The Blind Watchmaker

I like this very much, being extremely keen on ‘Chinese Whispers’ (=’Telephone’) as a technique for the experimental study of memetic evolution. And it must have had great educational value for the children taking part. -Richard Dawkins

Considering Richards mention of my animation, I figured it might be a good time to bring him up! In fact, Mr.Dawkins was a great inspiration to my animation, and actually had a direct influence on how it was created.

Originally I wasn’t sure  how I should go about the animation. As I mentioned in my first post I wanted something that at least represented branching structure instead of linearity, but I was blanking on how to actually pull this off. I also added the challenge of specifically trying to get children to make a majority of the drawings. One thing I kept noticing was that when various scientists were asked “What was the defining moment in your life when you knew you wanted to be a scientist?” they always gave the same answer: when they were kids. There was always some formative and usually highly specific and memorable event that seemed to spark their fascination with science when they were younger. So I set out to find myself a group of kids in the hopes that, maybe someday, they’ll think back and remember the activity fondly when they think of evolution. Perhaps even in a few I would have planted the seeds of a future scientist. But wrangling up some kids was secondary to actually coming up with something they could DO.

I had toyed with the idea of rotoscoping initially. The idea was that I would animate a linear, traditional evolution animation and have the kids trace over my drawings, “completing” it. My thinking was that I would have underforms that were fairly boring and acting merely as guides, allowing the kids to come up with something interesting to overlay on top, as long as it “followed the lines.” The result would have been a strange jittery flash of different forms changing over time.

But, as you can probably guess, I figured this would be a little too boring. I wanted the activity to move with a certain amount of speed, which rotoscoping isnt known for. I also couldn’t really think of a quick and easy way to trace a zillion frames with people that had never done it before, and besides it gave me this weird child labor vibe, so I abandoned it.

Around this point I was coming up with the ideas that you can see in my sketchpad picture in the other posts, but still wasn’t sure what to do. That’s when I stumbled upon Mr.Dawkins in his documentary “The Blind Watchmaker.”

Coming out around the same time as Dawkins book “The Blind Watchmaker,” the BBC documentary goes into William Paley’s assertion that complicated things must have a designer. So, in his example, if you were to find a watch out in nature you would assume someone had designed it, and that it didn’t naturally appear as a watch with all its complex parts as-is. This naturally leads into the idea that to look around you and see the various complex forms in nature, then its right to assume that there must equally be a designer for that too, for its too much to assume such complex designs could happen on their own.

William Paley, philosopher on Natural Theology

Naturally that’s exactly what Dawkins attempts to do. He goes through the documentary explaining things that seem impossible on the surface, but are actually quite possible within the confines of evolution. So elements such as the eye or the wing which seem tremendously complex at first, can be explained through relatively simple methods of slight modification over time.

It was when Dawkins got to the simulated lifeforms that he called “Biomorphs,” however, that my animation ideas began to sync. Dawkins shows of Jeremy Ruston’s little programmed “creatures” who have digital genes which he can manipulate into various forms. On the surface they don’t look like much of anything, but using your imagination you can begin to see familiar shapes or patterns. He then begins to “select” for a form he likes the most. The genes are set and new permutations come up on the screen, and he selects again.

A young Dawkins selecting some Biomorphs and fiddling with their genes

I used this to full effect in my own animation of course, only using paper and crayon instead of a computer.  Of course by now computers have all sorts of cool evolving lifeforms on them, and a few programs have this very same ‘evolving’ capacity to help guide you towards something you like but aren’t entirely sure what that may be! Oh and if you haven’t seen the Dawkins documentary, check it out; it’s good!

Speaking of simulated evolution, I recently came across this the other day.

I love the fractal patterns of plants (succulents and ferns being my favs, naturally) and this instantly caught my attention. Created as a school project back in 2008 by Markus Jonsson, Jonatan Nyberg and Jakob Rogstadius, Linnaeus simulates plant evolution, using little genes just like Dawkins’ Biomorphs up there. You can open the XML file and goof off with the parameters to make truly strange plants but because they evolve on their own, they tend to do it regardless! The patterns of the bark and the shape of the leaves and flowers  are what intrigued me the most, and I spent hours mesmerized by these little virtual plants. Although the link doesn’t seem to be working for me at the moment, you can (or could) download Linnaeus here to try it out for youself, which I suggest you do!

Whew! Anyway, I’ll try to get some stuff from the library up here soon as well as posting up a ‘how-to’ guide in case any of you decide to try this on you own. Not that it’s astoundingly complicated or anything, but I never went into any real detail on my process, so I think it might be helpful. If anyone does create any critters I’d love to see them! Toss some scans my way at tylerrhodesart@gmail(dot)com if you’d like! And if you’re feeling extra contributive you can start with my same salamander-like creature and keep the ball rolling! Until next time.

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4 thoughts on “The Blind Watchmaker

  1. Nunuv Yurbiznez says:

    “Chinese Whispers?”

    Wow. Dawkins is a gigantic racist dick!

  2. Michaela Krug von Vadano says:

    I love that film, the idea, the kids, the pictures, the sound and the ease … perfect piece of art. Thanks for that.

  3. […] i complimenti di Carin Bondar su Scientific American, di PZ Myers su Pharyngula e di Richard Dawkins. Ora non ci resta che aspettare la prossima creatura di questo giovane artista, […]

  4. […] Il risultato di questo processo è poi stato inserito in un filmato che ha suscitato gli entusiasmi dei darwiniani, dalla prestigiosa Scientific American a Richard Dawkins: […]

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