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A Window into the Chareidi World

A Window into the Charedi World | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Opinion & Comment
Monkeys And Typewriters: The Making of a Modern-Day Myth
By Joshua Josephson

Part I

One is not accustomed to thinking of science as a creator of myths. A myth is "an ill-founded belief held uncritically, especially by an interested group." Science is generally considered to be a rational discipline grounded in logic and clear thinking. Nevertheless, science has its own share of myths. One such myth it has engendered, maybe unwittingly, is commonly referred to as "monkeys and typewriters."

Though the power of this myth has become somewhat diluted over the course of time, it still affects the way people think about the world. The myth has been used, if not formally, then at least in the minds of the general public, to explain how life with its overwhelming diversity could have come about without divine intervention.

Years ago, my wife was arguing with one of her Jewish co- workers, a college educated young woman, about the ideas of G- d and evolution. But she could make no headway with her. Whenever my wife tried to argue that without the intervention of a Creator, life was improbable, her co-worker simply said "monkeys and typewriters." The phrase served as a conversation stopper, a buzzword that could be used to offer a neat and short explanation for the existence and diversity of life.

The parable goes something like this. If one places many monkeys in front of typewriters, eventually these monkeys will type out some large number of meaningful texts. (This of course assumes that they will indeed begin to type and will do so regularly.) By analogy, given enough time and the right conditions, small molecules that are in close proximity to each other will eventually randomly combine to form large, biologically functional molecules and by these random combinations life, in all its incredible complexity, inevitably will develop and flourish.

Anyone who does the calculation quickly realizes the absurdity of the whole idea. Monkeys on typewriters will rarely, if ever, produce meaningful text of any appreciable length. The calculations have been made by many and can be found in published works. Mathematicians and biologists admit that the idea in this rawest form is essentially nonsense. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the raw notion of monkeys and typewriters is clearly absurd, one still encounters it in the literature and, somewhat surprisingly, in the hands of individuals who ought to know better.

If someone thinks it is difficult to imagine that intelligent scientists could be capable of making such a gross error or that they could possibly be responsible for fostering the development of a myth, he should just remember that scientists are humans and subject to human frailties: error, bad judgment, and a host of other foibles, not the least of which is self interest.

The ancient Greeks were also very highly intellectual. They developed an advanced philosophy and significant portions of mathematics. Nevertheless, even their greatest intellectuals firmly believed in false and silly ideas that were current in ancient times, but which today we know are patently absurd and which we Jews always recognized are false.

I have not been able to track down the origins of the monkeys and typewriters fable. But in the course of searching, I discovered an incredible fact about the parable and its development which highlights why one must never accept things at face value. One must always view things critically; one cannot blindly accept opinions of even the wisest of secular thinkers.

Bartlett's Quotations lists only one citation for the phrase "monkeys and typewriters." It's from a book, The Nature of the Physical World, by Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington written in 1928 and reprinted several times since. Eddington was a prominent British astronomer who died toward the end of the Second World War. He was one of the first to articulate the "Big Bang" theory of the origin of the universe. In 1914, he was named director of the astronomical observatory at Cambridge University. His illustrious career was marked by many honors, including knighthood in 1930.

In his work, Eddington refers to the parable of monkeys and typewriters as a "rather classical illustration." Apparently, the idea of monkeys and typewriters existed before Eddington wrote. However, I have not been able to find the original source. Possibly the idea does not appear in print prior to Eddington, or not in a well-known work.

This is the entire quote found in Bartlett's (it is from chapter four of Eddington's book [p. 72]):

"If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British Museum."

Taken out of context, this statement seems to be saying precisely what the evolutionists would have us think. But it cannot be. "All the books in the British Museum." Simply stated, it's absolutely preposterous!

When I looked up the quote in Eddington's work, I was in for a total shock. What Eddington said is not at all what one generally associates with the idea of "monkeys and typewriters." Indeed, what he says is actually the very opposite of what the phrase is generally taken to mean and what the phrase, taken out of context by Bartlett's, implies.

Notice Eddington uses and italicizes the word might; he wants to stress the word in his statement. Eddington does not say that monkeys will eventually type out all the works in the British Museum. He says only that such an event is within the realm of abstract possibility, it "might" happen. If one now looks at why he discusses the subject, it all becomes comprehensible.

Eddington is concerned with a situation that is clearly almost an impossibility: atoms of air within a container all collecting spontaneously on just one side of that container. He in fact makes a calculation which shows why it is virtually impossible to suppose that this sort of event might happen. He then cites the example of monkeys and typewriters. His objective in making the analogy is to illustrate why we do not seriously entertain matters that have only a very faint possibility of happening. This is how he puts it:

"The reason why we ignore this chance may be seen by a rather classical illustration. If I let my fingers wander idly over the keys of a typewriter it might happen that my screed made an intelligible sentence. If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British Museum. The chances of their doing so is decidedly more favorable than the chance of the molecules returning to one half of the vessel."

