We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

David Ewing Duncan

A View from David Ewing Duncan

Second Life, Darwin, and God

Is this new virtual world a product of creationism or of evolution?

  • February 1, 2007

Click here to see a video of David Ewing Duncan moderating a panel with founders and senior executives from Second Life, MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn at the California Commonwealth Club, November 30, 2006

Last month, I had a late dinner with Second Life founder Philip Rosedale and a small group of people in a swank Italian eatery in San Francisco. On an unseasonably freezing night in the real world, we listened to Rosedale hold forth like an excitable boy for two hours on topics such as: should there be laws and high courts in Second Life for virtual lawbreakers, and how open should the open-source options be?

As a biotech writer, I listened to this software guy describe a world that I had thought of as a giant game in which people with too much time on their hands pretend to be fire-breathing dragons–or boulders or feather- and leather-clad exotic dancers–and build virtual stuff.

Somewhere around my third glass of pinot noir, I realized that Rosedale was describing something more interesting: a world where imaginations touch, interact, and create. Pardon me for being dense about this, but I had to see this through my own bio-lenses, and I now realize that Second Life is actually an organism–one that is in the early stages of pure Darwinian evolution.

Except in this version of “life,” visitors play the role of genes and strings of nucleotides competing to survive and thrive, with the stronger and more potent genes creating the major traits of the evolving organism. It’s Richard Dawkins’s memes with faces and bodies, although much of what is being created is along the lines of virtual strip clubs and clothes-optional beaches.

This is virtual evolution, just as Dawkins described it. Yet in Second Life there is also a God–Rosedale–who got things going, and he works hidden and all-seeing behind the scenes to enable the basics of this world, including the selling of land, and he provides the godlike “touch” (think Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel) that bestows life on newborn visitors.

This is all bizarre theology in the making, and it makes me wonder: will people in the future debate whether Rosedale (God) created Second Life, or did it spontaneously form out of the ether and random bits and bytes in cyberspace? Will Kansas in 2506 demand that creationism and the “Rosedale Theory” be taught in public schools, to the howls of “secular avatars”? Will virtual presidential candidates debate mentioning Rosedale in schools, and will a cyber-Scopes trial attempt to prove that natural selection, and not Rosedale, created avatars?

I’m trying to wrap my barely evolved first-life brain around the idea of a virtual organism where I (or, more accurately, my imagination) am a gene (a bundle of code) and where my “second me” was brought to life by Philip Rosedale, who then cast me off to fend for myself, although within a system of rules he launched when the world began. These rules themselves are evolving. For instance, what is to be done about evil? Should people be allowed to hurt and kill others? Rosedale seems to be a benign God, with a baby face and an easy smile in his first life as a human. But can we be sure about this?

Of course, none of this really exists, although it makes me wonder in a Matrix sort of way if the God of our “real” universe is actually a programmer himself in his own first-life world, watching Rosedale-like his avatars (us) creating their own new virtual world. And beyond him is the programmer that created his world, dada, dada, dada–you get the idea. Which makes me happy that I can log off Second Life. At least I think I can, which is enough for me.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today
Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Basic.
  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Print Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.