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Post details: Poetic Evolution

Poetic Evolution

Evolution is a convincing force. The combination of random perturbation and natural selection does not seem like much of a winner, but give it a couple of Pleistocenes and it can work miracles. I think most of its magic comes from the fact that randomness can eventually produce structures that no designer would ever think of. But if the right structures are to persist, they need the second component - the environment which fosters and rewards survival skills. The environment in which the superior quality gives evolutionary advantage. In order to better see what's going on under the hood here, let's take a look at poetry - an area not usually associated with being a testing ground for Darwinian theories.

A poet is a person who can look up at the night sky and hear the rustling of wet diamonds. But even a person of such industrious imagination can use a little boost from a verbal lottery. In this demonstration, I take a snippet of the classical poem by Robert Frost (titled "A Late Walk") and then choose one word from each line and replace it with an equivalent (same part-of-speech tag) randomly drawn from the WordNet databank. Instead of DNA mutation I'll swap words and instead of letting the fittest combinations survive, I'll apply my aesthetic judgment.

Here is the original:

A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am going to draw 5 words for each highlighted position and then choose the one that tickles my fancy most successfully. After all, that's how nature functions as well. It does not immediately accept the first or second choice. Only the variations that can fight for themselves will make it onto the next generation.

So here we go:

A tree beside the maze stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered unborn,
Roasted, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly scalding down.

There. Can you sense the extra tension, a hint of mystery perhaps? What poet in their right mind would "roast" their thoughts? In fact, I do not know many poets who would do such horrible thing in their left mind. And yet, the new words invite you to enter realms hitherto unexplored. Allowing occasional flukes can probe different dimensions and every now and then such disruption of conformity creates an opening that remains visible long enough for a new species of artistic thought to enter your inner world. You will be surprised what kind of creatures show up - here is one of the discarded candidates for instance: "Comes softly gift-wrapping down". It does have a certain dada allure, doesn't it?

Granted, I took an already established poem, but you could just as well start with a paragraph from a boring humidifier manual and slowly convert the mundane prose into a sparkling poetry - one word at a time. And that is the point. Stochastic evolution is a mechanism that can create beauty and order where none existed before and that can come up with colors, shapes and textures that no human would possibly think of. One gene at a time, mother nature can draw a blueprint for more and more elaborate organisms. Especially if allowed to operate on geological time scales. If you don't believe me, delve into the jungle near you, roam around for a bit and behold the fruits of fortuity. The cathedral of life reared upon the foundation of long term statistics. Pretty amazing if you ask me.

Oh, and one more thing. If you happen upon a pensive monkey hanging out on a tree limb, do not disturb it. It might be a poet in evolution.



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