THE MANY MONKEY
What's the point?
The theorem is used to illustrate these conflicting points:
- impossibility, and
- some particular degree of probability, partway between impossible and
inevitable, which a mathematician would write as
0 < p < 1.
... Concevons qu'on ait dressé un million de singes à frapper au hasard sur
les touches d'une machine à écrire et que, sous la surveillance de
contremaîtres illettrés, ces singes dactylographes travaillent avec ardeur dix
heures par jour avec un million de machines à écrire de types variés. Les
contremaîtres illettrés rassembleraient les feuilles noircies et les
relieraient en volumes. Et au bout d'un an, ces volumes se trouveraient
renfermer la copie exacte des livres de toute nature et de toutes langues
conservés dans les plus riches bibliothèques du monde. Telle est la
probabilité pour qu'il se produise pendant un instant très court, dans un
espace de quelque étendue, un écart notable de ce que la mécanique statistique
considère comme la phénomène le plus probable...
Émile Borel, ``Mécanique Statistique et Irréversibilité,'' J. Phys. 5e
série, vol. 3, 1913, pp.189-196.
... 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 chance of their doing so is decidedly more favourable
than the chance of the molecules returning to one half of the vessel.
A. S. Eddington. The Nature of the Physical World: The Gifford Lectures,
1927. New York: Macmillan, 1929, page 72.
... It was, I think, Huxley, who said that six monkeys, set to strum
unintelligently on typewriters for millions of millions of years, would be
bound in time to write all the books in the British Museum. If we examined the
last page which a particular monkey had typed, and found that it had chanced,
in its blind strumming, to type a Shakespeare sonnet, we should rightly regard
the occurrence as a remarkable accident, but if we looked through all the
millions of pages the monkeys had turned off in untold millions of years, we
might be sure of finding a Shakespeare sonnet somewhere amongst them, the
product of the blind play of chance. In the same way, millions of millions of
stars wandering blindly through space for millions of millions of years are
bound to meet with every sort of accident, and so are bound to produce a
certain limited number of planetary systems in time. Yet the number of these
must be very small in comparison with the total number of stars in the sky.
Sir James Jeans. The Mysterious Universe. New York: Macmillian Co.,
1930, page 4. (Not seen; quote courtesy of Dave Woetzel.)
Neo-Darwinism does indeed carry the nineteenth-century brand of materialism
to its extreme limits--to the proverbial monkey at the typewriter, hitting by
pure chance on the proper keys to produce a Shakespeare sonnet.
Arthur Koestler. The Case of the Midwife Toad, New York, 1972, page
In a paraphrase of the gist of Henri's Poincare's philosophy:
...What are facts?
Poincare proceeded to examine these critically. ``Which'' facts are you
going to observe? he asked. There is an infinity of them. There is no more
chance that an unselective observation of facts will produce science than
there is that a monkey at a typewriter will produce the Lord's Prayer.
Robert M. Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry
into values. New York: Morrow, 1974
But the paraphrase is pretty loose, since Poincare actually wrote:
``Le savant doit ordonner; on fait la science avec des faits comme une
maison avec des pierres; mais une accumulation de faits n'est pas plus une
science qu'un tas de pierres n'est une maison.''
Henri Poincare La Science et l'Hypothese Paris: Flammarion, 1908.
Chapter IX, p. 168.
Douglas Adams, 1979
``Ford!'' he said, ``there's an infinite number of monkeys outside who want
to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they've worked out.''
Douglas Adams. The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, [chapter 9]
London: Pan, 1979; New York: Pocket Books, 1981.
Scott Adams, 1989
Dilbert writes a poem and presents it to Dogbert:
DOGBERT: I once read that given infinite time, a thousand monkeys with
typewriters would eventually write the complete works of Shakespeare.
DILBERT: But what about my poem?
DOGBERT: Three monkeys, ten minutes.
Scott Adams, Dilbert comic strip, 15 May 1989.
Come to think of it, there are already a million monkeys on a million
typewriters, and Usenet is NOTHING like Shakespeare.
