How many monkeys with typewriters do you think it would take to produce the works of Shakespeare? Oh yes, lets’ suppose they have an infinite amount of time. Does that change your answer any?
There is a serious point to this question that has been asked and answered in various forms since Aristotle’s day (but without the typewriters and with a different literary goal). The argument surfaced over the last 100 years or so when the idea that the diversity of life we see on earth has come about through evolutionary processes that include randomness. In a nutshell, the question boils down to whether a few billion years is long enough for a natural process that includes randomness to produce anything organized at all, let alone life on earth with all its diversity.
In this article, I would like to suggest how 101 or so monkeys could produce at least one line of Shakespeare. Ok, so these monkeys are pretty smart. They are like most monkeys but they have been trained to copy sequences of letters. And one of them who turned out to be really smart is able to count how many differences there are in two sequences of letters. We named this monkey Levi.
So we set up the 100 monkeys in a room we call the Copy Room with lots of table space, lots of pencils, and lots of index cards. And we set up Levi in an adjacent room we call the Counting Room with one table and a small window between the two rooms.
Then we carved a phrase on from Hamlet on Levi’s table with a sharp knife. The phrase is “methinks it is like a weasel” (Hamlet. Act iii. Sc. 2). Let’s call this the weasel phrase.”
Then we gave Levi an index card with the sequence of letters, “levi” on it. Levi did as he was trained to do and he sat down with the index card and he counted the number of letters he would have to add or delete from “levi” to make it the same as the weasel string written on his desk.
Seeing that there were quite a few changes that had to be made to the index card, Levi did as he was trained to do, which is to pass the index card into the Copy Room through the small window and wait for the 100 monkeys to give him something back.
Now the 100 monkeys did what they were trained to do which is to all gather around Levi’s index card and copy whats on it to 100 new index cards each. One thing I need to mention is that the copying monkeys are not perfectly trained. They all seem to make up to three mistakes in their copying which could be adding an extra letter somewhere in their copy, missing one of the letters, or substituting a different letter accidentally. (a letter can also be a space).
When they are done they each put their 100 new index cards in a big pile and hand pass them back to Levi in the Counting Room. Now Levi has 10,000 index cards with each with a single string of letters on them that he needs to compare to his weasel string carved on his desk. Levi loves doing this so he burns through the stack of index cards pretty quickly, writing the number of additions and deletions for each card on the back of the card. When he is done, Levi sorts through the index cards and picks the card with the smallest number. This is the card that has the string of letters that is closest to the weasel string.
But noticing that the number of additions or deletions on the best card is still not zero, he passes this best card back into the Copy Room. A little while later, he gets back a new stack of 10,000 cards from the Copy Room and he does this process again. Levi keeps repeating the process until he finally one or more of the returned 10,000 index cards contains the same weasel string that his carved on his desk.
Now the question is, will Levi ever get an index card that has the weasel string on it? If so, how many times will Levi have to repeat this process? Stay tuned for the answer in the next article while I go feed the monkeys and get Levi started on the process.