Genetic algorithm

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The 2006 NASA ST5 spacecraft antenna. This complicated shape was found by an evolutionary computer design program to create the best radiation pattern.

In the computer science field of artificial intelligence, a genetic algorithm (GA) is a search heuristic that mimics the process of natural selection. This heuristic (also sometimes called a metaheuristic) is routinely used to generate useful solutions to optimization and search problems.[1] Genetic algorithms belong to the larger class of evolutionary algorithms (EA), which generate solutions to optimization problems using techniques inspired by natural evolution, such as inheritance, mutation, selection, and crossover.

Genetic algorithms find application in bioinformatics, phylogenetics, computational science, engineering, economics, chemistry, manufacturing, mathematics, physics, pharmacometrics and other fields.


In a genetic algorithm, a population of candidate solutions (called individuals, creatures, or phenotypes) to an optimization problem is evolved toward better solutions. Each candidate solution has a set of properties (its chromosomes or genotype) which can be mutated and altered; traditionally, solutions are represented in binary as strings of 0s and 1s, but other encodings are also possible.[2]

The evolution usually starts from a population of randomly generated individuals, and is an iterative process, with the population in each iteration called a generation. In each generation, the fitness of every individual in the population is evaluated; the fitness is usually the value of the objective function in the optimization problem being solved. The more fit individuals are stochastically selected from the current population, and each individual's genome is modified (recombined and possibly randomly mutated) to form a new generation. The new generation of candidate solutions is then used in the next iteration of the algorithm. Commonly, the algorithm terminates when either a maximum number of generations has been produced, or a satisfactory fitness level has been reached for the population.

A typical genetic algorithm requires:

  1. a genetic representation of the solution domain,
  2. a fitness function to evaluate the solution domain.

A standard representation of each candidate solution is as an array of bits.[2] Arrays of other types and structures can be used in essentially the same way. The main property that makes these genetic representations convenient is that their parts are easily aligned due to their fixed size, which facilitates simple crossover operations. Variable length representations may also be used, but crossover implementation is more complex in this case. Tree-like representations are explored in genetic programming and graph-form representations are explored in evolutionary programming; a mix of both linear chromosomes and trees is explored in gene expression programming.

Once the genetic representation and the fitness function are defined, a GA proceeds to initialize a population of solutions and then to improve it through repetitive application of the mutation, crossover, inversion and selection operators.

Initialization of genetic algorithm[edit]

Initially many individual solutions are (usually) randomly generated to form an initial population. The population size depends on the nature of the problem, but typically contains several hundreds or thousands of possible solutions. Traditionally, the population is generated randomly, allowing the entire range of possible solutions (the search space). Occasionally, the solutions may be "seeded" in areas where optimal solutions are likely to be found.


During each successive generation, a proportion of the existing population is selected to breed a new generation. Individual solutions are selected through a fitness-based process, where fitter solutions (as measured by a fitness function) are typically more likely to be selected. Certain selection methods rate the fitness of each solution and preferentially select the best solutions. Other methods rate only a random sample of the population, as the former process may be very time-consuming.

The fitness function is defined over the genetic representation and measures the quality of the represented solution. The fitness function is always problem dependent. For instance, in the knapsack problem one wants to maximize the total value of objects that can be put in a knapsack of some fixed capacity. A representation of a solution might be an array of bits, where each bit represents a different object, and the value of the bit (0 or 1) represents whether or not the object is in the knapsack. Not every such representation is valid, as the size of objects may exceed the capacity of the knapsack. The fitness of the solution is the sum of values of all objects in the knapsack if the representation is valid, or 0 otherwise.

In some problems, it is hard or even impossible to define the fitness expression; in these cases, a simulation may be used to determine the fitness function value of a phenotype (e.g. computational fluid dynamics is used to determine the air resistance of a vehicle whose shape is encoded as the phenotype), or even interactive genetic algorithms are used.

Genetic operators[edit]

The next step is to generate a second generation population of solutions from those selected through a combination of genetic operators: crossover (also called recombination), and mutation.

