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Teaching evolution through Pokemon?

by Donald Prothero, Sep 05 2012

Pokemon is full of interesting “evolving” sequences of form, some of which resemble normal ontogeny of metamorphosing insects

The dogs days of summer were finally ending, and I was glad. The heat waves that have fried the U.S. all summer long were still hanging on in late August. The kids were trapped inside the house in the air conditioning, since there’s no way to play outside in the 105-degree heat, humidity, and smog, and even running an errand is unpleasant and potentially dangerous when the car is 140 degrees inside after you open it. Besides, there’s no place to go for them to get exercise in the air conditioning: they’ve outgrown McDonalds play lands, and I don’t want to spend money in a mall or in those overpriced indoor entertainment complexes. The boys had a few days left before school starts, and then they resume  a regular healthy routine, and they’re occupied again. In the meantime, they lounged around the house in their pajamas till afternoon, with the TV blaring Cartoon Network non-stop while they play with and build their Legos. Any time we suggested an activity for them, they may engage for a while, then it’s back to goofing off. It’s summer, they’re kids, and they have no obligations. We already did the family trip to Colorado for my field work, and had our planned activities back in June and July.  And I was counting the days until they were back in school and on a healthier routine.

As I listened in the background, I learned a lot about kids’ TV. Cable TV has a amazing ghettoization of kids programming based on age. For years, my boys loved the preschool-aged shows they first grew up with, but now they’ve outgrown Sprout and NickJr networks and Sesame Street and PBS Kids. Then there are the Disney Channel and a bunch of others, aimed at tweens and young teens, full of shows about relationships, fashion, school, and pop music. Most of the shows on Cartoon Network are pretty harmless fare, aimed at elementary-school kids. Some are classic cartoons from the golden age of animation: Looney Tunes from the 1930s and 1940s, Tom and Jerry cartoons, and a few other classics. There is a lot of “Scooby Doo”, which is fine, since it teaches skepticism. Cartoon Network also has its own gamut of shows developed since the days of “Spongebob Squarepants”. Some are dumb, some are tolerable, and some are unnecessarily rude and crude and WAY over my boys’ heads at ages 9 and 7. These include the TV version of “Mad” magazine, full of references to celebs or teeny-bopper music they’ve never heard of, or the show “Johnny Test” (presumably parodying the name of “Johnny Quest”, a constant do-gooder), which is a show about a bratty kid who does all sorts of unspeakably nasty stuff and gets away with it. Most of these shows are tolerable, although it is discouraging to see all the pseudoscience and “mad scientist” cliches (white lab coats, bubbling beakers, monster computers, insanely plotting to take over the world) that Hollywood has stereotyped science with since before Boris Karloff played Frankenstein’s monster. Our kids grow up with these same stereotypes in pre-school TV before they can even encounter them in movies for kids.

And then there is a large volume of Japanese anime fare. Some, like my kids’ favorite “Ninjago”, are obvious product-placement commercials for toys, but disguised as cartoons. “Ninjago” is a mash-up of all sorts of martial arts movie cliches designed to sell Lego products of the same name (and it works—we have hundreds of dollars of Lego Ninjago sets scattered all of the floor, forcing us to never walk barefoot in the house). Then there are a number of anime shows based  on “Pokemon”, the late-1990s sensation that led to “Bakugon”, ‘Beyblade,” “Digimon,” “Naruto,” and many other clones that fill our kids’ lives these days (both in Japan and here). Frankly, I have little tolerance for these shows. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate that Japanese anime cartooning is very specific style and a highly developed art form, and that the oddly drawn characters with the outsized heads and weird eyes are part of the genre. But having done some animation myself and watched countless hours of full-motion cartoons painstakingly drawn by artists at Disney and Warner Brothers studios, I get tired of cartoons that cheat and cut corners by filming many seconds where nothing moves but the mouth of one character, and most scenes are completely static for many seconds.

