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
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
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.