DarwinTunes: sexed-up music

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POSTED: February 22, 2016

DarwinTunes is a pretty amazing project that has been developed at Imperial College London and Queen Mary University of London. There are some interesting names behind it. One of the founders, for example, is Bob MacCallum who is

a bioinformaticist in the Laboratory of Immunogenomics at Imperial College London. During the day he creates genomic research tools for the insect disease vector community (e.g. malaria, dengue…), and also uses evolutionary algorithms to unlock the secrets of gene regulation in these organisms. By night he is consumed by an evil, creative genius, and toils away at DarwinTunes and other projects.

Another is Armand Leroi, who is Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology at Imperial College London. There are more.

Their project is interesting conceptually, but even more interesting practically – because it produces extraordinary results. This is what they say they are doing.

The organic world – animals, plants, viruses – is the product of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Natural selection expresses the idea that organisms (more accurately their genes) vary and that variability has consequences. Some variants are bad and go extinct; others are good and do exceptionally well. This process, repeated for two billion years, has given us the splendours of life on earth.

It has also given us the splendours of human culture. This may seem like a bold claim, but it is self-evidently true. People copy cultural artifacts – words, songs, images, ideas – all the time from other people. Copying is imperfect: there is “mutation”. Some cultural mutants do better than others: most die but some are immensely successful; they catch on; they become hits. This process, repeated for fifty thousand years, has given us all that we make, say and do; it is the process of “cultural evolution”.

However, the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. For example, how important is human creative input compared to audience selection? Is progress smooth and continuous or step-like? We set up DarwinTunes as a test-bed for the evolution of music, the oldest and most widespread form of culture; and, thanks to your participation, we’ve shown that reasonably complex and pleasing music can evolve purely under selection by listeners.

You can hear some of the results on their site, and at Soundcloud.

Listening to the differences between generation 150 and generation 8700 of uncoolbob is ear-opening. What they are doing is, in effect, testing some important elements of meme theory, and showing how culture might evolve through a memetic process. They are providing a practical demonstration of a hypothetical historical process that does not actually prove anything but certainly provides strong suggestive evidence.

Applause all round.