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The Blind Watchmaker applet
April 20, 2009 1:01 PM   Subscribe

This is a fun little atheistic distraction: The interactive Blind Watchmaker applet demonstrates how random mutation followed by non-random selection can lead to interesting, complex forms. The Blind Watchmaker algorithm was conceived by Richard Dawkins and is described in his book of the same name. The resultant forms (which can begin to look like plants and bugs) are called "biomorphs," visual representations of a set of genes.

A little background, thanks to Wikipedia: "Dawkins makes reference to the watchmaker analogy made famous by William Paley in his book Natural Theology. Paley, arguing more than fifty years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, held that the complexity of living organisms was evidence of the existence of a divine creator by drawing a parallel with the way in which the existence of a watch compels belief in an intelligent watchmaker. Dawkins, in contrasting the differences between human design and its potential for planning with the workings of natural selection, therefore dubbed evolutionary processes as analogous to a blind watchmaker."
posted by technically yours (37 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
You know, someone DESIGNED that applet.
posted by qvantamon at 1:06 PM on April 20, 2009 [15 favorites]


Jesus is my applet.
posted by The Whelk at 1:07 PM on April 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Sorry, my apologies: Text and applet written by Mark Jones from Cambridge, U.K.
posted by technically yours at 1:10 PM on April 20, 2009


Java take the wheeeeel....
posted by odinsdream at 1:11 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


yeah, I'm afraid I'm with qvantamon - this would be a particularly inappropriate example to use to argue against the ID loons, since in effect you get to be the designer by choosing which of the patterns to click. BTW - when I first ran the applet it didn't look like it was working, because the first generations were only a couple of pixels in size and it looked like all the squares were empty - you've got to keep clicking a few times before you get anything really visible.
posted by silence at 1:12 PM on April 20, 2009


-You know, someone DESIGNED that applet.

-Sorry, my apologies: Text and applet written by Mark Jones from Cambridge, U.K.


The key word to the joke is "designed".
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:16 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Evolution disproved by it's requirement for Java.
posted by Artw at 1:18 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this is some arrogant and wantonly ignorant fluff.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:21 PM on April 20, 2009


You know who else went around offering applets?

That's right. Satan.
posted by qvantamon at 1:21 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I got it as soon as I posted. *Sigh*
posted by technically yours at 1:21 PM on April 20, 2009


Crashed my FireFox, HARD.
posted by monospace at 1:24 PM on April 20, 2009


Don't feel bad, proper credit where credit's due.

Also, if you'd been reading Bio-Inspired Artificial Intelligence, you would recognize these "biomorphs" as L-systems, and have a pretty good idea of what their genome is like and how the algorithm works.

Seriously, I can't recommend that book enough. If you're interested at all in stuff like this, it's worth checking out.
posted by heathkit at 1:26 PM on April 20, 2009


The key word to the joke is "designed".

Actually, I think it's the Intelligent part of Intelligent Design that's tripping everyone up. If some supreme being designed and created the whole world, why is it so crappy and why doesn't he fix it? Obviously the correct answer is that he wrote everything in Perl in a few days during a coding marathon, and now the it's such a big buggy mess that he's afraid to change anything in fear of crashing the production system. We're all a bunch of poorly documented legacy code.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:29 PM on April 20, 2009 [11 favorites]


I knew that stuff about the garden of Eden and being tempted by a talking Python was an allegory.
posted by qvantamon at 1:32 PM on April 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Obviously the correct answer is that he wrote everything in Perl in a few days during a coding marathon, and now the it's such a big buggy mess that he's afraid to change anything in fear of crashing the production system.

Oh, it goes deeper than that. The Red Sea crushing the Egyptian army? Someone forgot to put an "=" after "a href".
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:33 PM on April 20, 2009


This may have been mentioned on MeFi before, but this video details someone's simulation of clock evolution.
posted by adamrice at 1:35 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Once begun, biomorph Applet cannot be killed!
posted by steef at 1:35 PM on April 20, 2009


MetaFilter: a bunch of poorly documented legacy code.
posted by hippybear at 1:36 PM on April 20, 2009


Somewhat related: Purpose, Meaning & Darwinism by Mary Midgley.

Before the reader assumes she's extrapolating from a categorical mistake, please keep in mind that she is not at all an ID person (!), and is entirely pro-science (with equivocations only about the claims of scientism in the realm of ethics).

Midgley has long been critical of what she takes to be Dawkins' Spencer-like appropriation in The Selfish Gene of Darwinism. Approached a certain way, her discussion of individual purposiveness (as opposed to the cosmic purposiveness sought be religion) is not unlike Mayr's notions of teleonomics and teleometrics.

Also relevant to this thread: our human nature is also the source of our surprising conviction that the people around us are fellow conscious beings, not mindless robots
posted by ornate insect at 1:43 PM on April 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


yeah, I'm afraid I'm with qvantamon - this would be a particularly inappropriate example to use to argue against the ID loons, since in effect you get to be the designer by choosing which of the patterns to click.

I don't know about you, but I released each of the offspring into the wild, to forage and fend for themselves. Only the plucky pixels which survived were clicked. I feel like I owe that much to Darwin at least.
posted by Sova at 1:44 PM on April 20, 2009


Speaking as a Buddhist here, I'm not exactly sure what's "atheistic" about an applet simulating natural selection?
posted by shii at 2:42 PM on April 20, 2009


I managed to evolve a complex wireframe that filled each box nearly completely with solid colour in about 200 generations.

