Computer Simulation of Ontogeny Recapitulating Phylogeny

Computer simulation of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny cited as evidence.

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In an effort to explain seemingly unnecessary steps in embryological development, a group from Michigan State’s BEACON Center of Evolution in Action reports, “We have observed that ontogeny does indeed recapitulate phylogeny,”1 at least in computer simulations.

Recapitulation theory—proposed as early as 1811 but made famous in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel who produced “doctored” (fraudulent) evidence to support it—is the notion that embryonic development (ontogeny) re-enacts (recapitulates) evolutionary history (phylogeny). While Jeff Clune and colleagues admit, “Biologists have long debated whether ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,”2 they attribute the historical disfavor into which the theory has drifted to the inability to “explain why evolution would operate in this way.”3 In other words, if embryos really recapitulate evolution, what was the evolutionary advantage of anatomic structures that develop and ultimately don’t get used?

Clune’s group writes, “It is difficult to test these hypotheses experimentally in natural systems,” so they designed digital organisms to do what is unobservable in nature. Evolutionists contend molecules-to-man evolution proceeds too slowly for us to really detect it, but “computational evolution” can simulate evolution in an accelerated fashion. Clune’s non-corporeal digital creatures are called Avidians. They are actually computer programs, not the avatars familiar to video gamers. Avidians are “self-replicating computer programs” which are designed to “mutate, compete for resources, and evolve, mimicking natural selection in real-life organisms.” Clune’s team concludes that its successful simulation of mechanisms that drive ontogeny and phylogeny is “a useful step towards clarifying the debate.”4

It is difficult to test these hypotheses experimentally in natural systems.

“Many animals build tissues and structures they don’t appear to use, and then they disappear,” says Clune. “In a developing embryo, each new structure is built in a delicate environment that consists of everything that has already developed,” he explains. “Mutations that alter that environment, such as by eliminating a structure, can thus disrupt later stages of development. Even if a structure is not actually used, it may set the stage for other functional tissues to grow properly.”

Clune uses a metaphor to explain the difference between the way “evolution tinkers” and the way human engineers design buildings. “It’s comparable to building a roller coaster, razing it, and building a skyscraper on the same ground. Why not just skip ahead to building the skyscraper?” he says. “An engineer would simply skip the roller coaster step, but evolution is more of a tinkerer and less of an engineer. It uses whatever parts that are lying around, even if the process that generates those parts is inefficient.”

Avidians exist in “a virtual world in which populations of digital organisms evolve by random mutation, genetic drift, and natural selection acting on phenotypic differences among individuals.”5 Avidians are programmed to self-replicate and to develop characteristics based on their virtual genomes. The replication is designed to be imperfect to simulate mutations. Avidians that function well receive an energy boost that enables them to replicate, thus imitating the process of natural selection.

The logical developmental order in a live embryo or a virtual imitation uses simple building blocks to increase complexity.

The logical developmental order in a live embryo or a virtual imitation uses simple building blocks to increase complexity. Most mutations that occurred early in the Avidian development were detrimental, destroying abilities that were foundational for later functions. The few mutations that were not destructive or inconsequential within the virtual environment increased the apparent complexity of the computer programs. Thus, the usefulness of a stepwise development was necessary for both virtual embryonic development and virtual evolution.

But does any of this demonstrate that biological evolution of new kinds of organisms even occurs? Much less that biological embryos re-enact an evolutionary past? Far from it!

First of all, the ability to design a program for a computer to model evolution does not demonstrate random evolution occurred in biological systems. Secondly, the Avidians didn’t even model the evolution of new kinds but only variation within “created” kinds. Those who claim biological ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny propose embryos re-enact upward evolution through distinct kinds, such as by saying humans pass through a fish stage, amphibian stage, and so forth. The Avidians merely reshuffled and tweaked the information they were provided to start with. They did not acquire the information from their mutations to become something more than computer programs, just computer programs that did what their available tools made possible in the first place.

God tells us in Genesis that He created all the kinds of living things during the same week and designed them to reproduce after their kinds. We see in nature that organisms vary within their kinds (such as fish adapting to saltier water) but have never actually observed one kind of organism changing into another kind (such as a fish becoming a mammal). Despite the claims of evolutionists that these changes occurred in the past, no undisputed transitional forms provide such documentation.

Furthermore, embryology and comparative anatomy reveal what we would expect from a common Designer. Embryos of various organisms have similar appearing templates adaptable to a variety of forms as development proceeds. That’s not evolution, or recapitulation; it’s just embryonic development.

Embryologic intermediates do not by their existence imply an evolutionary heritage. For example, so-called “gill slits” in humans never have anything to do with respiration at all but are merely called that because they happen to superficially resemble simple gills. Other “simple” forms, like the tube that later twists to form the chambers of the human heart, are essential to the proper development of the final anatomy. But nothing about the early embryonic tubular shape of the heart demonstrates humans evolved from lesser creatures but only that God designed the human heart’s anatomy from an elaborately shaped tube. Embryologic development is logically designed and observable. Any connection to evolutionary phylogeny is imaginative speculation.

We see in this study a computer model of the sensible stepwise way God designed embryos to develop. That’s all.

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  1. J. Clune, R. T. Pennock, C. Ofria, and R. E. Lenski, “Ontogeny Tends to Recapitulate Phylogeny in Digital Organisms,” The American Naturalist, 180, no. 3 (September 2012), doi: 10.1086/666984.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.


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