“Pokemon” is still the biggest and longest lived of all the cartoons in its genre. For those of you who haven’t followed kid culture in the past 20 years, “Pokemon” is an abbreviation for “pocket monster.” A whole suite of hundreds of biologically impossible creatures apparently live in this fantasy world. The main human characters spend each episode trying to catch them, imprison them in a “Pokeball”, a sphere the size of a billiard ball, and then battle them against each other in big arenas from one city to the next. These humans never apparently need to eat or sleep, earn a living, and must walk everywhere in this fantasy world which looks vaguely like pre-industrial Japan. All the Pokemon are classified by arbitrary categories (“water,” “fire”, “air”), and have specific strengths and weaknesses, which means battles between any two can go either way. All of this info is coded on trading cards, which kids collect and play games with, and obsess over like they used to over baseball card collections. I got my full dose of Pokemon in the late 1990s-early 2000s when my eldest son (now 21) was fascinated with them at the height of the nationwide U.S. Pokemon craze.

But listening to Pokemon the other day, I noticed something else. They had an episode about a “Pokemon fossil.” Of course, it was full of mistakes: they had a “Pokemon archeologist” (archeologists don’t study fossils, paleontologists do. This is a pet peeve of nearly ALL paleontologists I know, as well as archeologists); and they used the archaic phrase “missing link” (life is a bush, not a ladder or chain, so there is no such thing as a “missing link”). But throughout most episodes of Pokemon, they casually talk about how the Pokemon “evolve” from one form to another, often in multiple steps. All my kids have picked up the lingo and think of “evolving” as something natural and everyday (even if introduced in a fantasy context). Of course, what they call “evolving” is more like ontogenetic growth from one stage to the next, and in fact some Pokemon go through a stage that vaguely resembles larva, pupa, and adult. But others clearly transform completely as they “evolve.” And this “evolving” concept is woven through most episodes.

It got me to thinking: where the heck are the fundamentalists trying to boycott Pokemon? The fundies have huffed and puffed (to no effect) against “Harry Potter” because it “promotes witchcraft” (only making it more popular, and increasing sales), and raged against the current fad for vampire series, especially  the “Twilight” series aimed at teenage girls (written, oddly enough, by a Mormon). There are even some fundies who regard the Smurfs and “My Little Pony” as satanic! Apparently, the fundies regard ANY popular show for children as “satanic” if it doesn’t include the Christian mythology. I searched on line, but got only a few hits, and most of them seemed to be criticisms of “Buddhist culture” in Pokemon. Apparently, they never actually watched the show, because there isn’t even a trace of Buddhism in it (not even the architecture, which isn’t even characteristically Japanese Shinto, either). Maybe that’s the fundies’ way of saying it’s “furrin’” and “Asian” and “non-Christian” (it IS Japanese, after all). But if they’d spent some time really watching the show, they would have caught the frequent references to Pokemon evolving. THAT should have raised their ire far more than the Japanese influences of the show.

I found one YouTube video where the preacher rambles on about the bad influences of Pokemon, calling these cartoon characters anti-Christian and a “Satanic influence” and even brings in “Dungeons and Dragons,” rock music, and the Internet as evil influences. Then I found this ridiculous low-budget public-access cable show which calls them “Oriental demons” but at least it picks up on the fact that they evolve. There is even this prank call, where the caller punks a clueless Christian TV-radio show calling himself “Ash Ketchum” (the principal hero of Pokemon) and describing his battles with “Team Rocket” (the recurring villains of the show).

Apparently during the early Pokemon craze, there was a big backlash against Pokemon as Satanic “pocket demons”, with some unintentionally hilarious statements like this one:

The Devil loving phenomenon began in Japan over 20 years ago. A young boy summoned an evil demon to kill his entire family because they wouldn’t buy him a stick of chewing gum at the supermarket. The demon came, and brought with it, other pokemons who jumped into the parents mouths while they were sleeping, and lodged themselves in their tracheas, suffocating an entire family, and setting the boy free to steal their money and buy gum.

“The whole idea behind Pokemon is to show a child that they can become a “powerful evil force, and they don’t have to listen to their parents.” Landover occult expert, Jonathan Edwards said. “Kids look for different Pokemon demons, find them and utilize their specific powers to create chaos in the home. It can be extremely violent, and the liberal media does not want anyone to know how many families have been torn apart since this menace began. The ultimate goal for a child is to collect them, and once they’ve collected all of them, they can have anything they wish for. In most cases, the child wishes for complete control over his entire family. The pokemons approach in the still of night, entering the parents mouths and lodging themselves in their tracheas until they suffocate. They then scurry off quietly and return to their masters bed. When authorities arrive, they are shocked to see no evidence of foul play. They observe only a smiling child, fast asleep, surrounded by stuffed animals and ‘innocent little’ Pokemons.”

