Darwin Would Have Been a Pokmon Go Master

As a teenager, Charles Darwin dropped out of medical school because he was too squeamish to handle amputations. He ended up going to Cambridge instead, where he spent hours in the countryside collecting beetles. Thats to say I think Darwin was a nerd, and if he were alive today, he would definitely be trying to catch ’em all.

This is not an idle comparison, made in an attempt to shoehorn Pokmon Go into yet another headline. Please. Because without beetle collectors, the world might have never had Pokmon.

Pokmons creator, Satoshi Tajiri, also was an insect collector. His childhood friends called him Dr. Bug. He grew up outside of Tokyo, but as the city encroached on his hometown, the rice paddies, ponds, and forests where he once wandered disappeared. Places to catch insects are rare because of urbanization, he would tell Time. Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot had forgotten about catching insects. So had I.

So he created Pokmon: “a virtual world, bursting with fictional biodiversity,” as Jon Mooallem puts it in his book Wild Ones(Mooallem is also WIRED’s Mr. Know-It-All columnist). In the’90s, Pokmon meant trading cards, a TV show, and Game Boys that my friends and I spent hours furiously tapping at home, at school, in the car. But with Pokmon Go, that virtual world has been overlaid on the real world. And in venturing outside to look for fictional biodiversity, people are finding real biodiversity.

Insect collecting was the Pokmon craze of the Victorian era, and Darwin wasan obsessive. One time, he recounts in his autobiography, he encountered a third rare beetle, after having already grabbed a beetle in each fist: I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one. (Amateur move, like trying to catch Mewtwo with a regular Pok ball.)

Collecting beetles at Cambridge trained Darwins patience and his eye for detail, which he later put to use meticulously documenting the beaks of finches and the shells of tortoises in the Galapagos. With Pokmon, Tajiri tapped into that same impulse to collect and to catalogue. You dont need me to tell you, but Pokmon got so popular that in 2002, British scientists found that children were more likely to recognize fictional Pokmon than oak trees or badgers. “Conservationists need to reestablish children’s links with nature if they are to win over the hearts and minds of the next generation,” the scientists wrote in their piece. “Is Ecomon the way ahead?” Almost certainly not. But then, theres Pokmon Go.

Over the weekend, Morgan Jackson, a grad student at the University of Guleph, watched the Pokmon Go tweets pile up. Jackson grew up playing Pokmon—he played Red, his brother Blue—so he had spent a lot of time collecting fictional creatures. “Now Im an entomologist and I do the same thing except its real,” he says. So he had an idea: #PokBlitz, a twiston “bioblitz,” an event when scientists and volunteers go out to survey the wildlife in an area.

Asia Murphy also created a #PokmonIRL template for people to tweet photos and facts about real wildlife. “I wasnt expecting much,” she says. “I expected it to die off after a few hours.” It hasnt. Ironically, both Jackson and Murphy told me they havent played Pokmon Go—Jackson because hes in Canada and Murphy because the app hasnt worked on her phone.

More ironic still is the fact that Pokmon Go—the descendent of a game designed to create the illusion of nature–doesnt really work outside of the city. The game uses real world locations that users submitted in an earlier game called Ingress, and most of those users were urban. Pokmon show up in almost every large human settlement, but go out into rural areas, and youre out of luck.The city took over nature. Tajiri createdPokmon. AndPokmon Gotook over the city.

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