Occasionally when browsing the Internet I’m struck by the new and unexpected, ie by the sheer quantity of creative production. I’m perhaps of a generation that is still impressed by the volume of newness brought to light by postings on YouTube, Vimeo, TED, music channels, and architectural picture galleries, not to mention presentations of technology and science. New media give exposure to what was otherwise hidden, and in quantity and with speed that is without precedent. As well as reporting on and delivering this fecundity, we may presume that the medium itself  is complicit in this creative ecology.

Long before the Internet, ecology, or at least biology, provided a useful source of metaphors for explaining creativity. Organisms generate, regenerate, and improve (or degenerate) through successive generations. Generation is one of creation’s master metaphors.

Unnaturally coloured image of garden vegetationAs biologists order organisms into species, genuses (genera), families, classes and phyla, so the products of creation can be ordered by type. You can also progress at least part way in creating something new by selecting according to type or genre (a word related to genus and generation). If you want to create a scary novel then follow the format of the horror genre. If you want to design a place for storing books then look at the library genus (or type). Here creativity follows the conventions of biology, but in reverse.

With the right tools, the Internet gets channelled and filtered as such a mega-catalogue or hyperlinked sourcebook for creativity.

The French Rationalist architects of the eighteenth century would order buildings into taxonomies and family trees as if biological specimens, and thereby invoke a method of creation: taxonomic design. This is also “catalogue design,” as if selecting a chair from an Ikea catalogue, and customising it to your particular needs.

I re-read the primary Rationalist text, Descartes’ Discourse on Method, for further evidence of the biology of creation, but the text is really about mathematics and geometry. His model of invention was not biology but geometrical proof.

Descartes was writing about philosophy and the way we reason, but design theorists picked up on the Rationalist method in the 1960s. Break a design problem into its parts, subparts, and further subdivisions till you reach a point at which each of those subparts finds a ready solution. Then assemble all those solutions into a whole. It’s unlikely the overall solution will be the best one. So after evaluating the combined solution have another go. Repeat the process until the best (or near best) solution emerges. This is the triad of the Design Methods Movement: analyse, synthesise and evaluate. Technically, it’s an iterative search process, with aspects analogous to the processes of natural selection in evolutionary biology.

Here the creative process is one of small, incremental steps, from simple components, rules, relationships, elements, connections and cells. As biology shows, from simple elements great complexity grows.

As the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot demonstrated, a few lines of computer graphics code, with sufficient iterations and the right colour mapping, are capable of generating unpredictable but apparently regular and self-similar filigree patterns of infinite variation and complexity, hinting further at the creative power of mathematics and of nature, and computer programs as generative systems. (See YouTube videos of the Mandelbrot set.)

Cellular automata produce patterns across a gridded surface, as if artificial life forms. See www.interactionfigure.nl/2008/conways-game-of-life-in-flash

The Internet amplifies this promise of small elements contributing to the creation of some complex whole that exceeds the sum of its parts. In this case it’s through the combined agency of hundreds of interconnected individual computer users. Any individual may be oblivious to an overall plan, but the emergent “mega-mind” is more knowing, working through a kind of crowd-sourced, “organic” invention.

But the most potent metaphor of creation from biology is that of the hybrid: a break-out from the genus, monstrosity, the result of cross-species reproduction and genetic mutation.

This to me is the main yield from Rationalism’s reductive models of creativity, the clarity they provide to the process and problematic of breaking the mould, crossing the borders between species. Hybridity, as creation, is venturing outside the procedural structure. It’s the collision between iterative search trees, a process ultimately un-calculable, ill-formed, rhizomic, and computationally unprovable and undecidable. Yet creativity is commonplace. It happens, demonstrating the unprovability, if not the degeneracy, of creation.


  • Albert, R.S. and M.A. Runco, ‘A history of research on creativity’, in R.J. Sternberg (ed.), Handbook of Creativity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 16-31.
  • Alexander, C., Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Cambridge,: Harvard University Press, 1964.
  • Boden, M., The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms, London: Abacus, 1990.
  • Descartes, R., Discourse on Method and the Meditations, trans. F.E. Sutcliffe, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1968.
  • Gödel, K., On Formally Unprovable Propositions, New York: Basic Books, 1962.
  • Goldberg, D.E., Genetic Algorithms in Search Optimization and Machine Learning, Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1989.
  • Langton (ed), C.G., Artifical Life: An Overview, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.
  • Martindale, C., ‘Biological bases of creativity’, in R.J. Sternberg (ed.), Handbook of Creativity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 137-152.
  • Surowiecki, J., The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few, New York: Anchor Books, 2005.


A book on “degenerative writing” begins, “I am an addict. An addict of Degenerative Prose. Of anything that re-synthesizes wild, hybridized forms of prose including fiction, faction, friction and non-diction.”

  • Amerika, M. and R. Sukenick (eds), Degenerative Prose: Writing Beyond Category, Kennebunk, ME: Black Ice Books, 1995.
Charles Darwin on genera and the tree of life:
The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during each former year may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have tried to overmaster other species in the great battle for life. The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was small, budding twigs; and this connexion of the former and present buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear all the other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past geological periods, very few now have living and modified descendants. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these lost branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives.

Darwin, C., The Origin of Species, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p.129. See http://darwin-online.org.uk

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. (p.579)

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.


9 thoughts on “De-generation

  1. Buffon’s American Degeneracy Theory

    I came across this recently and think it is interesting in the way it shows a continuing concern with the mechanistic nature of classification systems.