That is to say, just as we ignore the possibility of monkeys writing all the books of the British Museum, so too we should certainly ignore the possibility of the molecules returning to one half of the vessel. He emphasizes the word "might" to convey that just because something "might" happen -- meaning that just because something is theoretically possible -- does not mean we ought to think that in fact such a thing will indeed occur.

But for some unknown reason, a very strange thing happened. The analogy of monkeys and typewriters took on a life of its own. It became twisted around and it assumed a meaning diametrically opposed to the way it was used by Eddington. In more recent times, it is used to prove that the unusual, given enough time, will indeed occur.

How and why this came to be is not clear. Maybe the quotation in Bartlett's, which is out of context, may have been misunderstood. But whatever it is that happened, it happened quite quickly. Just a dozen years after the appearance of Eddington's book, a short story about monkeys and typewriters called Inflexible Logic by Russell Maloney appeared in the New Yorker. A few quotations from that story will show how far the notion had come from Eddington's conception.

The protagonist of the story, Bainbridge, overhears the following comment being made by a literary critic: "Of course he wrote one good novel. It's not surprising. After all we know that if six chimpanzees were set to work pounding on six typewriters at random, they would, in a million years, write all the books in the British Museum." When Bainbridge expresses surprise, this "old cliche of mathematicians" is explained to him in greater detail: "The six chimps, just pounding away at the typewriter keys, would be bound to copy out all the books ever written by man. There are only so many possible combinations of letters and numerals, and they'd produce all of them -- see? Of course, they'd also turn out mountains of gibberish, but they'd work the books in, too. All the books in the British Museum."

Bainbridge later asks his friend, an assistant professor of mathematics, whether this idea is valid. He gets the following answer: ". . . I told you it was a perfectly sound popularization of a principle known to every schoolboy who had studied the science of probabilities." Although Maloney appears to be spoofing the idea, the ending of his story does nothing to ameliorate the absurdity of these statements. If anything, it tends to strengthen them immensely. Bainbridge sets a bunch of monkeys to work in front of typewriters. And what do they do? They methodically begin to type out the great classics of literature, one at a time, all error free.

However, all is not lost. Even a novelist can get the arithmetic right. A story, The Universal Library by Kurd Lassowitz, written many years before Eddington's book, is not built on an arithmetic fallacy. To the contrary. It is essentially a lesson in arithmetic and concerns itself with proving why the idea which lies at the heart of the monkeys and typewriters fable could not work. The story has no great plot. The harebrained idea in it is to do away with authors, editors, critics -- to publish mechanically every book that could conceivably be written.

Fortunately, the protagonist of this story does his homework and quickly discovers the total absurdity of the idea. Most of the story is spent in explaining the absurdity.

In light of this history, the fact that monkeys and typewriters became something of a rallying cry of proponents of evolution is quite surprising. But we should not be totally astonished. Myths generally are created to deal with questions to which one does not have adequate answers. When confronted with the unknown, answers, which may not always be logical, are conjured up. Thus something that is mythical is defined as "fabricated, invented, or imagined in an arbitrary way or in defiance of facts."

In many cases, myths have been created because the idea of a Supreme Deity is a pill that is too hard to swallow. Those who cannot accept Hashem are convinced that there "must be" another explanation. For those who wish to reject a Borei Olom today, the myth of monkeys and typewriters serves a very useful purpose, and unless it is given some thought, it becomes quite easy to accept.

A very important lesson ought to be learned from this course of events. The fact that the fable of monkeys and typewriters has become so confused and has taken on a false but convenient meaning only shows even more plainly how one cannot trust the opinion of people who have a self interest in denigrating Hashem. One must always do his own homework.

The story does not end here. What surprises me even more in all of this is that the false idea has not completely died. Despite what has been said, the myth making still goes on. In a book published within the last decade by an extremely prominent scientist, Stephen Hawking (more about him and the book next time), one finds the following statement:

"It is a bit like the well-known horde of monkeys hammering away on typewriters -- most of what they write will be garbage, but very occasionally by pure chance they will type out one of Shakespeare's sonnets."

In this passage, Hawking is not dealing with the theory of evolution. But he still uses the parable of monkeys and typewriters in a wrong sense, in a manner that is the opposite of the way Eddington used it. He uses it to prove that the unusual will eventually happen. Notice also that his horde of monkeys is "well-known." The implication is that all should know that these monkeys are capable of accomplishing the task he has assigned them to do.

Of course, the claim he makes here is a far cry from Eddington's statement. He says only that they will "very occasionally" type out a "sonnet of Shakespeare."

But what do you think Hawking meant when he said "very occasionally"? How do you understand the meaning of that phrase? What do you think about the problem itself? How long would it take for a horde of monkeys by chance to type out one of Shakespeare's sonnets, or anything of comparable length (about 500 letters of meaningful text)? A year, a thousand years, a million years?

Even if you understand enough about the problem to make an actual calculation, avoid doing that first. Try to rely on raw intuition. What does your intuition tell you about the length of time that would be needed to accomplish this task?

If you use intuition alone and do not make any calculations, the answer, next time, may surprise you. It is longer than you probably think.

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