Saturday, August 30, 2008

Evolutionary poetry, art, drama and music from the cutting room floor

Yesterday I received the proofs from the last chapter of narrative text from the Rough Guide to Evolution, on evolution's influence on Philosophy and the Arts. Because of a re-jig it won't actually be the last chapter in the book but third to last (the books ends with a consideration of creationism and religion). 

But I am pleased with the latest chapter, as is Joe Staines, the editor at Rough Guides who has been working on it, who commented yesterday 
"Think chapter works well as a mixture of the serious and the lighthearted (probably not often that Matthew Arnold and Suzy Quatro get mentioned in the same context)." 
Today have been rather bone-headedly forcing the Resources material that was initally appended to each chapter into a final coherent section. Nearly done! 

An inevitable consequence of trimming the Philosophy and the Arts chapter on grounds of space and coherence is that some of the material on evolutionary poetry and music that I compiled won't be appearing in print... 

So, let me share it with you here! 

I don’t have time to mark everything up with links to poems or MP3s, but you should be able to find most things via Google or iTunes. But remember these are just the offcuts—for the very best stuff, you will have to wait until you can get hold of the book in print!  

In recent times, many poets have woven evolutionary themes into their poems; examples include  
  • Neil Rollinson’s My Father Shaving Charles Darwin
  • Rita Dove’s The Fish in the Stone
  • Christopher Reid’s Amphibiology
  • John Updike’s The Naked Ape
  • Michael Donaghy’s Touch
  • Richard Wilbur’s Lamarck Elaborated 
  • Amy Clampitt’s The Sun Underfoot among the Shadows

In The Evolutionary Tales (1993) Ron Ecker echoes Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, presenting commentaries on evolutionary themes in rhyming iambic pentameter. 

Several poems in The Human Genome: Poems on The Book of Life (, by Scottish poet Gillian Ferguson, deal with evolutionary themes—examples include All Life is One, Comparative Genomics, Shall I dare to believe the mouse is my brother

Recently, Robby Cleiren, Frank Vercruyssen and the Belgian theater company Tg STAN ( used  transcripts from the Scopes trial to recreate the court case on stage as The Monkey Trial, while Americans Frank Megna and Bob Ladendorf provide a fresh treatment of the Scopes trial, together with the Dover trial, in their one-act piece Darwin's Nightmare.

In his 2007 play, Trumpery, American writer Peter Parnell explores Darwin’ life before and after publication of The Origin, highlighting the trials of Darwin’s home life and Wallace’s contribution to the conception of evolution, with a climax focused on Darwin’s attitude to spiritualism. The title comes from a phrase in the letter Darwin wrote to Lyell asking what to do with Wallace’s letter: “This is a trumpery affair to trouble you with.” 

In Darwin's Wings, first broadcast on Australian radio in 2006, Danish-born playwright Mette Jakobsen places Darwin in a dialogue with the mythical character Orpheus, as he tries to come to terms with the loss of his daughter. 

Floyd Sandford wrote, and acts in Darwin Remembers, a one-actor living-history piece, first performed in Iowa in 2000. 

British dramatist Craig Baxter worked with the Darwin Correspondence Project to create a theatrical piece Re:Design ( from a nearly 40-year series of letters between Darwin and his American friend Asa Gray. Baxter’s piece re-creates on stage the two men’s intimate discussions of the impact of their scientific discoveries on their personal and religious beliefs. 

Many more pieces of Darwinian drama are likely to surface during the bicentenary year—watch out in particular for Darwin’s Worms (, a piece focused on Darwin’s relationship with the smallest of creatures, currently under development in Manchester, England. 

Evolutionary Art and Music 
For the past two decades, evolution and aesthetics have collided in the production of art and music, exploiting computer programs and human choices to evolve pleasing auditory or visual artefacts. Drawing on evolutionary computing, these approaches rely on repeated rounds of reproduction, variation (recombination and/or mutation) and selection to improve on a starting population of images or sounds. The fitness function usually depends on the viewer or listener making an explicit choice as to which variants they prefer, although attempts have been made to use unconscious cues (e.g. time spent looking) or to take humans out of the loop entirely (The Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium evolves images from financial data). 

John "Al" Biles is a pioneer of evolutionary music, entering the field in 1993 with his GenJam program, which evolves improvised jazz music. Biles plays alongside GenJam to human audiences as the Al Biles Virtual Quintet. In a recent evolutionary art study, American computer scientist David Oranchak extracted colours and textures from popular photos from the photo-sharing site Flickr and then used these to breed abstract images that would appeal to humans. Flickr is even home to its own Generative & Evolutionary Art group. 

In the Electric Sheep project (, fractal images, together with the software that drives their evolution, are distributed to networked computers, which display them as screensavers. Viewers vote for their favorite “sheep”, which live longer and breed more successfully, allow the global “flock” to evolve more pleasing animations for its worldwide audience. 

Readers can also try their hand at evolutionary art with Jerry Huxtable’s Genetic Art applet (  

Evolution-inspired music 

Prog-rock’s homage to evolutionary traditions continues with Evolution, a five-piece, female-fronted band from Devon; Staten Island-based band Simple Evolution and Darwin's Radio, based in southern England.   

Soul and pop: American soul band Earth Wind & Fire included the track Evolution Orange on their 1981 album Raise!, while British soul singer Des'Ree released her Darwin Star on the album Supernatural in 1998. 

More rcent examples of entertaining evolutionary pop music include the bouncy Ape Man from Liverpool-based “horror rock” band Zombina & The Skeletones and Evolution from West Coast Jewish hippy Hyim.   

Hip-Hop meets eugenics in Darwin’s Folly, a track by Los Angeles rapper Avatar, with a chorus line “some people shouldn’t procreate, if they have to put paper bags over their faces to fornicate.” By contrast, East-coast Hip-Hop troupe Raw Produce stress the minus side of social Darwinism in Negative Darwinism.   

Classical, Sound Tracks and Electronic: In 1989, American composer Wendy Chambers created a large-scale music event, Symphony of the Universe, which included a movement devoted to evolution. 

English composer Martin Simpkin explored evolutionary themes in his album Birth Part 1

In his 2006 album Piano, American rockster Dexter Romweber turned his hand to classical music with Evolutionary Etude (an allusion to Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude). That same year, legendary American composer Philip Glass provided the music for a multimedia exploration of evolution Life, a journey through time, created by Dutch photographer Frans Lanting ( 

The classical-music soundtrack to the 2001 movie Evolution is worth a listen, as it the soundtrack to the cult TV show Heroes (particularly the show’s haunting melody Natural Selection).

Evolutionary themes also pervade electronic and dance music. In 1992, Scottish electronic music group The Shamen released Re: Evolution, in which they mix evolution with shamanism and Tipler’s Omega point. 

A few years later English techno band Opus III released the dance track Evolution Rush. 

A range of artists have released dance tracks entitled Evolution (e.g. Miro, Remote & Roger Eno, Beautiful World and Ram Trilogy) or Human Evolution (e.g. Blank & Jones or Cosmosis). 

If you want something a bit trippier try anything by Darwin Chamber (stage name of Mark Greenfield, who was such a fan of Charles he adopted his name) or the album The Genome Project by Swedish psychedelic trance band Chromosome.   

1 comment:

Alastair Jamieson said...

Hi, You might be interested in this radio series of lectures on Darwin currently playing in New Zealand, and available here for download.