Deacon Fred, one of 37 co-pastors of the 125,000-member, fundamentalist-baptist church, said that his “antenna went up” over a year ago. While driving with his kids, he heard them in the back seat talking about “Abra” and “Cadabra,” “A chill went down my spine, and a trickle of perspiration dribbled slowly down to the small of my back!” He pulled the car over, took the Pokemon action figures from his children, placed them on the road, got back into the car and backed over them “100 times, until there was nothing left but shards of plastic.” The teary eyed children watched from the roadside.

Pastor Deacon Fred said that he doesn’t see why more unsaved folks don’t see the Devil’s hand in this. “Three of the Pokeman characters sprouts horns!” Another concern, he said, is that children exploring a Pokemon Web site can click to other games, including “Magic: the Gathering,” a Satanic game similar to Dungeons and Dragons.

“It’s got fancy sugar coating on it, but, underneath, it’s Hell’s poison,” Pastor Deacon Fred said.

Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs-based Christian organization whose messages reach as many as 5 million people weekly via radio broadcasts, has researched Pokemon, said David Wright , project coordinator the Youth Culture Department. “What we found, is so horrifying, and so schocking, it would drive an unsaved person to the brink of insanity! Godly Christians are the only ones who can see this Satanic attack, we don’t expect sinners to understand our ongoing battle with principalities that are not of this world. We do however, expect them to take us very seriously, and to submit to our (God’s) authority in destroying these little beasts before they make junior Satanists out of every child on the planet!”

Then there is this bizarre passage, picked up and reproduced on a site for the “Universal Life Church”, a diploma mill for ministers. In the words of these fundies:

The entertainment industry is rife with corrupting influences that force the occult and the anti-Christian upon the children of the world. Once such influence is Pokemon, or POCKet MONsters, which is notorious for incorporating Eastern mysticism and witchcraft into deceptively cute and cuddly Satanic creatures. While the Pokemon craze is nowhere near as strong as it used to be, the unnatural ways in which devilish creatures like Pikachu and Jigglypuff seize the hearts and minds of little children is a clear sign of the Devil’s handiwork. Pokemon, in general, are purveyors of supernatural abilities. They conjure fire, water, thunder storms, and other phenomena that go against God. Many Pokemon take on vile forms that the Bible clearly warns against. For example, Ekans (backwards for “snake”) is a serpent Pokemon and Charizard and Dragonite are dragons. The Bible clearly delineates that these two kinds of creatures are surrogates of evil and God-fearing Christians should thus avoid them at all costs. It is terrifying to think that children around the world gladly “play” with creatures associated with the Devil every day.

The traits and characteristics Pokemon possess can be just as Satanic as Pokemon themselves. Take the “psychic” Pokemon, for instance. Now you may be thinking “Surely this popular, seemingly innocent children’s game doesn’t discuss the practice of back-alley cults and Devil-worshipers?” This is unfortunately the case! One concerned mother recently overheard her son telling a friend that he would “use his psychic powers” against his friend’s Pokemon while playing with their trading cards. Statements like these are incontrovertible proof that the sinister creators of Pokemon are attempting to condition the world’s children with the occult practice of psychic powers!

Perhaps the most threatening of the psychic Pokemon are Abra, Kadabra, and Alakazam. These names should sound familiar – they are classic incantations uttered by those who participate in witchcraft. Images of Kadabra even feature several symbols associated with the occult, like a pentagram printed on its forehead and the unholy triple S motif on its stomach. In some media, Kadabra even appears with its three fingers raised in a Satanic salute. The Eastern mysticism of the Japanese has caused them to incorporate Satanic symbols into children’s characters in an attempt to pollute their minds. What’s more, these three sinister Pokemon “evolve” into one-another by spontaneously changing physical forms. This “evolution” is clearly shape-shifting, another trait commonly associated with witchcraft.

