Press release: The DarwinTunes Experiment

DarwinTunes - a test-tube for cultural evolution.

In the week that we mark 150 years since Darwin's "On the Origin of Species", students at Imperial College London and members of the public will be taking part in a unique experiment to answer the question "Does culture evolve by natural selection?"

Evolution has produced an astonishing variety of living things - plants, animals, bacteria, viruses - every species being remarkable in some way, for example the peacock's tail display or the trapdoor spider's cunning trap. In recent years, it has been suggested (by Richard Dawkins among others) that cultural phenomena evolve by similar mechanisms. Indeed, it seems reasonable to suggest that songs, stories, jokes and other cultural forms are passed, imperfectly, from person to person, the more appealing versions get picked up and spread by more people, and so on. It's a kind of Darwinian Chinese whispers, if you like. However plausible this may seem, the hypothesis has never been tested and we know very little about the underlying evolutionary mechanisms. The DarwinTunes experiment will help us explore the origins of the cultural world.

We have developed a computer algorithm that creates, breeds and mutates short pieces of music. In this system, good music has more chances to breed than bad music, thus providing the conditions for evolution by a natural selection-like process. However, computers can't yet distinguish good music from bad, so we have to use human ears and brains for this task. We gather that human input through the DarwinTunes website (

From Monday 23 to Friday 27 November 2009, over 100 first year biology students at Imperial College will each spend 10 minutes per day rating music for DarwinTunes. We hope that members of the public will also contribute on a special public "channel". This public channel will run beyond the 27th and could provide the most impressive results of all if a few thousand people participate for a few minutes per day. There's a YouTube video to show you what to do, but it's very simple.

At the end of the experiment, we hope to have a population of music that is far more "musical" than the starting population which was founded by two random pieces of music (we call them Adam and Eve, but in DarwinTunes music has sex, but is genderless) built entirely from sine waves. (Two short MP3 files attached below give you an idea what the starting population sounds like. Each file is 10 individual pieces of music strung together.) We will then be able to study the evolutionary dynamics and determine the key aesthetic qualities which drive musical evolution. And finally, are human composers strictly necessary? We may be able to answer that provocative question too.

For further background and details of the experiment, please see

Please contact Bob MacCallum or Armand Leroi for further information (contact info and bio's at

Embargo: Monday 23 September 2009 6am GMT

darwintunes-primordial-sounds1.mp31.17 MB
darwintunes-primordial-sounds2.mp31.17 MB