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Over a recent long weekend, I embarked on a family retreat to the mountains where I often found myself embattled in a game of Parcheesi with my five-year old niece. She played with dedication and ferocity, executing merciless strategies of attack that didn’t seem possible coming from such a cute little 35-pounder. As the game continued, I found my attention diverted to thinking about why she so relished “game-time” and played with such zeal. Although my lack of focus resulted in many a trip back to start, it also provided me with the time and impetus to wonder about play as an evolutionary metaphor. I wanted to explore whether its attributes fit the evolutionary model: a “mindless” algorithm that brings design from order. In Origin of Species, Darwin argues that life evolves from the process of “natural selection.” [1] In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett claims that this evolutionary algorithm applies to everything. [2] Is this true of play, could a “mindless” algorithm be the source of its direction and development?   And if so, why is this important?   What is the “big picture” result or consequence if play does follow an evolutionary theme? 

I started my research by looking at the benefits of play in childhood development. I found articles explaining that it increases social skills and empathy, allows for creativity in implementing your own rules and provides an outlet for role experimentation, just to name a few of its pluses. [3,4] Further, Professor Dalke pointed me to the “playground” in Serendip: a whole section devoted to education as play with the explanation, “ The idea, of course, is that there isn't a whole lot of difference between playing and learning ... exploring is the underpinnings and enjoyment inherent in both.” [5] It seems that play is not just fun, but a key source of enlightenment; so let’s take a look at its principles and compare them with biological evolution to see if we find a useful correspondence.

During play, each participant seeks to add to her/his repertoire by learning from others. For example, my nephew loves to play baseball and can mimic the swings of many of the great sluggers, but not exactly. He has his own stature, flexibility, strength and timing, so it’s really a mixture of his skills with the talents of others. In biology, when you combine the traits of two individuals of the same species, you have meosis, a process that leads to the RANDOM variability that is essential for evolution. The difference is that in the case of my nephew, he CHOOSES the combinations of traits to combine with his own, thus adding an architect to a non-architectural process. This runs counter to the randomness that we observe in biological evolution.

Another inherent property of play: the strategies that we discover by accident.  For example, the discovery of the knuckle ball, a pitch with an unpredictable path that leaves hitters baffled as to where to swing their bats. When pitchers stray away from the norm to try out new and different ways to hold the ball, rotate their arm or change pitch speeds, they may, on rare occasions, accidentally find a new way of throwing. When these types of random changes occur in biology, they are called mutations, another key ingredient in evolutionary change. But in play, these “mutations” can be repeated at will, again adding an architect to the process, and they can occur as a reaction to an existing circumstance, a principle that has been disproved as a cause of mutation in biology. [6]

Finally, playing well requires changes in reaction to your opponent. For example, once someone figures out how to hit your knuckleball, you need to experiment with new pitches either as a modification of the old version or a complete departure from it altogether. In biological evolution, this correlates to descent with modification and the extinction of less fit strategies.   When we play, however, we can switch between our strategies, so do they ever become extinct? And further, where is the heritability in this process? If you copy a pitch from someone else, you are learning it, not inheriting it, and you can learn very large numbers of pitches that you can use as necessary. Conversely, in biological terms, we can’t decide when and where to use a particular gene.

Given that I have explored the “big picture” to evaluate the importance of this argument, it strikes me that there’s another “big picture” that relates: play fits the properties of a meme. It has variance, it can be copied and there is differing “fitness” in strategies. So in setting forth examples to disprove the idea of play as an evolutionary algorithm, let’s see if we can add to our evidence by examining a couple of “big picture” arguments against the comparison of memes with genes.

When an idea moves from one mind to another, it mutates – we all have different stories. Dennett gives the example of his young grandson mutating “Pop! Goes the weasel” into “Pop! Goes the diesel.” [7] Since genetic mutations in humans are usually repaired, but no such devises exist for memes, their mutation rate is much greater. As argued by medical researcher and author, Luis Benitez-Bribiesca M.D in his essay, Memetics: A Dangerous Idea, “If the mutation rate is high and takes place over short periods, as memetics predict, instead of selection, adaptation and survival, a chaotic disintegration occurs due to the accumulation of errors.” [8] Dennett argues against this by quoting Pinker who proposed that memetic mutations are DIRECTED by the brain, but again, we don’t find directed mutations in biology. [9]

Additionally, as Professor Grobstein has described, humans have agency in our ability to “try things out” in our minds before we act on them. This is certainly the case with play as with memes in general. We can conceive of possibilities and run through them in our head prior to ever actually employing them. In biological evolution, however, it’s “trial by fire.” Changes or mutations can’t be contemplated prior to being implemented, they just happen. Once again, you cannot make a literal one-to-one comparison. A meme does not LITERALLY compare with a gene. 

Much more than a game, play extends its impact beyond the tangible borders of its moment in time. What we learn at play goes on to shape our learning, our stories and our development so how we get to those places is of extreme importance. I’ve attempted to show that while the process bears some resemblance to the evolutionary algorithm, it literally doesn’t fit. In contrast to the idea of play being a meme that propels itself using a “blind” evolutionary algorithm, we are architects and as such, we can guide our own choices.  This leads to a bigger question, however: how do we decide on how to choose? Is the outcome our goal or is it how we play the game? Given the observation here that play is an important piece of the development puzzle, it’s important to look at how/if the cultural architect influences the individual architect and whether these influences are conscious, and therefore allow us agency, or whether they are unconscious and therefore perhaps beyond our control.


Bibliography and Works Cited

[1] Darwin, Charles, On the Origin of Species Ed. Joseph Carroll. Canada: Broadview Texts, 2003.

[2] Dennett, Daniel G., Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, 1995.

[3] Dayton, Dr. Tian, When Adults Play, The Huffington Post. July 31, 2010.

(Accessed 3/15/11) 

[4] Bettelheim, Bruno, The Importance of Play. The Atlantic. March 1987. (Accessed 3/15/11)

[5] Serendip Playground homepage. /playground/ (Accessed 3/15/11)

[6] Luria and Delbruck, Mutations of Bacteria From Virus Sensitivity to Virus Resistance. May 29, 1943.

[7,9] Dennett, p.355.

[8] Benitez-Bribiesca M.D, Luis, Memetics: A Dangerous Idea. Archives of Medical Research. (Accessed 3/15/11)

*Picture:  Annie Tomko