Monday, November 29, 2010

The Science of Pokémon: How Far Off Is It?

I stumbled across this article on GeekMom today discussing the difference between Pokémon evolution and the actual Theory of Evolution as set forth by Charles Darwin. I think the article is interesting, and it's nice to see an article by a parent who isn't saying Pokémon is evil due evolution being a part of it. However, as you can see by my personal reply, it got me thinking about the science in pokémon. Is it real science or just entertainment, or something in between?

The first concept I'm going to discuss is evolution as that is the point of the GeekMom article. Pokémon evolution can be brought about by several means, as we all already know. You can evolve a pokémon in the video games by level, using an item like an evolution stone, or trading. Pokémon uses the term of evolution very loosely. Rather than being like the scientific definition of evolution, it's more used as a term for progression (like the evolution of an idea) or metamorphosis. For example everyone knows about insect metamorphosis. A catepillar (larva) as it gets older creates a cacoon (pupa) and then emerges as a butterfly (adult). Many pokémon follow this trend, for example Caterpie (larva) "evolves" into Metapod (pupa) once it reaches a certain level and then into Butterfree (adult) at an even higher level. In this instance, maturity in real animals and level in pokémon are somewhat equal to the same thing. Once the organism reaches a certain maturity, it metamorphs into its next stage. Many animals, however, don't undergo metamorphosis and the same goes for pokémon. For example, you can hatch a Lapras from an egg and no matter what you do or how high of a level it is, it will never metamorph into something else. Other evolution methods, such as using items are trading, are less realistic but are meant solely to add diversity to the evolution methods. However, they do mimic the outward appearence changes brought on by radiation. It is possible that items, such as evolution stones, produce a type of radiation which causes mutation and thereby changing the pokémon's appearance and the same goes for trading through electronic means. Now, mutation is a driving force of Darwin's evolution theory, however pokémon greatly simplifies it.

Another topic pokémon explores is the concept of heredity. In the pokémon games, trainers can breed thier pokémon. Rather than mixing the genes of the two parents, however, pokémon uses attacks to simulate heredity. For example, the elephant pokémon Donphan cannot learn the move Ice Shard naturally but the mammoth pig pokémon Mamoswine can. If the trainer has a female Donphan and a male Mamoswine with Ice Shard, they can breed these two pokémon together. The baby will always be the most juvenile form of the female (in this case Donphan's lowest form is Phanpy) and it will inherit certain attacks from the father (in this case Ice Shard). Other things can be transferred as well, however attacks are the easiest things for a pokémon to inherit.

As far as the science in Pokémon, it is pretty simplified, but as a game that was simply meant to be entertainment it does a decent job. The main problem is the slight misuse of terms, however I believe this to be a matter of preference on part of the programmers. Evolution is a very snazzy buzz word sometimes, whereas metamorphosis isn't. Pokémon isn't the first game to use evolution incorrectly, many games which involve one creature changing to another have used it (for example Digimon "digivolve", an obvious play on evolve). However, it can be used for an introduction to science, if not at least to spark conversation about the use of terms. Additionally, it introduces children to ecology (certain pokémon only appear in certain habitats) and the concept of scientific field work in the form of collecting specimens (capturing pokémon) for study. So, is the science in pokémon decent, just entertainment, or something in between? I think it's best descibed as somewhere in between. In fact, I'm surprised that the game covers as much introductory science as it does. The topics I discussed here are tip of the iceberg. There is also sexual dimorphism (male and female differences), predator/prey relationships, and allopatric speciation (which is when two very similar species which have evolved slight differences brought on by being seperated geographically). The list goes on!