The world of Pokemon wouldn’t be beyond redemption if the people who inhabited it possessed Biblical morals, but this is sadly not the case. Gary, the childhood friend and rival of the main character, is mean, self-centered, and cruel. Team Rocket members Jesse and James are thieves, criminals, stuck up, and even cross-dress on occasion. Brock, a close friend and companion of the main character, constantly pursues women and can be described as sex-crazed. Do you want YOUR children to emulate the cross-dressing nymphomaniacs of the Pokemon universe? Of course not! Yet these moral-lacking characters make appearances in nearly every game and episode of this obviously evil franchise.

While some might say the ways in which the characters of the Pokemon universe continuously travel around the world in their misguided attempt to “Catch ‘em all” is reminiscent of Moses leading the Jewish people through the deserts of Egypt for four decades, I disagree. The search for supernatural power through Pokemon is far from the divine Biblical journeys where closeness to God, not association with 150 evil creatures, is the ultimate goal. In short, Pokemon promote the occult instead of proper Biblical values and should thus be destroyed.

Take the time to educate your children about what is right – that Pokemon are agents of the Devil and that glory lies with God, not the staging of brawls between monsters. Tell them that the power Pokemon possess have one intention – to keep innocent, God-fearing children from knowing Him and experiencing His benevolent plan for their life! If they walk with God they will understand; if they do not, seize their poisonous Pokemon paraphernalia and burn it. Hopefully they will come to see their sins and repent

Of course, most of this fundie hyperventilating is laughably foolish and idiotic, and most people outside the fundie universe regard it as so. (Don’t forget, however, that fundamentalist churches are huge in the United States, claiming a following of 30% or more of the population). But there is a point behind this. The political atmosphere in the U.S. is so hypercharged about the idea of evolution that most school teachers are afraid to mention it, or try to tone it down, or use euphemisms like “development” or “change” to avoid the dreaded “E” word. Daniel Loxton’s new book about evolution for kids was almost too toxic for any U.S. publisher to pick up for fear of protests from fundies, yet it sells well in Canada where evolution is not controversial. Most kids hear about evolution only through their parents, most of whom know nothing about it except what they’ve heard from Creationist preachers and other sources of misinformation.

Nevertheless, extraordinary scientific ideas (such as the heliocentric solar system, which goes against our intuition and perception) can be accepted by kids and adults in a society where they are taught early and in a matter of fact manner. Except for handful of fundies who deny the heliocentric solar system, most of us grow up learning that we go around the sun, and it’s no big deal. Likewise, in Asian or European cultures, evolution and the heliocentric solar system are absorbed by the kids from their culture, since there is no controversy about either topic. Perhaps, instead of trying to introduce evolution in the tense atmosphere of school, it makes sense to do as the Japanese have done, where it is a part of their kids’ cartoons. (Japan and most of the world has no strong political influences against evolution by religious fanatics). Then kids grow up to regard “evolving” as something everyday and natural, and (unless they have strict fundie parents) are less likely to be put off by it when they encounter it in school on in the popular culture. Perhaps what the scientific community needs is more popular kids’ programming (like Bill Nye once provided) that engages kids, wows them with the wonders of science, and subtly but naturally integrates evolution into the fabric of program. Then when they get to high school, they might be less susceptible to creationist lies and pressure about evolution, and more receptive to the lessons in biology class.

Now if they could ONLY get rid of the white lab coats, bubbling beakers, and other aspects of the “mad scientist” stereotypes in the popular media….

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22 Responses to “Teaching evolution through Pokemon?”

  1. tudza says:

    You’ve been watching the wrong anime.

  2. Noadi says:

    Did you miss the bit at the bottom of the post on the Universal Life Church which says:

    Please note that some overly-sensitive adults actually believe in the ideas expressed above. While they represent a small minority of the population, some radical Christians find Biblical reasons for why childhood crazes like Pokemon are “occult” and “evil”. Universal Life Church Monastery ministers should be aware that these people exist and should make an effort to counteract their fear mongering whenever our ministers encounter it.

    That’s far from the statement of supportive fundies. The Universal Life Church is certainly an ordainment mill since they’ll give anyone who fills out a form one and I think they’re a bit silly, but I’ve not seen any proof they are fundamentalists (the very next blog post is congratulating NY on same sex marriage).

