Friday, December 17, 2010

Pokemon and Ring Species

The world of Pokémon is crazy as shit.  You can raise dragons that can breathe fire hotter than the sun, cocoons “evolve” into butterflies, and you can breed a blue whale with a kitten.  While anyone with a shred of sanity would just accept that it’s a video game about a fictional world and thus is unbound by reality, I am clearly insane.  Or just academically bored.  Why?  Because my goal is to figure out the mechanics of Pokémon universe by applying the knowledge and models of the real world.  Obviously I’ll be focusing on biological concepts, not just because that’s what I have a BS in but because we’re exploring living organisms here.  However, I’ll eventually start exploring the religious and metaphysical aspects of the Pokémon universe as well.  After all, the Pokémon universe has an actual creator god.  That you can catch and train.  Plenty of seriously disturbing implications to discuss there!  But I digress.  For the sake of these studies I am going to consider the Pokémon universe to include the video games only and exclude the manga and anime.  This is not just because the video game is the source material, but because the other media are just too confusing to work with.  While there might be plenty of potential material to glean from the anime, particularly about Pokémon behavior, there are just too many moments that make no sense or directly go against the game (“Pikachu! Aim for Rhydon’s horn!” most readily comes to mind) to be able to consider the anime as a viable material to work from.  Thus to keep things controlled and as simple as possible, I will be working with the video games only.
Before I can talk about the larger concepts like the evolution mechanic in the Pokémon world, and especially before we delve into the individual Pokémon oddities like Dugtrio and Exeggcute there is one important fact that must be understood first.  As it turns out, all Pokémon count as a single species.  To understand why, you need to understand the species problem.  Ever since western thought and academia really started to form itself coherently with the ancient Greeks, we’ve been obsessed with labeling knowledge and putting it in neat little organized boxes.  It’s no surprise then that biologists have classified all known living organisms into a system of taxa.  You may remember this from grade school as Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family- Genus-Species, or as the elementary school mnemonic device goes- Kinky People Come Over For Group Sex (what can I say, my 4th grade teacher was really weird).  This structured language use does a terrible job describing the ever changing body of scientific knowledge as well as the ever changing nature of life.  We realize we have to add a taxon (Domain) before Kingdom, we realize a group of organisms got classified wrong years ago, and worse of all, the species problem.  Not only are there petty problems about distinguishing species like which scientist found it first but defining a species is a really, really difficult task in and of itself.  As it stands, a species is defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.  For example, horses and donkeys belong to two different species because while they might be related enough to have sex and reproduce, they cannot produce viable offspring (mules are born sterile).  This leads to very difficult problems when defining a species.  A poodle and a Great Dane look very different yet are the same species, while at the same time there are 64 distinct species of rat that all look pretty much the same.  What do you call a population who is in the middle of evolving from one species to another?  And worse of all, how do we deal with ring species?
As it turns Pokémon count as one massive ring species.  What is a ring species you might ask?  A popular, real life example is the Arctic Tern, a bird who lives in a circumpolar distribution around the North Pole.  A breeding population of tern can successfully mate with their neighboring tern population, the latter of which can also mate with the neighboring population of tern on the other side of them, etc. etc.  Eventually the minor genetic differences in the breeding populations makes it so the first group cannot produce viable offspring with the population on the opposite side of the North Pole, thus meaning they now belong to different species.  This creates a paradox where A=B, B=C, C=D, but A≠D.  Allow the below diagrams from Wikipedia illustrate further:
Where 7 is the same species as 1, but at the same time is not.

This concept of ring species applies to the game mechanics of the Pokémon world too.  For those unacquainted with the post- 1st Generation games, you can breed your Pokémon together in order to collect rare baby Pokémon and/or to breed the ultimate killing machine.  Two Pokémon (of opposite genders obviously) can mate and reproduce as long as they belong to the same egg group, of which there are 15 total.  Let me say right away that this proves that at the very least Pokémon within the same egg groups are the same species, since the offspring of a Snorlax and a Kangaskhan (both in the Monster egg group) can produce a fertile child.  But many Pokémon belong to two egg groups.  This is built into the game so that the Trainer can use technique called chain breeding to pass moves on through generations for battling (Google it for details, too much to discuss here).  While this is a cool game mechanic for creating the ultimate tailored fighter, the scientific implications are staggering.  Because you can essentially breed two Pokémon of any egg group together through intermediate Pokémon and still produce viable offspring, all Pokémon are actually one huge species.  Let’s test this by example.  Take two completely different Pokémon who normally could not breed together, and run them through the ring species evolutionary mechanic.  On one side we have Exeggutor, a walking psychic palm tree with 3 coconuts for heads that belongs solely to the Plant egg group.  On the other side we have Magcargo, a snail made out of lava with a shell consisting of barely cooled rock, which belongs solely to the Indeterminate egg group.  While their unsurprising inability to breed with one another directly would normally make them different species, if this odd couple can eventually produce viable grandchildren together then they are a ring species.
I totally made this myself.  Surprising right?  It looks so professional.

As you can see, the third generation Castform is a fertile grandchild between the Exeggutor and Magcargo, meaning those two are in fact the same species.  This can be applied to almost all of Pokémon save for a few 4th generation legendaries (which is a metaphysical bordering on religious discussion of Pokémon for the future).  So now the question is, where do all these Pokémon spring from?  They all clearly have a common ancestor, but unlike in the real world this common ancestor would be the defining Pokémon species.  Essentially, all Pokémon would be varying breeds of this single Pokémon.  So could I be some primordial ooze Pokémon perhaps?  Or god (Arceus) itself?  Strangely enough, the answer is Mew.  But I’ll save that discussion for next time.

Coming next- Mew as the Origin of the Species and the Phylogenetic tree of Pokémon.


  1. I was going to joke that you must have inhaled when you were younger. But clearly the more I read of your stuff I realize you ate the whole freaking tray of brownies. ;)

  2. Actually I'm proud to say that I don't need mind altering chemicals to think this way. 100% nuts baby!

    And thanks for reading!

  3. haha! i never really got Pokemon but i can follow the science. good work! it's quirky, it's fun, and i'm going to show my nephews this (they love Pokemon) when they're in H.S. or in advanced biology, whatever comes first.

    and we need to get you on some of T4T's brownies cause i'd love to see what a post looks like and what thoughts come out of your head then. ;-)

  4. Haha, feel free to send them in the mail, you have my address.