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Evolution Simulator

Arlin Stoltzfus arlin at carb.nist.gov
Mon Jan 15 12:16:47 EST 2001

Manfred Knorr wrote:
> Does anyone know of a program that will simulate a living organism from very
> early in earth's history that will interact and evolve with it's
> environment? I don't mean something like a bunch of smiley faces on a
> computer screen. Rather a simple single celled animal that , given enough
> program run time will evolve into a multi celled organism and perhaps
> further, developing a mouth, light sensing organs etc.
> Of course it would need to be sped up somewhat from real time. I don't want
> to sit in front of my computer for a billion years just to see my life form
> become 2 celled.

You are asking too much.  Multicellular organisms became prominent about 
2 to 3 billion years after life first evolved.  At just one generation 
per month, this interval would correspond to more than 10^10 generations.  
I've done a few population simulations that go on for millions of 
generations, but this was only possible because the model was simple 
and it skipped over most of the generations while waiting for mutations 
to happen.  Billions of generations are totally out of the question.  
By a "simple" model I mean that there were a few numbers to represent 
genotypic values, a few possible genotypes that could be reached by 
mutation, constant fitness values, and no explicit model of development,
environment, or phenotypes.  

To use computer models to study evolution, you have to make difficult 
and highly problematic choices that amount to hypothesizing about 
the nature of the evolutionary process.  If  you didn't go through 
this process of abstraction, but were somehow able to recreate all of 
the complexity of life in your model, then it wouldn't be a "model" 
and, after finishing your simulations, you wouldn't have learned 
anything.  It is this need for abstraction that accounts for the 
use of theories, hypothesis-testing, and smiley faces on computer 



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