    George Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788) disliked what he thought was the arbitrary nature of Linnaean classification.

    Buffon thought the natural world ought to be understood in all its complexity and consequently produced his monumental (36 volume) “Histoire naturelle”.

    In Volume 5 (1766) he discussed the apparent disparity in the diversity and size of quadrupeds from the Old and New Worlds: –

    “In America, therefore, animated Nature is weaker, less active, and more circumscribed in the variety of her productions; for we perceive, from the enumeration of the American animals, that the numbers of species is not only fewer, but that, in general, all the animals are much smaller than those of the Old Continent. No American animal can be compared with the elephant, the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the dromedary, the camelopard [giraffe], the buffalo, the lion, the tiger, &c.”

    Thomas Jefferson led the outraged response to convince the French naturalist of his error. He arranged for Buffon to receive the skin and antlers of a moose as well as the antlers of deer, caribou and elk and the skin of a panther; all of which he hoped would convince Buffon that New World quadrupeds were at least the equal of those in the Old World.

    Despite being so spectacularly wrong, Buffon has recently re-emerged as a sort of standard bearer of a less mechanistic view of classification systems.

    Bowker and Star suggest in “Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences” (after Taylor) that there are important differences between Aristotelian classification and Prototype classification. They explicitly associate Aristotelian classification with Linnaeus and Prototype classification with Buffon and characterise the differences as follows:-

    “An Aristotelian classification works according to a set of binary characteristics that the object being classified either presents or does not present. At each level of classification, enough binary features are adduced to place any member of a given population into one and only one class”.

    “According to Rosch’s prototype theory, our classifications tend to be much fuzzier than we might at first think. We do not deal with a set of binary characteristics when we decide that this thing we are sitting on is a chair. Indeed it is possible to name a population of objects that people would in general agree to call chairs which have no two binary features in common”.

    “Prototype theory proposes that we have a broad picture in our mind of what a chair is; and we extend this picture by metaphor and analogy when trying to decide if any given thing that we are sitting on counts”.


    Bowker, G. C. and Star, S. L. (1999)
    “Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences”

    Taylor, J. R. (1995)
    “Linguistic Categorization: Prototypes in Linguistic Theory”
    Oxford, The Clarendon Press

    Rosch, E. and Lloyd, B. eds (1978)
    “Cognition and Categorization”
    Hillsdale, N. J.: L. Erlbaum Associates

    Posted by Graham Shawcross | October 5, 2011, 1:09 pm
  2. Of course, thanks for the reminder. Prototype theory has a very strong bearing on the issue of creativity. I make passing reference to this in the case of language understanding: https://richardcoyne.com/2010/11/27/brain-scans-and-creativity/ There’s also Lakoff, George. 2003. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Posted by Richard Coyne | October 6, 2011, 9:09 am
  3. During the lecture I was reminded of the following clips, both regarding generative art and chaos:

    – Autechre – Gantz Graf: Excellent example of generative music and animation based on it:

    – Arthur C Clarke presenting a short documentary about the Mandelbrot Set

    There is also this demonstration of a Max/MSP patch making fractal music, although I don’t think it’s in any way as inspiring or hypnotising as the visual equivalent:

    Posted by Dave House | October 6, 2011, 3:40 pm
  4. My only criticism re. the documentary is the choice of music – in a decade famous for its electronic music, arguably far better suited to such fractal imagery, they chose the decades-old guitar stylings of Dave Gilmour!

    Looks like I got my links muddled – the fractal music generated on Max/MSP is missing:

    Posted by Dave House | October 7, 2011, 10:11 am
  5. After our discussion about Brian Eno’s ‘scenius’ idea last week at the lecture, here he is on Newsnight discussing how the current economic climate might be impacting on artforms, and also how technology is impacting on the arts and how artforms are made. From 5th October 2011 – the interview with Paxman starts at about 40mins in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b015pqrq/Newsnight_05_10_2011/

    Posted by fiona keenan | October 12, 2011, 5:51 pm
  6. Someone know how to create things, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If one waits around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike him/her in the brain, then it will be not not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur natural. If one just keeps sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, he/she can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if one just get to work, something amazing will occur to him/her . Creativity is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.

    Maybe it can be described by the word “jump”, very vivid connect with creativity. In improvisational acting it is held as a truism that if you jump, a net will appear. Jumping implies taking a risk and propelling designer over normal limitations. Thrilling!

    Posted by Lida Huang | October 15, 2011, 8:31 pm
  7. I agree with the point that creation is a kind of hybrid,which is a reproduction.
    In my opinion, creativity is not discovery, instead, it need to be based on some knowledge and relevant experiences. That is to say, a creative production is not unknown before it is created. On the other hand, creativity differs from repetition. It must be distinct from its antecedents. It contains the added intelligence property based on the accumulated knowledge. Thus, I totally agree the statement of hybrid. In modern society, media especially internet media expand the limitation of creativity, giving more sources for both based knowledge and more inspirations and possibilities for intelligence prosperity (IP). However, In terms of IP, I concern another problem, the protection. Media encourage the creativity while it also may bring the plagiarism of IP because of the internet. IP, the core of creativity, is intangible and can be spread quickly on internet. The lack of the protection of it may cause the decrease of creativity. because it is related to the rights of the creative people. It is easy to understand. Their motivation will be diminished when their achievements are stolen by the other people without any contributions.

    Posted by Xinxin Yuan | December 5, 2011, 7:59 pm


  1. Pingback: Lego logics « Reflections on Digital Media & Culture - December 15, 2012

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: