Karl Sims is not the only explorer of the architecture of the
Borgian universe (which some call the Library), nor was he the first. As
far as I can tell, the first librarian of a synthetic Borgian world was
the British zoologist Richard Dawkins. In 1985, Dawkins invented a
universe he called "Biomorph Land." Biomorph Land is the space of
possible biological shapes constructed with short straight lines and
branches. It was the first computer-generated library of possible forms
that could be searched by breeding.
Dawkins wrote Biomorph Land as an educational program to illustrate how
designed things could be created without a designer. He wanted to
demonstrate visually that while random selection and aimless wandering
would never produce a coherent design, cumulative selection (the Method)
Despite a prestigious reputation in biology, Dawkins was experienced in
programming mainframe computers. Biomorph is a fairly sophisticated
computer program. It draws a stick of a certain length, and in a
growthlike pattern, adds branches to it, and branches to the branches.
How the branches fork, how many are added, and at what length they are
added are all values that can vary independently by small amounts from
form to form. In Dawkins's program these values also "mutate" at random.
Every form it draws differs by one mutation of nine possible
Dawkins hoped to traverse a library of tree shapes by artificial
selection and breeding. A form was born in Biomorph Land as a line so
short it was a dot. Dawkins's program generated eight offspring of the
dot, much as Sims's later program would do. The dot's children varied in
length depending on what value the random mutation assigned. The
computer projected each offspring, plus the parent, in a nine-square
display. In the now familiar style of selective breeding Dawkins
selected the most pleasing form (his choice) and evolved a succession of
ever more complex variant forms. By the seventh generation, offspring
were accelerating in filigreed detail.
That was Dawkins's hope as he began writing the code in BASIC. If he was
lucky in his programming he'd get a universe of wonderfully diverse
The first day he got the program running, Dawkins spent an exhilarating
hour rummaging through the nearest shelves of his Borgian Library.
Progressing a mutation at a time, he came upon unexpected arrangements
of stem, stick, and trunk. Here were odd trees nature had never claimed.
And line drawings of bushes, grass, and flowers that never were. Echoing
the dual metaphor of evolution and libraries, Dawkins wrote in The Blind
Watchmaker, "When you first evolve a new creature by artificial
selection in the computer model, it feels like a creative process. So it
is, indeed. But what you are really doing is finding the creature, for
it is, in a mathematical sense, already sitting in its own place in the
genetic space of Biomorph Land."
As the hours passed, he noticed he was entering a space in the Library
where the branching structures of his trees began to cross back upon
themselves, filling in areas with crisscrossing lines until they
congealed into a solid mass. The recursive branches closed upon
themselves forming little bodies rather than trunks. Auxiliary branches
still sprouting from these bodies looked surprisingly like legs and
wings. He had entered the part of the Library where insects dwelled
(despite the fact that he as God had not intended there be such a
country!). He discovered all sorts of weird bugs and butterflies.
Dawkins was astonished: "When I wrote the program I never imagined it
would evolve anything but treelike shapes. I had hoped for weeping
willows, poplars, and cedars of Lebanon."
Now there were insects everywhere. Dawkins was too excited to eat that
evening. He spent more hours discovering amazingly complex creatures
looking like scorpions and water spiders and even frogs. He said later,
"I was almost feverish with excitement. I cannot convey the exaltation I
felt of exploring a land which I had supposedly made. Nothing in my
biologist's background, nothing in my 20 years of programming computers,
and nothing in my wildest dreams, prepared me for what actually emerged
on the screen."
That night he couldn't sleep. He kept pressing on, dying to survey the
extent of his universe. What other surprises did this supposedly simple
world contain? When he finally fell asleep in the early morning, images
of "his" insects swarmed in his dreams.
Over the following months, Dawkins tramped the backwaters of Biomorph
Land hunting for nonplant and abstract shapes. The short list of forms
he encountered included: "fairy shrimps, Aztec temples, Gothic church
windows, and aboriginal drawings of kangaroos." Making the best use of
an idle minute here and there, Dawkins eventually used the evolutionary
method to locate many letters of the alphabet. (These letters were bred
into visibility, not drawn.) His goal was to capture the letters in his
name, but he never could find a passable D or a decent K. (On the wall
of my office I have a wonderful poster of the 26 letters and 10
numerals found shimmering on living butterfly wings -- including a
marvelous D and K. But although these letters evolved, they were not
found by the Method. The photographer, Kjell Sandved, told me he
inspected more than a million wings to gather all 36 symbols.)
