Darwinian poetry generation

You may have heard of “genetic algorithms”. It’s an artificial-intelligence concept based on the idea of Darwinian survival of the fittest. When you use a genetic algorithm to solve your problem, you let the algorithm generate different possible solutions to a problem, then test their fitness against one another. It scans the “winning” solutions, and combines the elements of the winners into new possible solution (crossbreeding their DNA, as it were). After a while, one final solution — composed of bits of the best, surviving solutions — rises to the top.

But now comes an intriguing gloss on this idea: A genetic contest for poetry. David Phillip Rea, an architecture professor at the University of Colorado, wrote “Darwinian Poetry” — a program that randomly generates poems, such as the following:

the swain way
both and knows flesh love my world
nothing on we great and walk lived arms
back lights and beauty

It presents you with two of these poems, side by side, and you vote on which is the best. After it’s eliminated a bunch of “unfit” poems, the algorithm scans the “fit” ones that have made the cut — and recombines their lines into new poems that go back into the contest. According to evolutionary theory, this should eventually produce the best poem in the English language, ever.

Well, sort of. It’s slightly prank-like, of course, and is more a thought experiment than anything else. But it does make one think about the nature of creativity. After all, a lot of good poetry does, in fact, sample directly from the DNA of previous literature. It could be as gentle as e.e. cummings elegantly playing upon traditional metaphors of the rose in “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond”, or it could be the direct, DJ-style resampling of entire lines from previous literature that T.S. Eliot used to create The Waste Land. But clearly, much creativity is about borrowing and reusing in a way that has at least some analog in the idea of evolutionary fitness. Indeed, that’s arguably behind the whole concept of the canon — a body of literature that has fought its way to the top and remains read, centuries after its authors have died.

Of course, canons are highly political — that’s what the late-80s battles over “dead white men” were all about. And maybe canons are always a nasty bit of social Darwinism. Either way, there’s something charming about taking that concept and turning it into an algorithm.

And which poem is currently winning the contest? Rea has a page that tracks the top-ranked poem, and when I checked in, it was this one:

clouds in dying growing
of snow sing learned to remember war and that seduce
to light above one is

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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