The Russian programmer Vladimir Pokhilko reminds me that evolving
for beauty alone may be a sufficient goal. Pokhilko and partner Alexey
Pajitnov (who wrote the famously addictive computer game Tetris)
designed a very powerful selection program that breeds virtual aquarium
fish. Pokhilko told me during early work on the game, "When we started
we didn't want to use the computer to make something very practical, but
to make something very beautiful." Pokhilko and Pajitnov did not set out
to make an evolutionary world. "Our starting point was ikebana, the
Japanese art of arranging flowers. We wanted to make some kind of
computer ikibana. But we wanted something alive, moving. And which never
repeats itself." Since the computer screen "looks like an aquarium, we
decided to make a customizable aquarium."
Users become artists by filling the aquarium with the right combinations
of colored fishes and quantities of swaying seaweeds. Users would need a
large variety of organisms. Why not let the aquarist breed their own?
Thus "El-Fish" was hatched, and the Russians found themselves in the
El-Fish became a monster of a program. It was mostly written in Moscow
during a time when smart U.S. entrepreneurs could hire a entire
unemployed Russian university math department for the salary of one U.S.
hacker. Up to 50 Russian programmers, ignorant of Dawkins, Latham, and
Sims, wrote code for El-Fish, rediscovering the power and method of
The commercial version of El-Fish, released by the U.S. software
publisher Maxis in 1993, compresses the kind of flamboyant visual
breeding done by Latham on large IBMs and Sims on a Connection Machine
into a small desktop home computer.
Each El-Fish has 56 genes which define 800 parameters (a huge Library).
The colorful fish swim in a virtual underwater world realistically,
turning with the flick of a fin as fish do. They weave between strands
of kelp (also bred by the program). They pace back and forth endlessly.
They school around food when you "feed" them. They never die. When I
first saw an El-Fish aquarium from ten paces away, I took it to be a
video of a real aquarium.
The really fun part is breeding fish. I got started by dipping a net
somewhat randomly into a map of the hypothetical El-Fish ocean, fishing
for a couple of exotic parent fish. Different areas shelter different
fish. The ocean is, in fact, the Library. I hauled up two fish which I
kept: a plump yellow fish spotted in green with a thin dorsal fin and an
overbite (the Mama) and a puny blue torpedo-shaped guy with a Chinese
junk sail of a top fin (the Pa). I could evolve from either, that is, I
could asexually mutate new fish from either the fat yellow one or the
tiny blue one, or I could mate the pair and select from their joint
offspring. I chose sex.
As in the other artificial evolution programs, about a dozen mutated
offspring appeared on the screen. I could slide a knob to adjust the
mutation rate. I was into fins. I chose a large-finned one, pushing its
shape each generation toward increasingly ornate, heavy-duty fins. I got
one fish that seemed to be all fins, top, bottom, side. I moved it from
the incubator and animated it before plunking it into the aquarium (the
animation procedure can take minutes or hours depending on the
computer). After many generations of increasingly weird finny fish, I
evolved a fish so freakish that it wouldn't breed anymore. This is the
El-Fish program's way of keeping the fish, fish. I had entered the outer
boundaries in the Library beyond which the forms are less than fishlike.
El-Fish won't render nonfish creatures, and it won't animate unorthodox
fish because it's too hard to make a monster move. (The code relies on
standard fish proportions to keep a creature's movements convincing.)
Part of the game is users trying to figure out where those fishy limits
lie and whether there are any loopholes.
Storing full fish consumes far too much disk memory, so only the bare
genes of the fish are filed. These tiny seeds of genes are called "roe."
Roe are 250 times more compact than the fish they grow into. El-Fish
aficionados swap the roe of selected creations over modem lines or stock
them in digital public libraries.
One of the programmers at Maxis in charge of testing El-Fish discovered
an interesting way to explore the outer limits of the fish Library.
Instead of breeding or fishing the pool for sample stock, he inserted
the text of his name (Roger) into a roe. Out came a short black tadpole.
Pretty soon everyone in the office had a tadpole in their El-Fish tank.
Roger wondered what else he could transform into fish roe. He took the
digital text of the Gettysburg Address and grew the digits into a
ghostly creature -- a pale face trailing a deformed batwing. The wags
dubbed it a "Gettyfish." Hacking around they discovered that a sequence
of about 2,000 digits of any sort can be shanghaied into serving as roe
for a possible fish. Getting into the swing of things, the project
manager for El-Fish loaded the spreadsheet of his budget into El-Fish
and birthed the bad omen of a fish skull, fangy mouth, and dragon body.