Dawkins was on a quest. He later wrote, "There are computer games on the
market in which the player has the illusion that he is wandering about
in an underground labyrinth, which has a definite if complex geography
and in which he encounters dragons, minotaurs or other mythic
adversaries. In these games the monsters are rather few in number. They
are all designed by a human programmer, and so is the geography of the
labyrinth. In the evolution game, whether the computer version or the
real thing, the player (or observer) obtains the same feeling of
wandering metaphorically through a labyrinth of branching passages, but
the number of possible pathways is all but infinite, and the monsters
that one encounters are undesigned and unpredictable."
Most magically the monsters in this space were seen once and then were
lost. The earliest versions of Biomorph Land did not have a function for
saving the coordinates of every biomorph. The shapes appeared on the
screen, roused from their shelf in the Library, and when the computer
was turned off, they returned to their mathematical place. The
probability of encountering them again was infinitesimal.
When Dawkins first arrived in the district of insects he desperately
wanted to keep one so he could find it again. He printed out a picture
of it, and a picture of all the 28 ancestral forms he evolved along the
way to get to it, but at that time his prototype program would not let
him save the underlying numbers enabling him to reconstruct the form. He
knew that once he flicked his computer off that night, the insect
biomorphs would be gone except for the wisp of their souls held by their
portraits. Could he ever reevolve identical forms? He killed the power.
He had proof, at least, that they existed somewhere in his Library.
Knowing they were there haunted him.
Despite the fact that Dawkins had both the starting point and the
sequence of 28 "fossils" leading up to the specific insect he was trying
to recapture, the biomorphs remained elusive. Karl Sims, too, once bred
a dazzling, luminescent image of colorful loopy strings on his CM5 -- very
reminiscent of a painting by Jackson Pollock -- before he wrote a
coordinate-saving feature; he too was never able to rediscover the
image, although he owns a slide of it to serve as a trophy.
Borgian space is vast. Deliberately relocating a point in this space is
as difficult as replaying an identical game of chess. A tiny, almost
undetectable error of choice at any turn can carry one to a destination
miles from one's aim. In Biomorph space the complexity of the forms, the
complexity of choices at each juncture, and the subtlety of their
differences, guarantees that every evolved form is probably the first
and last visit.
Perhaps in the Library of Borges there is a book called Labyrinths that
holds the following miraculous story (not contained in the book
Labyrinths found on the shelf in the university library). In this book
Jorge Luis Borges tells how his father, who was a traveler in the
universe of all possible books, once came upon a sensible book in this
confusing vastness. All four hundred and ten pages of the tome,
including the table of contents, were filled with two sentence
palindromes. The first 33 palindromes were both riddles and profound.
That's all his father had time to read before an unusual fire in the
basement forced the evacuation of the librarians working in this
section. In the semi-orderly panic of exit, his father forgot the
location of this volume. Out of shame the existence of the Book of
Palindromes has never been mentioned outside the Library. For eight
generations, a somewhat secretive association of exlibrarians has been
meeting regularly to methodically retrace the old traveler's steps so
that they might rediscover this book in the Library's enormity. There is
little hope they will ever find their holy grail.
To demonstrate how vast such Borgian spaces are, Dawkins offered a prize
to anyone who could rebreed (or find by hit or miss!) an image of a
chalice that Dawkins had come upon by chance on one of his rambles in
Biomorph Land. He called it the Holy Grail. So sure was Dawkins of its
deep concealment that he offered $1,000 to the first person presenting
him with the genes to the Holy Grail. "Offering my own money," said
Dawkins, "was my way of saying nobody was going to find it." Much to his
astonishment, within one year of his challenge, Thomas Reed, a software
engineer in California, reencountered the cup. This appears akin to
retracing the elder Borges's steps to locate the lost palindrome book,
or the feat of finding Out of Control in the Library of Borges.
But Biomorph Land supplies assistance. Because its genesis reflects
Dawkins's professional interests as a biologist, it was built on organic
principles in addition to evolution. The secondary biological nature of
biomorphs permitted Reed to find the chalice.
