Monkeys, Typewriters and Evolution

It is a famous analogy which has been used by both sides in the evolution debate: If you give one or more monkeys typewriters and an infinite amount of time, supposedly they will eventually produce the works of William Shakespeare.

The necessary rationale for that is of course infinity: in an infinite amount of time, randomness will (it is believed) produce every possible circumstance. But since evolution doesn’t have an infinite amount of time, and is not completely random, those who object that this is a poor argument for evolution seem to be right.

But that is not an argument against evolution, but merely a problem with the analogy.

If we want to make a realistic analogy to evolution, one can have computers (or monkeys, if one really prefers) generating random sequences of letters. Like DNA, there should only be four letters used in the “alphabet” of this “language.” In the “language” in question, all words are three letters long. And every word means something.

That would be a better analogy to evolution. DNA involves four different molecules, arranged in “words” three molecules long. Every combination means something, even if only “Ignore me.” And we know that letters get changed through mutations – that much is observable and well-documented.

I don’t see how anyone can deny that genuinely new information can emerge under such circumstances. When I typed this blog post, I didn’t invent a new language, new letters, or new words. I simply arranged letters into existing words, and used them to produce new information in the form of this blog post. No words have been added to the English language, but would anyone deny that I have “added new information” to the blogosphere?

There is a lesson in this: choose your analogies wisely. Monkeys with typewriters with only four keys, and a language with no spaces, and in which every combination of letters means something, illustrates the way evolution works. The poor analogy of monkeys using ordinary typewriters to eventually accidentally type Shakespeare only serves to make it seem implausible. A good analogy, on the other hand, should help even skeptics understand how evolution works and why it makes sense.

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  • Ian

    You might want to have a quick google on evolutionary algorithms (or genetic algorithms which are a subset), because we use this exact technique to solve real world problems, or design new things.

    … for example

    It can also be used to write computer code (Genetic programming), where it turns out to be good at some things and poor at others.

  • robert r. cargill

    Arguing that the odds of evolution are the same as a monkey randomly banging on keys on a typewriter and producing the works of Shakespeare is just as flawed an analogy as arguing that if creation is true, then a typewriter will suddenly turn into a monkey.

    Just because an analogy involves a monkey and a typewriter doesn’t mean it accurately describes the process or the odds of evolution.

    Evolution is not about ‘random chance.’ Genetic mutation is, but not evolution via natural selection.

    Good points all around!

  • Anonymous

    I always thought of evolution as a copy machine that every great once in while makes a smudge. Somebody looks at the smudge and decides whether to start copying with that sheet or toss it.–eventually you’ll have van gogh!

  • Ian
  • McGrath, have you ever read any works by evolutionists debunking the monkey-typewriter-Shakespeare analogy? You should. Try Richard Dawkins for a start. You will find a much more rational and logical rebuttal than what you have attempted here. One that even builds in some minimal understanding of the way evolution actually works.

    But I do take your point about the lesson being that one should choose one’s analogies wisely. One cannot, for example, expect to make a point about the evidence for the historicity of Jesus by dragging in an attempted analogy over a dispute pertaining to the authorship of works that is found discussed even in the scholarly literature for a many generations, now.

    • I have posted an evolutionist’s rebuttal of the ignorant monkey-typewriter-shakespeare analogy here @ — Natural selection is the key. Certain configurations are favoured for survival over others. That reduces the probabilities exponentially. If readers want a scientific explanation for evolution it is best to ask evolutionary scientists. Theologians have not always read the right books that can help them make the case they would like.

    • Ian

      What’s wrong with suggesting that a restricted alphabet changes the likelihood of a random change coming up with something sensible?

      You’re coming over in this thread like an ass, Neil. Maybe you’d like to calm down before attempting any more grown up conversations. If you actually want to discuss evolution and creationism with folks who have graduate degrees in biology or genetics, there are a few of us who do comment on this blog. We can even talk about the implications that selection has on the typewriter-analogy. Or (shock horror) the original point: the implications of alphabet size on information content in a string.

      At the moment you’re blathering around like a teenager with a bad case of Dunning-Kruger. Grow up.

  • Michael Wilson

    Someone crap in you Cornflakes Neil?

  • Michael Wilson

    Hhhmm. I guess I never thought to hard about the analogy. So creationist have actually tried to disprove that a 1000 monkeys could produce shakespear in 1000 years (or what ever, I suppose there may be varients floating around)? I always found trying to get literal fulfilments out of analogies to be a little silly. I mean I think I get the principle, i really don’t care how long x monkeys would take to type shakespear.