For each new solution to be produced, a pair of "parent" solutions is selected for breeding from the pool selected previously. By producing a "child" solution using the above methods of crossover and mutation, a new solution is created which typically shares many of the characteristics of its "parents". New parents are selected for each new child, and the process continues until a new population of solutions of appropriate size is generated. Although reproduction methods that are based on the use of two parents are more "biology inspired", some research[3][4] suggests that more than two "parents" generate higher quality chromosomes.

These processes ultimately result in the next generation population of chromosomes that is different from the initial generation. Generally the average fitness will have increased by this procedure for the population, since only the best organisms from the first generation are selected for breeding, along with a small proportion of less fit solutions. These less fit solutions ensure genetic diversity within the genetic pool of the parents and therefore ensure the genetic diversity of the subsequent generation of children.

Opinion is divided over the importance of crossover versus mutation. There are many references in Fogel (2006) that support the importance of mutation-based search.

Although crossover and mutation are known as the main genetic operators, it is possible to use other operators such as regrouping, colonization-extinction, or migration in genetic algorithms.[5]

It is worth tuning parameters such as the mutation probability, crossover probability and population size to find reasonable settings for the problem class being worked on. A very small mutation rate may lead to genetic drift (which is non-ergodic in nature). A recombination rate that is too high may lead to premature convergence of the genetic algorithm. A mutation rate that is too high may lead to loss of good solutions, unless elitist selection is employed.


This generational process is repeated until a termination condition has been reached. Common terminating conditions are:

The building block hypothesis[edit]

Genetic algorithms are simple to implement, but their behavior is difficult to understand. In particular it is difficult to understand why these algorithms frequently succeed at generating solutions of high fitness when applied to practical problems. The building block hypothesis (BBH) consists of:

  1. A description of a heuristic that performs adaptation by identifying and recombining "building blocks", i.e. low order, low defining-length schemata with above average fitness.
  2. A hypothesis that a genetic algorithm performs adaptation by implicitly and efficiently implementing this heuristic.

Goldberg describes the heuristic as follows:

"Short, low order, and highly fit schemata are sampled, recombined [crossed over], and resampled to form strings of potentially higher fitness. In a way, by working with these particular schemata [the building blocks], we have reduced the complexity of our problem; instead of building high-performance strings by trying every conceivable combination, we construct better and better strings from the best partial solutions of past samplings.
"Because highly fit schemata of low defining length and low order play such an important role in the action of genetic algorithms, we have already given them a special name: building blocks. Just as a child creates magnificent fortresses through the arrangement of simple blocks of wood, so does a genetic algorithm seek near optimal performance through the juxtaposition of short, low-order, high-performance schemata, or building blocks."[6]


There are limitations of the use of a genetic algorithm compared to alternative optimization algorithms:


Chromosome representation[edit]

The simplest algorithm represents each chromosome as a bit string. Typically, numeric parameters can be represented by integers, though it is possible to use floating point representations. The floating point representation is natural to evolution strategies and evolutionary programming. The notion of real-valued genetic algorithms has been offered but is really a misnomer because it does not really represent the building block theory that was proposed by John Henry Holland in the 1970s. This theory is not without support though, based on theoretical and experimental results (see below). The basic algorithm performs crossover and mutation at the bit level. Other variants treat the chromosome as a list of numbers which are indexes into an instruction table, nodes in a linked list, hashes, objects, or any other imaginable data structure. Crossover and mutation are performed so as to respect data element boundaries. For most data types, specific variation operators can be designed. Different chromosomal data types seem to work better or worse for different specific problem domains.

When bit-string representations of integers are used, Gray coding is often employed. In this way, small changes in the integer can be readily effected through mutations or crossovers. This has been found to help prevent premature convergence at so called Hamming walls, in which too many simultaneous mutations (or crossover events) must occur in order to change the chromosome to a better solution.