Dawkins saw that in order to make a practical biological universe, he
would have to restrict the possibilities of forms to those that held
some biological sense. Otherwise, the sheer vastness of all shapes would
overwhelm any ordinary chance of finding enough biological morphs to
play with -- even using the cumulative selection method. After all, he
reasoned, the embryonic development of living creatures limits the
possibilities of what they can mutate into. For instance, most
biological creatures display left-right symmetry; by instituting
left-right symmetry as a fundamental element of every biomorph, Dawkins
could reduce the overall size of the Library, thus making it easier to
find a biomorph. He called this reduction a "constrained embryology."
The task he set for himself was to design an embryology that was
restricted, but in "biologically interesting directions."
"Very early I had a strong intuitive conviction that the embryology I
wanted should be recursive. My intuition was based partly upon the fact
that embryology in real life can be thought of as recursive," Dawkins
told me. By recursive embryology, Dawkins meant that simple rules
iterated over and over again (including rules that play upon their own
results) would furnish much of the complexity of the final form. For
instance, as the recursive rule "grow one unit then fork into two" is
applied over successive generations to a starting stick, it will produce
a bushy many-forked thing after about five iterations.
Secondly, Dawkins introduced the idea of gene and body into the Library.
He saw that a string of letters (as in a book) is directly analogous to
biological genes. (A gene is even represented as a string of letters in
the formal notation of biochemistry.) The genes produce the tissues of
the body. "But," says Dawkins, "biological genes don't control small
fragments of the body, which would be the equivalent of controlling
pixels on monitor. Instead, genes control growing rules -- embryological
developmental processes -- or in Biomorph Land, drawing algorithms." Thus,
a string of numbers or text acts as string of genes (a chromosome),
which represents a formula, which then draws the image (body) in pixels.
The consequences of this indirect way of generating forms was that
almost any random place in the Library -- that is, almost any
genes -- produced a coherent biological shape. By having genes control
algorithms rather than pixels, Dawkins built an inherent grammar into
his universe which prevented any old nonsense from appearing. Even a
wild mutation would not arrive at a flat gray blob. The same
transformation could be done to the Library of Borges. Rather than each
shelf place in the Library representing a possible arrangement of
letters, each place could represent a possible arrangement of words, or
even of possible sentences. Then, any book you picked out would at least
be close to readable. This enhanced space of word strings is much
smaller than the space of letter strings, but also, as Dawkins
suggested, restricted in a more interesting direction: you are more
likely to come across something comprehensible.
Dawkins's introduction of genes that behaved in a biological manner -- each
mutation affecting many pixels in a structured way -- not only shrunk the
biomorph library's size, distilling it to functional forms, but also
provided an alternative way for human breeders to find a form. Any
subtle shift made in the biomorph gene space would amplify into a
noticeable and dependable shift in graphic image.
This gave Thomas Reed, freelance knight of the Holy Grail, a second way
of breeding. Reed repeatedly altered genes of a parent form while
observing the visual changes in forms the genes produced in order to
learn how to steer a shape by altering individual genes. In this way he
could steer to various biomorph forms by twiddling the gene dial. In an
obvious analogy, Dawkins called this mode in his program "genetic
engineering." As in the real world, it holds uncanny power.
In effect, Dawkins lost his $1,000 to the first genetic engineer of
artificial life. Thomas Reed spent his lunch hours at work hunting for
the chalice in Dawkins's program. Six months after Dawkins announced his
contest, Reed converged upon the lost treasure by a combination of
breeding images and genetically engineering their genes. Breeding is a
way to brainstorm fast and loose; engineering is a way to fine-tune and
control. Of the forty hours Reed estimated he spent hunting for the cup,
he spent 38 of them engineering. "There is no way I could have found it
by breeding," he said. As he closed in on the cup, Reed couldn't get the
last pixel to budge without getting everything else to move. He spent
many hours trying to control that single pixel in the penultimate
In a coincidence that completely astonished Dawkins, two other finders
independently submitted correct gene solutions to the Holy Grail within
weeks after Reed. They too were able to pinpoint his chalice in an
astronomically large space of possibilities, not by breeding alone, but
primarily by genetic engineering and, in one case, by reverse