Blair Houghton. [Quoted in Adam Rifkin,
and in a 2 December 1993 contribution to the alt.humor.best-of-usenet
computer humor newsgroup. (A copy is in http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~allanl/funny/classic/like.usenet,
where it seems to be copied from an earlier email@example.com
list-serve posting thanking firstname.lastname@example.org (Rob Knauerhase) for
Maybe the best thing of all would be for Blair Houghton to fess up and supply
a proper citation for first appearance & exact wording of his version of the
A cat can collaborate with one intelligent mouse to produce an infinite
number of literary works on a computer. Unlike a monkey, who needs a multitude
of collaborators to produce one Shakespearian work on a typewriter.
Hilary Ostrov, 1994. http://haven.uniserve.com/~hostrov/cats.html
Jeff Carrie, 1994
My dear man I wish you were brighter
you speak like a monkey at a typewriter
Jeff Carrie. MacDavis!
David Arthur Manning, 1995?
If a hen and a half can lay an egg in a half in a day in a half,
how many days would it take a furry eyed chihuahua to pick the
seeds out of twenty bell peppers using the keys from that
hypothetical monkey's typewriter who is randomly striking out keys
in order to type out the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
Joshua Coxwell, 1995
A potential source of confusion is the idea of evolution having a
``target;'' we have normally combined this activity with others, such as
Selection in Action, to address this. Cumulative SelectionOne of the most
frequent arguments one hears against the theory of evolution is that complex
forms and behaviors simply couldn't have evolved by ``random chance'' alone.
The point we must often get across to students is that evolution does not, in
fact, work this way; change is cumulative. Richard Dawkins, in his book The
Blind Watchmaker, dispels the myth of random chance by using the very
metaphor that opponents of evolution often turn to: the monkey at the
typewriter. This program models his suggestion that, were a monkey allowed to
type random letters, he would produce a work of Shakespeare very quickly if
letters he happened to type in the right places were preserved with each
attempt. With this program, students type in a phrase of their choosing and
observe how long a random phrase takes to ``evolve'' into their target phrase.
Below are some sample investigations...
Joshua Coxwell, http://biology.uoregon.edu/Biology_WWW/BSL/Cum_Sel.html
Animals have no spiritual development. Their species do not advance or grow
in intellect. As animals were thousands of years ago, so they are today. If a
monkey is left with a typewriter for a hundred years, he will not produce a
single intelligent sentence. Compare and contrast this static existence with
the life of man, which is one of perpetual growth of character and pursuit of
Why a Jewish Burial?
Michael XXX, 1995
However, humans have been around for quite some time, and like the
monkey-typewriter cliche, people have stumbled upon elaborate methods to
trigger the spiritual emotion. These methods...
email@example.com Religion as a function of the brain
Imagine the utter dismay and consternation in the scientific community if,
after having come all that way, the finger of the key-thumping monkey was off,
just a measly once and by hitting a key just one row too high on the QWERTY
keyboard, so that Malcolm is ``drown'd'' rather than ``crown'd'' at Scone. It
is an interesting question whether the monkey, by hitting one row too high but
coming up with a perfectly acceptable word, has screwed up Macbeth worse than
if it had missed either to the left or the right and typed ``xrown'd'' or ``vrown'd.''
I betcha you are now looking down at your keyboard to see where the letters c,
d, x, and v are located
Noel Fahey, Home Page.
The most succinct answer is possibly the observation of the French
``Writing is like prostitution. First you do for the love of it, Then you
do it for a few friends, And finally you do for money.''
The June 1980 Esquire magazine had a monkey sitting at a typewriter. The
lettering across the cover asked, ``Is anyone out there not writing a
Jack R. Stanley. SCRNWRIT FAQ Chapter I - Art vs. Commercialism
R. R. Collier, 1995?
Finally, other people were reminded of the library in Jorge Luis Borges'
story ``The Library Of Babel'', where a vast universe is described which
contains all possible books (assuming a finite alphabet and a fixed book size
the number of all possible books is mindbogglingly huge, but finite) -- in
random order. Most books in such a library would appear written by the `monkey
and typewriter' brigade, but all the coherent books, whether actually written
or not, are in there as well.
Imagine that you're in a cave a mile underground and you just dropped and
broke your flashlight.