Breeding was once a craft belonging solely to the gardener. It is now
available to the painter, the musician, the inventor. William Latham
predicts evolutionism as the next stage in modern art. In evolutionism,
the borrowed concepts of mutation and sexual reproduction spawn the art.
Instead of painting or creating textures for computer graphic models,
artist Sims evolves them. He drifts into a region of woodlike patterns
and then evolves his way to the exact grainy, knot-ridden piney look
which he can use to color a wall in a video he is making.
You can now do this on a Macintosh with a commercial template for Adobe
Photoshop software. Written by Kai Krause, the Texture Mutator lets
ordinary computer owners breed textures from a choice of eight offspring
Evolutionism reverses the modern trend in the design of artist's tools
that bends toward greater analytical control. The ends of evolution are
more subjective ("survival of the most aesthetic"), less controlled,
more related to art generated in a dream or trance; more found.
The evolutionary artist creates twice. First, the artist acts as god by
concocting a world, or a system for generating beauty. Second, he is the
gardener and curator of this made world, interpreting and presenting the
chosen works he nurtures. He fathers rather than molds a creation into
At the moment the tools of exploratory evolution restrict an artist to
begin with a random or primitive start. The next advance in evolutionism
is to be able to begin with a human-designed pattern and then
arbitrarily breed from there. Ideally, you would like to be able to pick
up, say, a colorful logo or label that needed work (or mind-altering
modification) and progressively evolve from that.
The outlines of such a commercial software are pretty clear. Will
Wright, SimCity author and founder of Maxis, the innovative software
publisher behind El-Fish, even came up with the perfect jazzy title:
DarwinDraw. In DarwinDraw you sketch a new corporate logo. Every line,
curve, dot, or paint stroke of the image you create is rendered into
mathematical functions. When you are done, you have a logo on a screen
and a mutable set of functions as genes in the computer. Then you breed
the logo. You let it evolve outlandish designs you could never have
thought of, in detail you don't have time to do. You jump around
randomly at first, just to brainstorm. Then you hone in on an unusual
and striking arrangement. You turn the mutation rate down, use multiple
marriages and antiparenting to fine-tune it to its final version. You
now have an obsessively detailed evolved artwork with cross-hatching and
filigrees you wouldn't believe. Because the image is based on
algorithms, it has infinite resolution; you can blow it up as large as
you like with unexpected detail to spare. Print it!
As a demo of this power of evolutionism, Sims scanned the logo of CM5
into his program and used it as a starting image to breed an "improved"
CM5 logo. Rather than the sterile modern look, it had frilly organic
lines around the edges of the letters. Folks in the office liked the
evolved artwork so much that they decided to make a T-shirt out of it.
"I'd really love to evolve neckties," Sims says. His other suggestions:
"How about evolving textile patterns, wallpaper designs, or type fonts?"
IBM has been supporting artist
William Latham's evolution experiments because the global corporation
realizes there is commercial potential here. While Sims's evolution
machine is, according to Latham, "a grammar that is more ragged, more
uncontrolled," Latham's is more controlled and useful to engineers. IBM
is turning the evolutionary tools Latham developed over to automobile
designers and having them mutate car body shapes. One of the questions
they are trying to answer is whether evolutionary design techniques are
more useful in the beginning of rough ideas or later in fine tuning, or
both. IBM intends to make a profitable project out of it. And not only
for cars. They imagine evolutionary "steering" tools useful for all
kinds of design problems entailing large numbers of parameters which
require a user to "back up" to a stored previous solution. Latham
pictures evolution taking root in packaging design, where the outer
parameters are firmly fixed (size and shape of the container), but where
what happens within that space is wide open. Here evolution can bring in
multiple levels of detail that a human artist would never have the time,
energy, or money to do. The other advantage of evolutionary industrial
design, Latham has slowly come to realize, is that it is perfectly
suited to design by committee. The more people that play, the
The copyright status of an artificially evolved creation is in legal
limbo. Who gets the protection, the artist who bred or the artist who
created the program? In the future, lawyers may demand a record of the
evolutionary path an artist followed to arrive at an evolved creation as
evidence that such work belongs to him and was not copied, or due to the
creator of the Library. As Dawkins showed, in a truly large Library it's
improbable to find a pattern more than once. Owning an evolutionary
pathway to a particular point demonstrates irrefutable proof that the
artist found that destination originally, since evolution doesn't strike