Other approaches involve using arrays of real-valued numbers instead of bit strings to represent chromosomes. Results from the theory of schemata suggest that in general the smaller the alphabet, the better the performance, but it was initially surprising to researchers that good results were obtained from using real-valued chromosomes. This was explained as the set of real values in a finite population of chromosomes as forming a virtual alphabet (when selection and recombination are dominant) with a much lower cardinality than would be expected from a floating point representation.[9][10]


A practical variant of the general process of constructing a new population is to allow the best organism(s) from the current generation to carry over to the next, unaltered. This strategy is known as elitist selection and guarantees that the solution quality obtained by the GA will not decrease from one generation to the next.[11]

Parallel implementations[edit]

Parallel implementations of genetic algorithms come in two flavours. Coarse-grained parallel genetic algorithms assume a population on each of the computer nodes and migration of individuals among the nodes. Fine-grained parallel genetic algorithms assume an individual on each processor node which acts with neighboring individuals for selection and reproduction. Other variants, like genetic algorithms for online optimization problems, introduce time-dependence or noise in the fitness function.

Adaptive GAs[edit]

Genetic algorithms with adaptive parameters (adaptive genetic algorithms, AGAs) is another significant and promising variant of genetic algorithms. The probabilities of crossover (pc) and mutation (pm) greatly determine the degree of solution accuracy and the convergence speed that genetic algorithms can obtain. Instead of using fixed values of pc and pm, AGAs utilize the population information in each generation and adaptively adjust the pc and pm in order to maintain the population diversity as well as to sustain the convergence capacity. In AGA (adaptive genetic algorithm),[12] the adjustment of pc and pm depends on the fitness values of the solutions. In CAGA (clustering-based adaptive genetic algorithm),[13] through the use of clustering analysis to judge the optimization states of the population, the adjustment of pc and pm depends on these optimization states. It can be quite effective to combine GA with other optimization methods. GA tends to be quite good at finding generally good global solutions, but quite inefficient at finding the last few mutations to find the absolute optimum. Other techniques (such as simple hill climbing) are quite efficient at finding absolute optimum in a limited region. Alternating GA and hill climbing can improve the efficiency of GA while overcoming the lack of robustness of hill climbing.

This means that the rules of genetic variation may have a different meaning in the natural case. For instance – provided that steps are stored in consecutive order – crossing over may sum a number of steps from maternal DNA adding a number of steps from paternal DNA and so on. This is like adding vectors that more probably may follow a ridge in the phenotypic landscape. Thus, the efficiency of the process may be increased by many orders of magnitude. Moreover, the inversion operator has the opportunity to place steps in consecutive order or any other suitable order in favour of survival or efficiency. (See for instance [14] or example in travelling salesman problem, in particular the use of an edge recombination operator.)

A variation, where the population as a whole is evolved rather than its individual members, is known as gene pool recombination.

A number of variations have been developed to attempt to improve performance of GAs on problems with a high degree of fitness epistasis, i.e. where the fitness of a solution consists of interacting subsets of its variables. Such algorithms aim to learn (before exploiting) these beneficial phenotypic interactions. As such, they are aligned with the Building Block Hypothesis in adaptively reducing disruptive recombination. Prominent examples of this approach include the mGA,[15] GEMGA[16] and LLGA.[17]

Problem domains[edit]

Problems which appear to be particularly appropriate for solution by genetic algorithms include timetabling and scheduling problems, and many scheduling software packages are based on GAs[citation needed]. GAs have also been applied to engineering.[18] Genetic algorithms are often applied as an approach to solve global optimization problems.

As a general rule of thumb genetic algorithms might be useful in problem domains that have a complex fitness landscape as mixing, i.e., mutation in combination with crossover, is designed to move the population away from local optima that a traditional hill climbing algorithm might get stuck in. Observe that commonly used crossover operators cannot change any uniform population. Mutation alone can provide ergodicity of the overall genetic algorithm process (seen as a Markov chain).