  • Geoff Hudson

    In his book Does God Play Dice?, on page 378, professor Ian Stewart refers to:

    “Langton’s ant, a rule based mathematical system invented by Chris Langton of the Santa Fe Institute. It’s a simple example of how complexity theory generates new concepts and reveals new types of behaviour in simple rule based systems.”

    In Langton’s system, you begin with a grid of squares which can be black or white, painted randomly. The ant starts out on a central square of the grid, moving one square at a time, say east. If it lands on a white square, it paints it black and turns 90 degrees to the right. Conversley, if it lands on a black square, it paints it white, and turns 90 degrees to the left. For the first ten thousand or so steps, the picture is very chaotic. Then as if the ant has finally made up his mind, a diagonal band is formed, which grows for ever.

  • As I am sure I have mentioned before on this blog, computer programs have been created to simulate evolution, combining an imitation of the randomness of genetic mutation with selection criteria that mimic the roles of natural selection, sexual selection and other factors that select for advantageous mutations.

    They produced sentences from Shakespeare.

    What makes interacting with both creationists and mythicists frustrating is that both do most of their discussion of the topics that interest them on blogs rather than in books or lengthy journal articles. They then have the audacity to complain about the fact that a blog entry doesn’t discuss every aspect of a topic.

    But that isn’t surprising. Purveyors of nonsense actually rely on this, interacting with short brief summaries in which it is always possible to pole holes or complain that more evidence was provided.

    Thankfully, most readers of this blog are capable of seeing through this, just as most readers of this blog understood that this post was offered as an illustration in connection with an ongoing discussion of young-earth creationism in the comments on another post (see the recent comments side bar). I was focused here on one commenter’s claim that evolution does not produce new information, and so used this analogy to address that.

    But most of you already knew that…

    • Geoff Hudson

      The computer is merely a device for doing a large number of iterations of a system. 

      Stewart says (see page 379): “emergent phenomena appear to transcend the systems that give rise to them”.  

      In other words, there is no way of predicting what will happen without an infinitely long, and thus impossible proof.  

      • Ian

        What’s amazing, I think, is how simple computational rules can be, and still provably compute anything that it is possible to compute. 

        Cellular automata, for example have very simple rules. E.g. on a square grid where each cell is either on or off:, if an off cell has three on-neighbours, it turns on, if it is on and has less than two or more than three on-neighbours it turns off.

        Two rules: that’s all you need to compute anything that could possibly be computed. As we generate more sophisticated artificial life, they would all run on that simple grid. 

        It blows my mind the power of computation, and how profound the human discovery of it. Although it isn’t often seen as something that was discovered (rather than invented), that’s a mistake. It is, I think, more profound than any other discovery of our species, evolution, gravity and heliocentrism included.

    • James, you once again demonstrated a complete inability to read a simple comment pointing out an inability to grasp the issues as explained by the scientists themselves. Contrary to your complaint about me I at NO point took exception to “the fact that your post failed to address every aspect of the topic”. Not at all. You once again fail to comprehend any comment that alerts readers to fundamental errors of fact and logic in your original post.

      Your post was NOT a simplification of the real logical and factual error underlying the Shakespeare-monkey-typwriter analogy as you are now attempting to say it was. It was an attempt to reject it on fallacious grounds.

  • No, it wasn’t. Read the discussion which led me to post it, which was not about the role of selection but the generation of “new information.”

    I’ve discussed the role of selection and the use of computers to simulate the process on multiple occasions. But that wasn’t the relevant argument in this particular instance.

    I think your intervention at this juncture illustrates well your malice and determination to criticize those who have criticized mythicism, no matter what it may be that they are writing about.

    • James, if you want to debunk creationism then you need to be logical and factual with your arguments or your efforts will back-fire and be fodder for creationism. I also noticed you said creationists “pretend” there is no evidence for evolution. Do you really think this sort of character assassination — borne of gratuitous mind-reading and your apparent inability to recall your own mind-set when you once had the same point of view — is helpful?

      Preaching any sort of argument to your choir might be intellectually titillating but it does not do real service to your cause.

      You too often presume to speak authoritatively out of your areas of expertise. A little more humility would serve your interests much better.

  • And what is not factual about my point that the “language” of the genome consists of only four “letters” and is one in which letter substitutions will not produce nonsensical gibberish as often as might be the case with the same procedure in English?

    Perhaps if your vendetta against me makes you so certain that I am always wrong, no matter what the subject may be, then you’ll soon align yourself with the creationists in addition to the mythicists, as you seem to be starting to do here…

  • GakuseiDon

    Someone once remarked: “We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters
    will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks
    to the Internet, we know this is not true.”

    Or how about: “A thousand mythicists writing a thousand blog posts will eventually produce one article worthy of peer-review.” So far, not found to be true. 🙂