Computer simulated organisms in abstract forms display themselves on twelve monitors. Participants select an organism and consciously choose to let it continue to exist, copulate, mutate and reproduce itself by pressing sensor-equipped foot pedals located in front of the monitors. This is a work in which virtual “organisms” undergo an interactive Darwinian evolution.
“Galápagos” is an interactive Darwinian evolution of virtual “organisms.” Twelve computers simulate the growth and behaviors of a population of abstract animated forms and display them on twelve screens arranged in an arc. The viewers participate in this exhibit by selecting which organisms they find most aesthetically interesting and standing on step sensors in front of those displays. The selected organisms survive, mate, mutate, and reproduce. Those not selected are removed, and their computers are inhabited by new offspring from the survivors. The offspring are copies and combinations of their parents, but their genes are altered by random mutations. Sometimes a mutation is favorable, the new organism is more interesting than its ancestors, and is then selected by the viewers. As this evolutionary cycle of reproduction and selection continues, more and more interesting organisms can emerge.
This process of interactive evolution can be of interest for two reasons. First, it has potential as a tool that can produce results that can not be produced in any other way, and second, it provides a unique method for studying evolutionary systems.
The process in this exhibit is a collaboration between human and machine. The visitors provide the aesthetic information by selecting which animated forms are most interesting, and the computers provide the ability to simulate the genetics, growth, and behavior of the virtual organisms. But the results can potentially surpass what either human or machine could produce alone. Although the aesthetics of the participants determine the results, the participants do not design in the traditional sense. They are rather using selective breeding to explore the “hyperspace” of possible organisms in this simulated genetic system. Since the genetic codes and complexity of the results are managed by the computer, the results are not constrained by the limits of human design ability or understanding.
Charles DARWIN visited the Galápagos Islands in 1835 and his ideas on natural selection were inspired by the unusual varieties of wildlife there. The isolation of these islands caused a rare example of a relatively independent evolutionary process which he was able to observe. Biological evolution can be difficult to study because we have just one large example of life based on the genetic system of DNA and it progresses very slowly—life on earth has taken nearly four billion years to evolve. It has been impractical to perform experiments such as starting evolution over from scratch, or investigating alternative genetic systems. However, using the power of computers, it is now possible to simulate simplified evolutionary systems, which can be observed from start to finish and run multiple times. This exhibit is an example of such a simulated evolution, but the visitors not only observe it, they also direct its course by choosing which virtual organisms are “fit for survival” at each evolutionary iteration. Perhaps someday the value of simulated examples of evolution such as the one presented in this exhibit will be comparable to the value that DARWIN found in the mystical creatures of the Galápagos Islands.
On the Artist’s Work
In recent years, Karl SIMS has produced many artworks that have been informed by a kind of homage to renowned nineteenth-century evolutionary biologist Charles DARWIN. Because of the elegance of the way SIMS’ works take up themes of biology—he majored in biology as an undergraduate—they are distinguished from the kinds of imagery considered to be the usual domain of computer graphics artists and programmers.
From 1831–36 DARWIN conducted research on plant and animal life in the Galápagos Islands and various other parts of the southern hemisphere, and published the conclusions of his findings on evolutionary biology in his 1859 Origin of Species. In advocating his doctrines of natural selection and “survival of the fittest,” DARWIN’s theories threw contemporary Western culture into an epistemological crisis of proportions unimaginable to us today. At the heart of the controversy was DARWIN’s insistence on how genetic traits passed on from parent to child underwent changes to produce slightly different species of life; and in addition, how some organisms adapted more successfully to their living environments, while other less successful organisms perished.
DARWIN’s theories enabled a move away from the perspective of Christianity that then dominated thought, according to which the creation of all living things was believed to issue forth from an all-powerful God. DARWIN’s new way of looking at the world signalled an end to this mythological perspective, in favor of a new modern scientific account.
SIMS’ works can be seen as twentieth-century “experiments” that engage these precepts of DARWIN’s nineteenth-century evolutionary theory, the fundaments of modern science that we have come to hold as self-evident. Of course, SIMS did not actually go to the Galápagos Islands to conduct these “experiments.” Using an artificial evolutionary tool (program) of his own devising, SIMS conducted “field work” in the expanses of computer memory. Using a simple computer algorithm, the program repeatedly undergoes a process of self-propagation. As evolutionary changes compound and interfere with each other, they cause several patterns (species) to come into formation.
SIMS has arranged the process of selecting these forms of “artificial life” so that the participation of exhibition visitors is incorporated directly into the work as part of its environment. By looking at various monitors and being able to visually compare their processes of evolution, visitors can select those images that they find beautiful or intriguing. The selected images fall into extinction, and those that continue to live once again undergo the processes of evolution to create new images (species). Acting the part of the environment in this way, the visitors exert an overwhelming influence—one could even say to the extent of occupying the place of God.
But in the end, it becomes clear that the visitors don’t, in fact, have the capacities of God. This is demonstrated in the fact that although the visitors can manipulate the cross breeding of images they have found beautiful, they are unable to guarantee the birth of a “beautiful” child. Even if the evolutionary program passed on is nearly an exact replica of the parents, it is not the case that the result will be beautiful. The system of SIMS’ work, in which “survival of the fittest” by no means enables the creation of beauty, is a true Darwinist model that represents the world (nature) and the human species it includes.
For SIMS the computer is a twentieth-century equivalent of DARWIN’s research vessel, the Beagle. As we become passengers on this ship, we experience in five minutes the results it took DARWIN five years to accomplish. SIMS is a true navigator of a “theory of evolution” for the 21st century.