Shakespearean Monkeys and Evolution

Lately I have been fascinated by Gerald Schroeder's books. He has a Ph.D in physics and earth sciences from MIT. I don't agree with everything he writes in the theological realm but he makes me think about the amazing nature of our universe and the incredible complexity and beauty within it.

Here is an extended quote from his book, God According to God, that was too good not to post:

"Stephen Hawking, in his A Brief History in Time, the most widely sold science book every written, teaches the world about the potential power of random events to produce meaningful complex order, such as in a work of literature.

"It is a bit like the well-known hordes 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" (Hawking, p. 123).

It is a compelling premise, but totally off base… I am surprised that Professor Hawking would have let this slip occur. Nonetheless, it convinced one of the world's leading literary magazines, The New Yorker, to devote its Christmas and New Year's cover of 2002 to showing monkeys hammering away on typewriters. As Hawking predicted, most failed to get the sonnet. But, behold, there in the lower right-hand corner is a very happy monkey. He got the sonnet.

I don't know many sonnets. In fact, when I thought about this, I only knew the opening line of one, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day." There are not quite five hundred letters in that sonnet. All Shakespeare's sonnets are about the same length, all by definition fourteen lines long. Can we get a sonnet by chance? If Hawking says so, it must be true. But is it?

Let's consider 500 grab bags each holding the 26 letters of the English alphabet. I reach into the bag blindfolded and pull out a letter. The likelihood that it will be s for the first letter of the sonnet is one chance in 26. The likelihood that in the initial two draws from the first two bags I will get an s and then an h is one chance in 26 times 26. And so on for the 500 letters. Neglecting spaces between the words, the chance of getting an entire sonnet by chance is 26 multiplied by itself 500 times. That seems as if it may be a fairly big number. And it is. Surprisingly so.

That number comes out to be a one with 700 zeroes after it. In conventional math terms, it is 10700. To give a sense of scale for reference, the known universe, including all forms of matter and energy, weighs on the order of 1056 grams; the number of particles (protons, neutrons, electrons, muons) in the known universe is 1080….

Chance does not produce intelligible text and certainly not a sonnet, not in our universe.

But so convincing is Hawking's argument that the students at Plymouth University in Britain convinced the National Arts Council to put up 2000 pounds [~$4000] to try the monkeys' typing skill. With that stipend they rented a monkey house at the Paignton Zoo in Devon and placed a computer keyboard inside. The Times (May 9, 2003) reported on the results under the headline, "Much Ado, but Monkeys Fail Shakespeare Test."

For a month, six monkeys hammered away on the keyboard. They failed to produce a single English word. Surprised, since the shortest word in the English language is one letter long? Surely the monkeys must have hit an a or an I in all their efforts. But think about it. To make the word a, a space on each side of the letter is required. That means typing: space, a, space. If there are 100 keys on the computer keyboard, neglecting the fact that the space bar is somewhat larger than the letter keys, the probability of typing space, a, space is one chance in a 100 times 100 times 100, which comes out to be one chance in a million.

Random guessing in a spelling bee is always a losing proposition. And that is for a single-letter word.

So why does the monkey premise make the cover of one of the world's leading intellectual publications? The reason is distressingly simple. If you are fed from your earliest days the saga that unguided random reactions produced life, then…certainly you'll believe the untruth that sonnets will come popping out of your random letter generator" (Schroeder, God According to God, pp. 35-37).

And, on top of that, in the pure evolutionary scheme of things, there is no keyboard and there are no monkeys. The beauty of the Shakespearean sonnet must miraculously emerge out of nothing.

Who says that science doesn't believe in miracles?

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One Response to Shakespearean Monkeys and Evolution

  1. john says:

    Schroeder is a brilliant man with a heart for God. He has such a wonderful grasp on God and time and creation, and the Hebrew scriptures, and he still hasn't come to know Christ. Before his death, Zola Levitt and Schroeder  were friends.  Zola couldn't bring him around. What does it take for someone to open their eyes to Jesus Christ? Israel is "blineded in part" till the fullness of the gentiles comes in? Has me rethinking the remnant and the "Israel of God."

    Hay, no spell correct!!

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