    • ULC Monastery says:

      We aren’t fundamentalists. If you read the actual blog post (it is linked to in the above article, but here it is again: http://www.ulc.org/2011/06/pokemon-are-occult-satanic-creatures/) you would note the disclaimers we included at the beginning and the end where we explicitly state we’re poking fun at the people who actually think Pokemon are evil. The whole thing was sarcastic. I guess the author of this post missed that fact!

    • ULC Monastery says:

      Whoops, you addressed that they missed the disclaimer at the bottom of the Universal Life Church’s blog post. Sorry about that.

  3. Lukas says:

    > unintentionally hilarious statements

    Maybe I’m missing the meta-joke, but I believe these statements to be intentionally hilarious, as I believe this site to be satire. Just look at their header.

    • Noadi says:

      They don’t seem to take themselves terribly serious but they’re ordinations are legit at least in some states. One of my good friends was ordained through them so he could officiate a friend’s wedding. That’s the reason I clicked the link through to the article because it didn’t match up with my knowledge of the Universal Life Church.

      • Lukas says:

        I meant the Landover Baptist Church, not the Universal Life Church. I don’t know about the ULC, but the LBC is satire.

    • Max says:

      Now that’s a demonstration of the original Poe’s law.
      “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.”

  4. Keith Nielsen says:

    You linked to Landover Baptist. That’s a fundamentalist parody site, not a real one. That excerpt is making fun of fundamentalists and their attitudes towards cartoons and D&D, it’s not a real example of it.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      OK, I fell for a Poe–but the links to the preacher and the other fundies on YouTube I posted are NOT parody, but real fundies who believe this stuff. That’s why the Poes are so hard to distinguish from the real crazies…

    • ULC Monastery says:

      How did the author miss the disclaimer which was displayed prominently – in bold letters – at the bottom of the post on the Universal Life Church blog post he referenced? Why is the blog post excerpt and claim that the Universal Life Church is a “fundie” organization still in the article even after the author admitted he “fell for a Poe”?

      Like many (or probably all) of you, the Universal Life Church is horrified to have been mis-identified as a fundamentalist Christian group. The “diploma mill” claim, while inaccurate, is much less offensive.

      This is a great post that does an excellent job discussing fundamentalist paranoia over innocent children’s media; we just wish the author had not misquoted us, an organization that was sarcastically attacking the same people he wrote negatively about!

  5. Clara Nendleshaw says:

    >But having done some animation myself and watched countless hours of full-motion cartoons painstakingly drawn by artists at Disney and Warner Brothers studios, I get tired of cartoons that cheat and cut corners by filming many seconds where nothing moves but the mouth of one character, and most scenes are completely static for many seconds.
    Reminds me of how audiophiles listen to the stereo set rather than the music.
    That said, a) your selection, probably guided by what you’ve seen on western kid’s telly, is the worst of the worst and wouldn’t be called art by anyone, b) Disney and WB pioneered many of the cost-cutting tricks in animation and c) have you seen recent western animation? Bin it, I say.
    Maybe this is nit-picky or off-topic, but when you post articles on a skeptic’s hangout you should expect this kind of thing. After all it’s a nice illustration of selection bias among other things.

  6. Joel says:

    Note that Landover Baptist are actually (very successful) Poes.

  7. Trimegistus says:

    So Mr. Loxton got punked by Landover Baptist. Will he retract his hyperventilating about the Fundamentalist Menace? Of course not. Even if they aren’t out there we must be eternally vigilant! Because those crazy fundamentalists are paranoid and worry about nonexistent dangers!

    Um . . .

  8. BillG says:

    Mel Blanc was a freaking genius! (Looney Tunes)

  9. The Letter D says:

    -Naruto is not based on Pokemon. It is based on the original Dragon Ball from the same comic publisher Shounen Jump. No creature/robot/etc. is collected. It is simply about a dumb spikey haired kid who wants to be a great ninja.

    -Classical Looney Tunes have not been shown on Cartoon Network for many years. The closest to it was the Looney Tunes Show which has a completely different format from the classics.

    -Ninjago is not anime. It was not produced in Japan nor was it an actual animation.

    -Scooby Doo (esp. the pre-2000 toons) makes frequent use of stilted animation and shortcuts.

    -I agree, most of the cartoons nowadays shown on CN are crap (hence the nickname Craptoon Network).

    -In terms of rudeness and crudeness, at least they are not watching (or worse, imitating) Beavis and Butthead.