What if you could fast-forward evolution?
That’s the idea behind a computer program now being developed as a teaching tool at Michigan State University.
Robert T. Pennock, a professor of the philosophy of science, is starting with existing software that uses digital “organisms” to mimic living ones. The digital creatures have their own code—the equivalent of the genetic material DNA—and can replicate themselves according to its dictates. Like DNA, the code mutates unpredictably, producing individuals that vary, in this case, according to the tasks they can do. The variations make some of the individuals more successful than others. Eventually, the mock evolution weeds out the less successful ones while the more successful ones carry on their “genetic” lines.
Students running the program would not only see natural-like selection take place, but they could also design their own experiments, according to Mr. Pennock, a member of the education committee of the Society for the Study of Evolution. The group aims to give biology teachers ways to help students understand the scientific evidence for evolution.
“It will let students observe the Darwinian mechanism in action and figure out for themselves why it works,” Mr. Pennock wrote in an e-mail.
Initially, the materials, including model lesson plans, will be for college undergraduates. But Mr. Pennock and his team expect to adapt them later for high school students.
The college-level program is to be tested and evaluated in biology classes at Michigan State, in East Lansing, before being disseminated nationally about two years from now. A $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation supports the work.