to gain some sort of link with them, by meeting their standards or learning how to invoke their nature. The "pokeballs" and related gadgetry are just props, visual representations of "mastery", knowledge, etc.

Once bonded, these pokemon/spirits are "available" to their master/partner, lending their own powers for his use, but each also requires a certain amount of "care and feeding", lest they become michieveous or rebel outright. As in many shamanic traditions, the unit of mastery is the *type* of pokemon, rather than individuals -- indeed, individual pokemon of a type are distinguished only by their "ownership", or else when "marked out" for a particular role (often evolution into a leader-type). Note that any master can communicate with their own pokemon, but it takes greater ability to understand what other pokemon are saying (other than their type name).

Once a master has "aquired", say, a Charmander, s/he has conceptually aquired any Charmander (that isn't previously committed elsewhere). A dramatic example was in the "Wreck of the St. Anne's" episode, where Ash wields the pokemons of a whole crowd, each gathered by type. But once Charmander evolves into Charmeleon, it's now a different pokemon, and needs to be "remastered". Typically, that involves some "evolution" for the master! (Personal growth == "spiritual evolution"... lots of puns in that show!)

The "morality" of the Pokeworld is characteristically shamanic as well: respect for the forces of nature is important, but when something goes wrong, humanity is needed to help fix it. Courage, humility, and responsibility are paramount; hubris, cowardice, or carelessness lead to disaster, which then must be repaired by someone else.

The main villains are "Team Rocket", a couple of "failed characters" who keep trying to steal things that are intrinsically unstealable. Most often, these are other people's pokemon (remember, it's the mastery that counts), or various awards and prizes (which, of course, are only symbols of achievement). The only times they ever come out on top are when they switch sides, and "do the right thing for once". Otherwise, they get swatted into the sky ("Team Rocket's blasting off again!"). Sometimes they're shown landing in some unpleasant spot, and/or among their angry victims.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 13 Oct 2006 #permalink

For a more materialistic view ;-) , check out this article on The Biology of Pokemon, examining the real-world animals that many pokemon are based on.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 13 Oct 2006 #permalink

One point I forgot to put in the Poke-shaman post, which is occasionally relevant to the show's plot: Humans cannot "fight" pokemon by themselves, only by the power of another pokemon. This is highlighted in the first few episodes, but implicit thereafter. Team Rocket (and a couple of villians in the movies) try to violate this rule with gadgetry, but they never truly "master" the victim -- as soon as it escapes or gets released, it turns around and kicks their butts. The corresponding rule is indeed found in some warrior-shamanic traditions, and there are traces of it in Harner's non-martial "tradition".

By David Harmon (not verified) on 13 Oct 2006 #permalink

Barely tangentially related cartoon debunking "evolution by consensus" (Rated R for profanity):

The Pacific Council