Emory Biology Professor Nicole Gerardo and participant at the Atlanta Science Festival 2015

I have been collaborating with Nicole Gerardo, Associate Professor in the Biology Department at Emory University. She is eager to share science through art, and together we developed a project called evolution: an art experiment.

Thinking about creative ways to convey simple concepts of evolutionary biology, I was curious about what would happen if I generated an organic shape and asked people to copy it, then have others copy the copy, and copy the copy of the copy, and so on. I predicted the errors in copying would generate some interesting trends. Nicole suggested it should actually be a population of shapes, because evolution acts on populations, not individuals. I came up with a population of six related shapes and we asked folks to copy them. Nicole then asked students in her Evolution class to come up with simple rules for copying that would correspond with some mechanisms of evolution: selection, drift, bottleneck. On the Emory campus and at other places around town, we generated some initial branching lineages, then we premiered the piece at the first Atlanta Science Festival, in 2015. At the festival, we got even more participants to add to the lineages. From time to time, Nicole has students continue yet more lineages, so the “tree” of lineages is still growing. These students even include monks in Tibet who have been studying science with Emory professors. At some point, we may display the whole piece as a big branching tree-like installation or public art piece… it’s a work in (very slow) progress.

All the lineages became more simplified as they progressed. People added fewer and fewer details until at last they created a heart, or a sock. One of the lineages degraded to a kind of glyph, and once it settled on that, it was copied pretty faithfully. It’s interesting to me that we set out to invent a way to teach some simple principles of evolution, but we accidentally stumbled on something about the origin of pictograms and written language.