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Out of Control

Perhaps because of the visual nature of Biomorph Land, the first people to incorporate Dawkins's idea of computational breeding were artists. The first was a fellow Brit, William Latham; later Karl Sims in Boston would take artificial evolution further.

The exhibited work of William Latham in the early 1980s resembled a parts catalog from some unfathomable alien contraption. On a wall of paper, Latham drew a simple form, such as a cone, at the top center, and then filled the rest of the space with gradually complexifying cone shapes. Each new shape was generated by rules that Latham had devised. Thin lines connected one shape to its modified descendant shapes. Often, multiple variations would split off one form. By the bottom of these giant pages, the cone forms had metamorphosed into ornate pyramids and art-deco mounds. The logical structure of the drawing was a family tree, but with many common cross-marriages. The entire field was packed; it looked more like a network or circuit.

Latham called this "obsessive, rule-based process" of generating varieties of forms and selecting certain offspring to develop further, "FormSynth." Originally he used FormSynth as a tool to brainstorm ideas for possible sculptures. He would select a particularly pleasing form lifted from the map of his sketches and then sculpt the intricate shape in wood or plastic. One of Latham's gallery catalogs shows a modest black statue with a resemblance to an African mask that Latham created (or found) using FormSynth. But sculpting was so time-consuming, and in a way superfluous, that he ceased doing it. What most interested him was that vast uncharted Library of possible forms. Latham: "My focus shifted from producing a single sculpture to producing millions of sculptures, each spawning a further million sculptures. My work of art was now the whole evolutionary tree of sculptures."

Inspired by an avalanche of dazzling 3-D computer graphics in the U.S. in the late 1980s, Latham took up computing as a way to automate his form generation. He collaborated with programmers at an IBM research station in Hampshire, England. Together they modified a 3-D modeling program to produce mutant forms. For about a year artist Latham manually typed in or edited gene values in his shape-generating program to produce wonderfully complete trees of possible forms. By modifying a form's code by hand, Latham could search the space at random. With understatement Latham recalls this manual search as being "laborious."

In 1986, after encountering the newly published Biomorph program, Latham merged the heart of Dawkins's evolutionary engine with the sophisticated skin of his three-dimensional forms. This union birthed the idea of an evolutionary art program. Latham dubbed his method "the Mutator." The Mutator functioned almost identically to Dawkins's mutating engine. The program generated offspring of a current form, each with slight differences. However, instead of stick figures, Latham's forms were fleshy and sensual. They popped into one's consciousness in three dimensions, with shadows. Whole eye-riveting beasts were drummed up by the hi-octane IBM graphics computer. The artist then selected the best of the 3-D progeny. That best form became the next parent, begetting other mutations. Over many generations, the artist would evolve a completely new three-dimensional body in a true Borgian Library. Biomorph Land -- huge as it was -- was only a subset of Latham's space.

Echoing Dawkins, Latham states, "I had not anticipated the variety of sculpture types which my software could create. There appears no limit to the wealth of different forms that can be created using this method." The forms Latham retrieved, rendered in mind-boggling detail, include elaborately woven baskets, marbled giant eggs, double mushroom-things, twisty antlers from another planet, gourds, fantastical microbial beasts, starfish gone punk, and a swirling multi-arm Shiva god from outer space that Latham calls "Mutation Y1."

"A garden of unearthly delights," Latham calls his collection of forms. Rather than try to imitate the motif of earthly life, Latham is after alternative organic forms, "something more savage" than life on Earth. He remembers visiting a county fair and stopping by an artificial insemination tent and seeing photographs of gigantic mutant superbulls and other kinds of "useless" freaks. He finds these bizarre forms inspiring.

The printouts are surrealistically clear, as if photographed in the vacuum of the moon. Every form possesses a startling organic feel to it. These things are not copies of nature but natural shapes that do not exist on Earth. Latham: "The machine gave me freedom to explore forms which previously had not been accessible to me, as they had been beyond my imagination."

Deep in the recesses of the Borgian Library, racks of graceful antlers, shelves of left-handed snails, rows of dwarf flowering trees, and trays of lady bugs await their first visitor, whether that be nature or artist. As yet, neither nature nor artist has reached them. They remain unthought of, unseen, unmaterialized, mere possible forms. As far as we know, evolution is the only way to reach them.

The Library contains all the forms of life past and life future and even, perhaps, the shape of life present on other planets. We are blocked by our own natural prejudices from contemplating these alternative life forms in any detail. Our minds quickly drift back to what we know as natural. We can give it a momentary thought, but we balk at filling in much detail on so whimsical a fantasy. But evolution can be harnessed to serve as a wild bronco to carry us where we can't go by ourselves. On this untamed transport we arrive at a place stuffed with odd bodies, fully imagined (not by us) down to the last hair.

Karl Sims, CM5's artist, told me, "I use evolution for two reasons. One, to breed things I would have never thought of, nor would have found any other way. And, two, to create things in great detail that I might have thought of, but would never have time to draw."

Both Sims and Latham stumbled upon discontinuities in the Library. "You develop a feel for what kinds of things can happen in an evolutionary space," Sims claims. He reported that he often would be evolving away, making satisfactory progress -- sort of whistling happily while things noticeably improved -- when suddenly he'd hit a wall and the improvements would plateau. Even drastic choices would not "move" the sluggish form away from the rut it seemed stuck in. Generation after generation of progeny seemed to get no better. It was as if he were trapped on a large local desert basin where one step was identical to the next and the interesting peaks were far away.

As Thomas Reed stalked the lost chalice in Biomorph Land, he often needed to back up. He would be near the cup but getting nowhere. He often saved intermediate forms on his long chase. Once he needed to retreat hundreds of steps back to the sixth archived form in order to get out of a dead end.