Robotic folly

by , CMI–Australia

5 September 2000

Some media outlets have generated great excitement over the development of some simple robots by supposedly evolutionary means. A computer programmer and an engineer managed to program a computer to produce ‘virtual robots’ (i.e. that operated only inside the computer rather than the outside world) that moved along a surface. They then modeled real robots on some of the virtual robots, constructing them from plastics and pistons, etc., with electronic controls to operate the pistons.1

Popular media have waxed lyrical about this development, probably because funny little robots make for an interesting story, but also supposedly because it shows that ‘evolution works’.

Do these computer games have any relevance to biological evolution? Not much. Scientists and engineers have used computers to optimize structures and equations for many years, by getting the computer to change the values of some coefficients slightly and then test to see if the result is closer to the desired outcome. If it is, then vary the coefficients in the same direction some more and test again. If not, then go back and try varying the coefficients in a different direction and test again. Many thousands of such cycles can produce the desired outcome that would be impossible to find by manual techniques. These are known as ‘iterative’ methods.

In recent times it has become fashionable to invoke ‘evolution’ everywhere (even to justify infidelity, rape and the like—see ‘Evolution made me do it!’). In keeping with this fashion, the iterative procedures used for many years in engineering have been recast as ‘evolutionary computation’. The variation in the coefficients has been likened to mutations and the testing of the outcome as ‘survival of the fittest’. This has then been used as evidence that ‘evolution works’.

Atheist Richard Dawkins popularized the idea of computer simulations of evolution, using highly unrealistic programs to indoctrinate naive readers with his materialistic views (see Weasel words and Dawkins’ weasel revisited).

There are a number of reasons why these computer exercises are not relevant to biological evolution:

  1. Such computer simulations are strictly confined to a limited number of components. For example, in the current example, the maximum number of components is about 13. The number of critical components—that is, those necessary for the robot to function—is only about 4 or 5 parts. Real organisms have many thousands of different components, with millions of DNA ‘letters’ to code for them all.

  2. The components are ‘given’ by the programmer. In this case the program has available rods (‘bars’) and pistons (‘actuators’)—only two possible types of components. The rods and pistons are joined or not joined at their ends by ball-joints. The lengths are varied one at a time in small increments. The ‘neural network’ that ‘evolved’ is also very simple in effect: operate the piston, or if there is more than one, the choices are to operate them together or not. In other words, there is a very limited set of options for ‘mutations’ to occur. Dawkins used this trick also in his ‘methinks its like a weasel’ con. In the real world, even the simplest bacterium has hundreds of thousands of sites where mutations can occur. Computer programmers have to strictly limit their ‘mutations’, otherwise they know that error catastrophe will result—where the program gets lost and cannot arrive at any solution. This is a fundamental problem with the evolutionary story for living things—mutations cause the destruction of the genetic information (and so they are known by the thousands of diseases they cause), not its creation.

  3. The ‘selection’ is only for one trait—movement. In the real world of living organisms, selection must be for hundreds of different traits at once. It is not possible to confine mutations to one part of the organism’s program (DNA), and therefore to one trait. For every mutation that might affect a trait such as movement, hundreds of mutations will affect other traits, such as reproduction, metabolism of sugars, etc., so they all have to be selected for. And to complicate things further, a given trait can be affected by mutations in different parts of an organism’s DNA, and a single mutation can affect more than one trait. Inclusion of many traits in the computer program would render the procedure unworkable (it is very difficult to get iterative processes to work with more than one goal).

  4. The ‘selection’ of these virtual robots is far more efficient than natural selection in the real world. As Walter ReMine points out in The Biotic Message (see review), with realistic natural selection coefficients, there would be insufficient time for this process to work in the Dawkinsian simulations or the real world.

  5. The programmer has pre-programmed the computer for a specific goal. ‘Evolution’ can have no specific goals, such as locomotion, as it is purposeless, being driven by chance, not intelligence.

  6. The computer exercise did not start with nothing—it started with a program generated by intelligent scientists that specified the way in which the robots could be constructed. And this program presupposed the existence of complex components.

  7. Given the components (pistons, rods, etc.) programmed into the computer, it is no great achievement to have achieved movement in the robots—all that is required is to lift one end of a piston off the ground and have it expand and contract.

  8. In spite of the chutzpah (calling the robots ‘lifeforms’), the robots cannot reproduce themselves. They are dependent on their human creators to manufacture them. They are not ‘lifeforms’ in any meaningful sense of the word. The simplest of living things can gather the raw materials and manufacture all the components to reproduce themselves

  9. The robots produced by the program contrast with living things in that they look ‘jerry-built’. Even atheists like Richard Dawkins admit that living things look like they are beautifully designed—they look like an intelligent creator cleverly designed them (and then he uses evolutionary storytelling to try to explain how they actually made themselves by mutations and natural selection). However, the robots ‘evolved’ in the computer do not look like they were cleverly designed—they look like they were thrown together. The most complex virtual robot illustrated on the Nature website, dubbed the ‘arrow’, can be seen at www.nature.com/nature/journal/v406/n6799/extref/406974ai1.mpeg. The model made of it can be seen at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v406/n6799/extref/406974ai2.mpeg.

    It is clear that the parts of it that look like they were the result of intelligent design are the components specified in the original computer program (pistons, joints and rods). The arrangement of the parts looks like the result of a haphazard process. Living things do not look like they came about by a haphazard (random) process. They look like they were designed.

These are some of the reasons that ‘evolution’ simulations in computers—such as this latest one given a ‘beat up’ by the popular press—have no relevance to the materialists’ belief in molecules-to-man evolution. In fact the severe limitations on such procedures, even with fast, powerful modern computers, shows how real-world (biological) evolution is impossible, even if there were the eons of time claimed by evolutionists.

Published: 15 February 2006


  1. Hod Lipson & Jordan B. Pollack, Automatic design and manufacture of robotic lifeforms, Nature 406:974–978, 31 August 2000. Return to text.