What the monkeys can do

The monkeys with typewriters might bang out all the book of he British museum, but they couldn’t make a language, a password, or logo. All these require an act of the will or convention to say “this word means this” or “this’ll be my password” or “That will be our logo”. The upshot is that the monkeys are really accidental copyists, though they might copy books or merely words. The analogy suggests that the best randomness is capable of is making a copy of something meaningful, provided the meaning is given.*


*the monkeys might bang out an “original work” but only in the sense of copying one word at a time, and happening to get lucky with the order.  This just means that meaning is given at the level of the word and not the work.


  1. Peter said,

    July 19, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    Whenever I hear about the monkeys at typewriters, I’m reminded of a university experiment where they actually put monkeys in a room with typewriters to see what would be written. I think they ended up with nonsense, ripped out keys, and machines smeared with excrement.

  2. Matthew McCormack said,

    July 22, 2015 at 9:54 pm

    I think the current evolutionary claim is that randomness and some order (laws of nature) can account for what appears to have been produced by intelligence. The monkey and keyboard analogy is to say that random typing, time and some order provided by the keyboard could produce something that appears to us to have had intelligence to produce it. We mistakenly believe it is produced by intelligence.

    This analogy uses a book because a book is something that has been produced by intelligence. To show that randomness can produce something that looks like it came from intelligent behavior you need something that has in fact been produced by human intelligence. Through random typing and the ‘laws’ of the typewriter they produced something we would mistake has having been the product of intelligence. This is supposed to demonstrate the randomness and some laws can produce something that we mistake as designed.

    If you do not start with some object known to have been produced by intelligence, then how else would you show that randomness can produce something that is mistakenly thought to have been the product of intelligence ?

    They may be producing other ‘works’ that appear designed somewhere else in the universe, but to us seem meaningless. However, given the ‘laws’ of an English language typewriter this seems improbable.

    On the other hand we are dealing with language which is a human invention, and the typewriter is designed to produce parts of language and all the parts of language necessary for writing. There is little else it will do, so randomly tapping on it could very well produce something with meaning. The ‘laws’ of the typewriter, which are carefully designed, constrain output quite a bit. I suppose then, it is only a matter of time.

    The greater the design in the ‘laws’, the more likely to get a particular output. What evolves first, seems to put constraints on what can evolve later.

    • July 24, 2015 at 1:28 pm

      I’m not sure if you meant this as a critique or not, but all I can say is that what the typewriter hypothesis shows is that things with an order can be copied without intention, so far as the order is (a) given in advance and (b) subsisting in an intrinsically unordered substratum (e.g. the way language can subsist in ink-shapes or sound waves, a femur can be in calcium, or proteins to be made can subsist in gene sequences.)

      The example might well show that things can appear to be the products of intelligence without being so, but it shows us this in more or less the same way that a Xerox machine shows us the same thing. Both the monkey and the Xerox machine make copies of meaningful things without having any intelligence, but the Xerox machine is better at showing something that the monkey-example occudes – sc. what is being done is not production but reproduction of something already given.

      I have no objection to someone who thinks he can get everything in nature out of laws and chance, since I think this is obviously right – the laws clearly specify some sort of order (genes specify proteins, actions cause reactions, etc.) and the chance allows you to copy it. Copying even allows for variation – you can randomly make copies of one word at a time and write a sequel to Hamlet. Still, you’ll need these “laws” to be pretty involved things – they’ll have to specify any given order to be copied though without being themselves copies. This makes them seem indistinguishable from what usually get called souls or archetypes.

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