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Survival of the Most Literary

By Elizabeth SvobodaDecember 3, 2003 6:00 AM


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Give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, the story goes, and they will eventually reproduce the works of Shakespeare. David Rea, a programmer in Greenwich, Connecticut, decided to test the concept but replaced the typing simians with a less cumbersome process based on principles of natural selection. His online Darwinian Poetry Project began in July with 1,000 groups of words (his protopoems) that were randomly generated by a computer. Visitors to the site vote for the word groupings they find most appealing. Rea’s program then mates the poems by chopping them up at random points and recombining them, after which they are subjected to another round of voting. The cycle keeps going, ideally producing ever-better verse. “We’re seeing a lot of good combinations,” Rea says. “We’re weeding out the worst stuff, and the most interesting phrases are starting to lump together.”

Like its biological equivalent, Rea’s poetry-evolution program has features that maximize the odds of an optimal outcome. Gradual “speciation” ensures that well-liked phrases are more likely to stay intact, because they will then become part of two different poem lineages. Rea hopes to use a similar algorithm as the basis for an educational program that would demonstrate the mechanics of evolution—“a tool that would enable kids to view ‘survival of the fittest’ as more than just a theory.”

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