In another 15 or so, I completely obliterated it down to complete nothingness.

I can only assume that's a computer generated metaphor for nuclear holocaust, global warming, peak oil or the rapture, as befits your personal view of the End of Days.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:43 PM on April 20, 2009


You know, someone DESIGNED that applet.

This is more or less why evolution isn't inherently at odds with theism, it just kindly points out theism may not be a necessary condition for complex life forms. With evolution, as some have said, "the environment is the designer." Is the environment shaped by some intelligent force or another? Maybe, maybe not (though once intelligence evolves, it almost certainly will be).

I also don't think that the fact that the applet was designed necessarily makes it a useless tool for showing the potential power of evolution. My encounters with genetic algorithms 14 years ago were pretty much what convinced me evolution was a viable explanation for the existence of complex biological structures. You can dismiss the observation that they can be remarkably effective by saying someone intelligent is tinkering with the fitness functions, but it doesn't change the fact that you have an undirected process producing the solutions.
posted by weston at 3:22 PM on April 20, 2009


If some supreme being designed and created the whole world, why is it so crappy and why doesn't he fix it? Obviously the correct answer is that he wrote everything in Perl in a few days during a coding marathon, and now the it's such a big buggy mess that he's afraid to change anything in fear of crashing the production system. We're all a bunch of poorly documented legacy code.
The afterlife is a garbage collection bug.
posted by Flunkie at 3:23 PM on April 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is a fun little atheistic distraction
There are millions of people who believe in a god or gods who have no trouble accepting the scientific truth of evolution through natural selection, and who would find this at least mildly interesting. Just in case you care about being accurate.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:34 PM on April 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think my biomorph just escaped.

Sorry, world.
posted by kanewai at 3:36 PM on April 20, 2009


I'm curious as to where the people complaining that the applet was designed think code comes from.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:59 PM on April 20, 2009


The Code Fairy!
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:08 PM on April 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Why doesn't this applet work for me? It open, but I just get a blank screen that says "Generation 1" at the top. Beliow is just white space. If I click on the white space it changes to Generation 2 (and 3 and 4, etc. if I keep clicking), but I don't see any pictures.

I'd like to try the applet, though. Any idea what might be wrong? I updated my java and that didn't help. I'm on firefox but had the same problem when I tried explorer.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:21 PM on April 20, 2009


> Obviously the correct answer is that he wrote everything in Perl in a few days during a
> coding marathon, and now the it's such a big buggy mess that he's afraid to change
> anything in fear of crashing the production system.

Can't tell you what Life, the Universe, and Everything is coded in but I implemented the biomorph algorithm in Applesoft BASIC with line numbers after reading TBW for the first time. That code was buggy only in the sense that I got quite a number of little critters that reminded people of cockroaches.


> I think my biomorph just escaped.
>
> Sorry, world.

Well, if it was generated by my code (which ran on a 1 mHz cpu) you should probably think about moving your chair a couple feet farther away from the computer some time next week.
posted by jfuller at 5:42 PM on April 20, 2009


Crashed my FireFox, HARD.

For those on Debian or X/K/Ubuntu, check your repositories for a game called 'biomorphs.' It's basically the same thing without the annoying browser-java-crashy problems. A quick Google search didn't turn up a linkable tarball (for all those not included above) for me, but I'm sure one is out there.
posted by Avelwood at 5:55 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm curious as to where the people complaining that the applet was designed think code comes from.

Really?

I assumed they were complaining because here you have an intelligently-designed app, running a intelligently-created algorithm that is somehow supposed to prove that intelligent design is a bunch of hooey.

I figure you of all people could pick out at least a smidge of intellectual dishonesty there.

(And I think ID is a bunch of hooey.)
posted by absalom at 5:31 AM on April 21, 2009


By generation sixty I had evolved what looked like four sets of male genitalia. So its basically a low-res recreation of Spore?
posted by Molesome at 7:58 AM on April 21, 2009


If I Only Had A Penguin...

Be sure you aren't just not noticing the tiny-tiny-tiny one-pixel in each square. That's how it starts. Click until you see a slightly-larger pixel and choose that square, continue choosing the larger groupings to get something recognizable.
posted by odinsdream at 8:29 AM on April 21, 2009



Be sure you aren't just not noticing the tiny-tiny-tiny one-pixel in each square. That's how it starts.

Ah yes, thank you.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:36 AM on April 21, 2009


I assumed they were complaining because here you have an intelligently-designed app, running a intelligently-created algorithm

It's a simulation of evolutionary processes as we understand them. To the extent the simulation intelligently departs from reality, you can pick nits, but to the extent it's an apt analog of what happens in nature, it can be revealing about how much evolutionary processes can do.

The algorithms generally have two parts: undirected generation of potential solutions, and a weeding-out / selection process. The first part is unintelligent. The second... I'm not sure if it matters if it's intelligent or unintelligent, as long as it's somewhat stable. What's the important difference between a fitness function produced by an intelligence and a fitness function produced by an unintelligent environment?

that is somehow supposed to prove that intelligent design is a bunch of hooey.

Attempting to prove intelligent design is a bunch of hooey is the wrong goal. It is interesting to conjecture if there's ever been any kind of intelligent intervention in the development of life here, but I don't think it's a falsifiable position. That doesn't mean it's false, but it does mean it's not science, which is going to mean proof of any kind regarding it is probably subjective.
posted by weston at 11:16 AM on April 21, 2009


I just evolved a space invader. I am their God.
posted by Laen at 3:52 PM on April 21, 2009


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