In artificial intelligence, an evolutionary algorithm (EA) is a subset of evolutionary computation, a generic population-based metaheuristic optimization algorithm. An EA uses some mechanisms inspired by biological evolution: reproduction, mutation, recombination, and selection. Candidate solutions to the optimization problem play the role of individuals in a population, and the fitness function determines the environment within which the solutions "live" (see also cost function). Evolution of the population then takes place after the repeated application of the above operators. Artificial evolution (AE) describes a process involving individual evolutionary algorithms; EAs are individual components that participate in an AE.
Evolutionary algorithms often perform well approximating solutions to all types of problems because they ideally do not make any assumption about the underlying fitness landscape; this generality is shown by successes in fields as diverse as engineering, art, biology, economics, marketing, genetics, operations research, robotics, social sciences, physics, politics and chemistry.
Apart from their use as mathematical optimizers, evolutionary computation and algorithms have also been used as an experimental framework within which to validate theories about biological evolution and natural selection, particularly through work in the field of artificial life. Techniques from evolutionary algorithms applied to the modelling of biological evolution are generally limited to explorations of microevolutionary processes, however some computer simulations, such as Tierra and Avida, attempt to model macroevolutionary dynamics.
A possible limitation of many evolutionary algorithms is their lack of a clear genotype-phenotype distinction. In nature, the fertilized egg cell undergoes a complex process known as embryogenesis to become a mature phenotype. This indirect encoding is believed to make the genetic search more robust (i.e. reduce the probability of fatal mutations), and also may improve the evolvability of the organism. Recent work in the field of artificial embryogeny, or artificial developmental systems, seeks to address these concerns.
In selection, parents for the next generation are chosen with a bias towards higher fitness. The parents reproduce by copying with recombination and/or mutation. Recombination acts on the two selected parents (candidates) and results in one or two children (new candidates). Mutation acts on one candidate and results in a new candidate. These operators create the offspring (a set of new candidates). These new candidates compete with old candidates for their place in the next generation (survival of the fittest).
This process can be repeated until a candidate with sufficient quality (a solution) is found or a previously defined computational limit is reached.