Now, imagine complete darkness. Not close-your-eyes darkness or that of a
moonless night but a darkness so absolute that your can wave your hand an inch
in front of your face and see nothing. The only sound is your heart thumping
and blood coursing through your ears. You're in a place so timeless that the
centuries tick past like seconds. If you were lost, your chances being found
or feeling your way out are about as good as a monkey banging on a typewriter
and accidentally writing Hamlet. You drop to your knees and run your fingers
over the limestone like a pianist playing rock and roll. Nothing. One thought
goes through your mind: I'VE GOTTA GET OUT OF HERE!
Steve Buettner, MAYAQUEST UPDATE FOR 3/21/95: St. Herman's Cave
Tom Solomon, 1996
Remember that old saying, ``give a million monkeys a million typewriters
and a thousand years and they'll give you Shakespeare?'' Well, some say USENET
is their first draft. It's nowhere near Shakespeare, but many of the
Frequently Asked Question files (FAQS) are excellent sources of information.
An extremely eclectic range of topics are covered--from computer programming
to training a puppy, meteorology to Courtney Love.
Sweet Briar College Library, Home Page.
A pale repackaging of Houghton's version.
In a novel, two characters discuss the glitch in a computer which causes it
to scroll an endless series of meaningless symbols:
He sighs. ``It casts serious doubt on the old theory that an infinite
number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters would eventually write
the Great American Novel, doesn't it?''
Richard Russo, Straight Man. Random House, 1996. p. 129.
Robert Wilensky, 1996
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.
According to a personal communication from Prof. Wilensky, he uttered this
more elegant reformulation of Houghton's version at the Industrial Liason
Program meeting at the EECS Department, University of California, Berkeley, in
the spring of 1996.
Wilensky's version began appearing as a very frequent email and web-page
epigraph starting in 1997, often attributed to Prof. Silensky, with varying
institutional affiliation: California University, Cambridge University, and so
(Note how the monkeys, who merrily strummed and typed with ardor in the early
part of the century, have moved (dare I say evolved?) to more frustrated banging
by the century's end!)
Appendix: Works of Literature
These are some pieces of writing based on the typing monkeys:
- Russell Maloney. ``Inflexible Logic.'' Short story, originally appeared in
The New Yorker magazine, 1940, and anthologized in James R. Newman,
The World of Mathematics.
A gentleman overhears a friend saying ``we know that if six chimpanzees were
to set to work pounding six typewriters at random, they would, in a million
years, write all the books in the British Musueum'' and decides to put it to
the test. His friend's authority: ``It may be nonsense, but Sir James Jeans
believes it ... Jeans or Lancelot Hogben.'' The chimps type out works by
Dickens, Pareto, Donne, Anatole France, Conan Doyle, Galen, Sumerset Maugham,
Proust, and so forth. A mathematician from Yale, distraught at this violation
of the laws of probability, assassinates the chimpanzees and their patron.
According to the anthologizer, James R. Newman: ``...a famous statistical
whimsy. Eddington gave currency to it in one of his lectures but I am far from
certain that he made it up.''
- Raymond F. Jones. ``Fifty Million Monkeys.'' Astounding Science
Fiction. October, 1943.
Not seen; cited in a netnews posting to
alt.usage.english by Simon Slavin, 31 May 1998.
- Isaac Asimov. ``The Monkey's Finger.'' Startling Stories. February,
1953, pp. 77-83.
A science fiction writer is replaced by a monkey.
- David Ives. Words, Words, Words One act play, collected in All
in the Timing, New York: Vintage, 1995.
The characters are three monkeys, the subjects of a psychologist's experiment,
the object of which seems to be to reproduce Hamlet. Their names are
Milton, Swift, and Kafka; Kafka ends up doing the job. Which is more
implausible: that a monkey should type Hamlet or that Kafka should type
- Jorge Louis Borges. The Library of Babel. Short story. Describes a
library with all (infinitely many) possible books. No monkeys, no typewriters,
but some correspondents see a connection.
- Vikram Chandra. Red Earth and Pouring Rain. Boston: Little Brown,
1995. Novel, with an elaborate system of nested ``framing devices,'' the
outermost one of which is that a monkey (encouraged by the monkey god Hanuman)
types the story.