Examples of problems solved by genetic algorithms include: mirrors designed to funnel sunlight to a solar collector,[19] antennae designed to pick up radio signals in space,[20] and walking methods for computer figures.[21]

In his Algorithm Design Manual, Skiena advises against genetic algorithms for any task:

[I]t is quite unnatural to model applications in terms of genetic operators like mutation and crossover on bit strings. The pseudobiology adds another level of complexity between you and your problem. Second, genetic algorithms take a very long time on nontrivial problems. [...] [T]he analogy with evolution—where significant progress require millions of years—can be quite appropriate.


I have never encountered any problem where genetic algorithms seemed to me the right way to attack it. Further, I have never seen any computational results reported using genetic algorithms that have favorably impressed me. Stick to simulated annealing for your heuristic search voodoo needs.
—Steven Skiena[22]:267


In 1950, Alan Turing proposed a "learning machine" which would parallel the principles of evolution.[23] Computer simulation of evolution started as early as in 1954 with the work of Nils Aall Barricelli, who was using the computer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.[24][25] His 1954 publication was not widely noticed. Starting in 1957,[26] the Australian quantitative geneticist Alex Fraser published a series of papers on simulation of artificial selection of organisms with multiple loci controlling a measurable trait. From these beginnings, computer simulation of evolution by biologists became more common in the early 1960s, and the methods were described in books by Fraser and Burnell (1970)[27] and Crosby (1973).[28] Fraser's simulations included all of the essential elements of modern genetic algorithms. In addition, Hans-Joachim Bremermann published a series of papers in the 1960s that also adopted a population of solution to optimization problems, undergoing recombination, mutation, and selection. Bremermann's research also included the elements of modern genetic algorithms.[29] Other noteworthy early pioneers include Richard Friedberg, George Friedman, and Michael Conrad. Many early papers are reprinted by Fogel (1998).[30]

Although Barricelli, in work he reported in 1963, had simulated the evolution of ability to play a simple game,[31] artificial evolution became a widely recognized optimization method as a result of the work of Ingo Rechenberg and Hans-Paul Schwefel in the 1960s and early 1970s – Rechenberg's group was able to solve complex engineering problems through evolution strategies.[32][33][34][35] Another approach was the evolutionary programming technique of Lawrence J. Fogel, which was proposed for generating artificial intelligence. Evolutionary programming originally used finite state machines for predicting environments, and used variation and selection to optimize the predictive logics. Genetic algorithms in particular became popular through the work of John Holland in the early 1970s, and particularly his book Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems (1975). His work originated with studies of cellular automata, conducted by Holland and his students at the University of Michigan. Holland introduced a formalized framework for predicting the quality of the next generation, known as Holland's Schema Theorem. Research in GAs remained largely theoretical until the mid-1980s, when The First International Conference on Genetic Algorithms was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

As academic interest grew, the dramatic increase in desktop computational power allowed for practical application of the new technique. In the late 1980s, General Electric started selling the world's first genetic algorithm product, a mainframe-based toolkit designed for industrial processes. In 1989, Axcelis, Inc. released Evolver, the world's first commercial GA product for desktop computers. The New York Times technology writer John Markoff wrote[36] about Evolver in 1990, and it remained the only interactive commercial genetic algorithm until 1995.[37] Evolver was sold to Palisade in 1997, translated into several languages, and is currently in its 6th version.[38]

Related techniques[edit]

Parent fields[edit]

Genetic algorithms are a sub-field of:

Related fields[edit]

Evolutionary algorithms[edit]

Evolutionary algorithms is a sub-field of evolutionary computing.

Swarm intelligence[edit]

Swarm intelligence is a sub-field of evolutionary computing.

Other evolutionary computing algorithms[edit]

Evolutionary computation is a sub-field of the metaheuristic methods.

Other metaheuristic methods[edit]

Metaheuristic methods broadly fall within stochastic optimisation methods.

Other stochastic optimisation methods[edit]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ a b Whitley 1994, p. 66.
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  29. ^ 02.27.96 - UC Berkeley's Hans Bremermann, professor emeritus and pioneer in mathematical biology, has died at 69
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External links[edit]