Evolution – A Game of Chinese Whispers

If you had to think of an analogy to best describe evolution and the process of natural selection you might well opt for it being akin to a game of Chinese Whispers (or as some people call it – the Telephone Game).

This comparison between the two is often made and is even used in some schools as part of the teaching process. It provides a practical demonstration of how evolution operates.

In scientific terms, the game of Chinese Whispers is described as a Transmission Chain Experiment.

The game is a simple one. Players stand in a line and a message is whispered from one person to the next. When that message reaches the end of the line it is compared to what the original message was.

As the whispered message gets misheard, it can end up being a very different message to how it started out.

The rules are as follow:

  • Players can only whisper the message once.
  • Players cannot purposefully change the message.
  • The message must be whispered quietly so that other players cannot overhear.

So, how do we get an evolutionary comparison?

In terms of the game itself, the words spoken are equivalent to our genes. They get passed down the line. As they do so, they gradually get altered. The longer the game continues then the more the message will change; the more complicated the message then the more that message is prone to change.

As an evolutionary comparison, the full message represents the species. It can end up as something very different to what it started out like.

The appeal of the analogy is that the game possesses other characteristics that are reflected in the evolutionary process:

  • The slow, gradualness of the message transference.
  • The varied transformation of the message; sometimes with tiny changes, sometimes with much larger changes. The more changes there are and the greater the changes that are made then the more radical the resulting transformation.
  • Until it is explained to them the participants might not necessarily be aware of their involvement in the event. For the most part, they won’t recognise that they are a part of a process of change.
  • The words used (our genes) change according to the characteristics and behaviours of the players involved – how loud the speaker whispers; the quality of the listener’s hearing, how impatient, anxious or excited the players are. Just as in the game, our genes will be affected by their conveying bodies.

If there is a weakness in this analogy then it may be argued that a game of Chinese Whispers has no relationship with the environment, whereas evolutionary natural selection is very much governed by environmental influences – those adaptations that survive and prosper are those that are beneficial within the prevailing environment.

However, it is worth noting that the environment can impact on a game of Chinese Whispers. How noisy is it? What are the background noises? Different noises will allow different words, tones and inflections to come through with some being more dominant than others. Given a particular environment, some words might survive the transmission process better than others!

The words that get heard are the strongest and loudest words. The words that are spoken the clearest and most distinctly will prevail.

An interesting adjunct to the game is that if there were different lines for the message to travel down then in all probability each line would produce a different message outcome. This is why we have different species, each species having been subject to genetic variation, each species having pursued a different evolutionary journey.

So, if you’re ever invited to join in on a game of Chinese whispers, think of what you are a part of, think of how this represents the progress of humanity and the workings of Nature.

Hopefully, you won’t be too disappointed by the game’s outcome.

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