This year, Penguin Books was faced with a big challenge: how do you create fresh covers for books that are already hugely popular? Their answer: give every individual copy of the book its own unique, minimalist cover, designed via an evolution-inspired computer program.
Anthropologist, ethologist, and science writer Richard Dawkins is probably best known for his books on atheism—like his 2006 smash hit The God Delusion, in which he argues against the existence of a divine creator. But in addition to making waves as an outspoken atheist, Dawkins has shaken up the field of evolutionary biology with groundbreaking theories on genetics and evolution.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins’ 1996 book on probability and evolution. It’s also the 30th anniversary of The Blind Watchmaker, his 1986 argument for evolution via natural selection.
To celebrate, Penguin decided to put out brand new editions of not only these two texts but also Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins’ 1998 book on how science and art intersect.
The publisher had to figure out a way to design interesting covers for these three classics: visuals that would represent Dawkins’ theories on evolution in a new way. Penguin’s Creative Technology team managed to create bold, contemporary designs for the new covers by combining minimalist graphic design with Dawkins-inspired computer code.
In the 1980s, Dawkins had designed a computer program which illustrated evolution by generating a series of insect-like “biomorphs”: graphic renderings of the way genes are transmitted down through generations. No two biomorphs are exactly the same. This program offered a tidy visual depiction of genetic diversity. But given that it was coded thirty years ago, Dawkins’ original program no longer functions on contemporary computers. Penguin’s team was able to rewrite his algorithm, and used it to produce thousands of different images of evolution for thousands of different book covers.
The type of design on each book varies to match its contents: Climbing Mount Improbable features insect-like biomorphs, The Blind Watchmaker displays shells, and Unweaving the Rainbow shows multi-colored light wavelengths.
Not only did Penguin’s team use this revived computer program to create striking covers for these three books, they also decided to make a version of it available to the public for free. At the Mount Improbable site, you can play around with creating your own evolutionary tree of shells or biomorphs. You can also enter for a chance to have your unique design featured and credited on a copy of the book of your choice. According to Dawkins himself, playing around with Mount Improbable" gives you a hands-on, vivid feeling for how Darwinian selection works.” It looks pretty cool, too.
An example of evolutionary diversity created using the Mount Improbable program.