more effective learning outcomes. These and other features are
discussed below for a selection of computer-based simulators.
A Comparison of Useful Evolutionary
Software for Teaching
We evaluated a range of evolutionary software, recording our
assessment of the ease of installation and the level of supporting
documentation (Table 1). Below, we detail nine of these packages,
as prior knowledge may assist teachers interested in exploring evolution through software.
1. Tierra is a text-based ecology and evolution simulator first
developed in 1994 by Thomas S. Ray (Ray, 1994; Ray & Hart,
1999). It demonstrates coevolution, population equilibrium
problems, and natural selection. It has a command line interface, which may intimidate some students unaccustomed to a
command line terminal or any other text-based environment.
The documentation is extensive but also complex, so the
startup costs are high and the learning curve is steep. Some
advanced (and patient) college undergraduates in evolutionary biology programs could use Tierra as a historical example
or as a scaffold for building their own simulator.
2. Avida is a modern graphical version of Tierra. As in Conway’s
Game of Life, each pixel is an organism colored by fitness in a
digital Petri dish (Adami et al., 1994; Ofria & Wilke, 2004).
Evolutionary parameters are customizable, ranging from dish
size, mutation rate, presence or absence of nutrients, organ-
isms’ spawn location, iteration length, and two different ran-
domness models. Demo and experimental modes control the
degree of randomness, with demo mode allowing precise
repeatability of experiments. The straightforward user inter-
face includes a graph showing average fitness, average gesta-
tion time, number of organisms, and average metabolic rate.
Avida also exports data in Excel format for more customized
or advanced plotting. These graphical outputs are useful for
understanding the experiments, as well as giving students
practice reading and analyzing graphs. Overall, Avida is an
easy-to-use simulator readily adaptable to teaching evolution
in the classroom, ranging from high school AP biology to
introductory college biology.
3. The Simulink environment, produced by Math Works, is a
visual programming suite for modeling, simulating, and
analyzing complex and dynamic systems. There are multiple
libraries for Simulink that include optimization tasks. One
such optimization task is the genetic algorithm, which has
been applied to the field of evolutionary A-life simulators
through the use of cellular automata (Mitchell et al., 1993;
Das et al., 1994; Crutchfield & Mitchell, 1995). Though
highly customizable, Simulink and its accompanying libraries
require both a license and facility with the MATLAB programming language, with no quick-start immersion into evolution. This makes it more suitable for teaching evolution to
advanced and more quantitatively minded undergraduate
students willing to learn the finer points of MATLAB.
4. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) provides
resources to teachers at no cost, including “biointeractive”
computer programs that teach evolution in a variety of pedagogical ways. HHMI’s Lizard Evolution Virtual Lab, which
explores anole lizards of the Caribbean (based on work by
Losos et al., 2004; and Kolbe et al., 2012), is one of the most
sophisticated virtual-evolution software packages. The lab
Table 1. Continued
iOS MAC OS
Free Easy No Macroevolution
2D MS, HS
Polyworld Larry Yaeger
Free Medium No Microevolution
Paid Hard No Microevolution
Tierra Thomas S. Ray
(Adami et al.,
1994; Ray &
Free Hard Yes Microevolution
Windows Free Hard No Microevolution