Penguin uses Dawkins' source code for original book jackets

Penguin uses Dawkins' source code for original book jackets

Penguin this week launched a new range of "literally unique" book covers, with an accompanying interactive website, to celebrate an anniversary year of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ ground-breaking books.

Thousands of unique covers have been generated for re-issues of the three books by using original source code developed by Dawkins 30 years ago, originally used for a suite of computer programmes demonstrating his theories of evolution while writing The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Probable.

The code, thought to be "obsolete", was recycled and rewritten from scratch by Penguin Random House's creative technology team to build a new website, www.mountimprobable.com, which allows readers to play with original "biomorphs" - unique 2D shapes resembling those of living organisms generated through a process of "artficial selection". 

The algorithms were subsequently used so that every copy of The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Probable and Unweaving a Rainbow carries a unique book jacket together with one of these unique codes, transporting readers to their own unique biomorph on the website.

Visitors of the website have also been able to design their own unique cover as part of a competition to win a copy complete with their name credited on the back of the book.

Behind the revival of Dawkins' code is Penguin's creative technology team comprising designers Mathieu Triay, Matthew Young and Claudia Toia. Young said: "Looking at Dawkins' computer-generated images, it became obvious that they should be part of the covers. The books are all about evolution - why not have covers that evolve too? Especially when the author himself has created a programme that generates an endless supply of unique images. The unique covers perfectly tie together the themes of the book, and the history of Dawkins' pioneering research."

The "hard part" for the team, according to Young, was the automation of the process, achieved using an InDesign script, as well as working with the printers on the logistics for printing unique covers for every single copy. 

Young continued: "The story is simple. You start with a random creature, learn how the genes play against one another and then see (artifical) Darwinian selection in action. Then, you can tweak the DNA of your creature and you can breed new children from the original you created and see how its children carry some of the same genes but also are subject to subtle (or not so subtle) mutations through the generations. By selectively breeding you can end up homing in on insects and amphibians. It really gives you a feeling for what Darwinian selection can do."

The Blind Watchmaker, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, features biomorphs representing insects, while Climbing Mount Improbable features unique shells, as well as a new introduction, and Unweaving the Rainbow carries unique wave patterns with the colours accurately relecting their relative wave lengths.

Dawkins said: "It is remarkable that we again can access this wonderland of strange creatures. 

"I am astonished, that they are all, every single copy of the books, literally unique. This is wonderful."

Triay, credited in masterminding the project, said: “Dawkins is the global authority on evolutionary biology. Our goal was to create an interactive entry point to his books to entertain and inform a new generation of readers, gamers, designers and curious minds. We are constantly experimenting with new creative formats to ensure the stories and ideas that matter reach wide audiences.”