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DarwinTunes: take part in an experiment to find out if culture evolves by natural selection

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Imperial researchers to track the evolution of music online<em> - News</em>

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By Danielle Reeves
Monday 23 November 2009

Members of the public are invited to join Imperial College London staff and students in a unique experiment launched today, to find out how music evolves.

The 'DarwinTunes' experiment has been created to test the theory that culture, including music, evolves over thousands of years by a process of natural selection, similar to the mechanism that drives evolution of species in the natural world.

Professor Armand Leroi from Imperial's Department of Life Sciences, one of the researchers behind the DarwinTunes experiment, explains:

"It seems reasonable to suggest that as 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."

DarwinTunes is based on a complex computer algorithm that has been designed to mimic, over the course of a few weeks, the cultural evolution process that some scientists believe happens over thousands of years.

The experiment begins with short segments of random, computer-generated music. Participants in the experiment can go online and rate these segments, and the DarwinTunes computer program then 'breeds' the most popular segments to produce new 'offspring' tunes. These musical offspring have a combination of sounds from both of their popular musical 'parents' and are cast back into the experiment to be rated again. A small number of errors are allowed to occur in the 'breeding' process, akin to genetic mutation in living organisms. Less popular segments are removed from the experiment altogether, and their sounds, or 'musical genes', die out.

This rating process, and the subsequent 'breeding' of popular tunes and removal of unpopular tunes, will happen repeatedly over the course of the experiment. By the end of the experiment, the Imperial researchers hope to have a population of music that sounds much better and more 'musical' than the segments they started with. They say this will help to validate the natural selection theory of cultural evolution.

The researchers hope to be able to analyse the aesthetic qualities that drive musical evolution. Professor Leroi concludes: "We may even find out whether human composers are actually necessary!"

To take part in the DarwinTunes experiment go to www.darwintunes.org

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