Karl Sims, 1997


Galápagos is an interactive media installation that allows visitors to "evolve" 3D animated forms. It was installed at the ICC in Tokyo from 1997 to 2000, and was exhibited at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass. as part of Make Your Move: Interactive Computer Art and the Boston Cyberarts Festival 1999.

The New York Times, April 1999, "Taking over the Joystick..." by Miles Unger.
Wired, Oct. 1998, "Do-It-Yourself Darwin" by Mark Frauenfelder.
Art New England, Aug/Sept 1997, "Art by Natural Selection" by George Fifield.

See also an essay on artificial evolution for a related exhibit Genetic Images.
or the DeCordova exhibit panel text


Galápagos is an interactive Darwinian evolution of virtual "organisms." Twelve computers simulate the growth and behaviors of a population of abstract animated forms and display them on twelve screens arranged in an arc. The viewers participate in this exhibit by selecting which organisms they find most aesthetically interesting and standing on step sensors in front of those displays. The selected organisms survive, mate, mutate and reproduce. Those not selected are removed, and their computers are inhabited by new offspring from the survivors. The offspring are copies and combinations of their parents, but their genes are altered by random mutations. Sometimes a mutation is favorable, the new organism is more interesting than its ancestors, and is then selected by the viewers. As this evolutionary cycle of reproduction and selection continues, more and more interesting organisms can emerge.

This process of interactive evolution can be of interest for two reasons. First, it has potential as a tool that can produce results that can not be produced in any other way, and second, it provides a unique method for studying evolutionary systems.

The process in this exhibit is a collaboration between human and machine. The visitors provide the aesthetic information by selecting which animated forms are most interesting, and the computers provide the ability to simulate the genetics, growth, and behavior of the virtual organisms. But the results can potentially surpass what either human or machine could produce alone. Although the aesthetics of the participants determine the results, they are not designing in the traditional sense. They are rather using selective breeding to explore the "hyperspace" of possible organisms in this simulated genetic system. Since the genetic codes and complexity of the results are managed by the computer, the results are not constrained by the limits of human design ability or understanding.

Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos Islands in 1835 and his ideas on natural selection were inspired by the unusual varieties of wildlife there. The isolation of these islands caused a rare example of a relatively independent evolutionary process which he was able to observe. Biological evolution can be difficult to study because we have just one large example of life based on the genetic system of DNA and it progresses very slowly - life on earth has taken nearly four billion years to evolve. It has been impractical to perform experiments such as starting evolution over from scratch, or investigating alternative genetic systems. However, using the power of computers, it is now possible to simulate simplified evolutionary systems, which can be observed from start to finish and run multiple times. This exhibit is an example of such a simulated evolution, but the visitors not only observe it, they also direct its course by choosing which virtual organisms are "fit for survival" at each evolutionary iteration. Perhaps someday the value of simulated examples of evolution such as this will be comparable to the value that Darwin found in the mystical creatures of the Galápagos Islands.


Both images above show a "parent" in the upper left corner, and the remaining 11 are "offspring" from that parent. Mutations cause various differences between the offspring and their parents.

More images from Galápagos.

Karl Sims created the genetic language, evolution, and graphics software for this exhibit.

Gary Oberbrunner developed the network, step sensor, and systems software. Thanks also to Bill Gardner for help with the audio (step sensor) software.

The initial version of Galápagos was supported by the NTT InterCommunication Center (ICC) of Tokyo. Additional support was received from a MacArthur Fellowship Grant. Thanks also to Diamond Multimedia.

©1997, Karl Sims, All rights reserved.