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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Monkey Shakespeare

Back in 1999, in my Reason article "Is God in the Details?" criticizing claims by conservatives and others that science had uncovered a cosmic design, I wrote this (emphasis added):
Nor is there any reason to doubt the sincerity of Bork, Will, or other conservatives who have discovered evidence of design in the laws of physics. In many cases, however, there is plenty of reason to doubt their knowledge. Bork and Will make sweeping statements about the universe based on a cursory reading of popular accounts. The Wall Street Journal's and The Washington Times' reviewers of [Patrick] Glynn's book accept at face value his misleading definition of the anthropic principle. Glynn devotes four pages to a puerile analogy about monkeys with typewriters. (Yes, if the monkeys are assumed to be unchanging beings with limited capacities, they would never type Shakespeare. It does not follow that the universe is subject to similar constraints.)
Now, the monkey/Shakespeare issue is back, based on a software exploration of it, and it seems that monkeys not only wouldn't type Shakespeare but aren't a good example of anything other than monkeys.
A 2002 experiment ran into a different problem: Real monkeys aren't random-number generators. Arts students and faculty from Plymouth University in Devon, England, set six monkeys loose on an iMac in the nearby Paignton Zoo. They learned that the primates had favorite keys, with thousands of instances of the letter 'S' but none of 'E,' 'I,' 'O' or 'T' in a selection of the monkeys' musings the research group published.

So even if chained to a computer, the monkeys might never generate words, let alone classic passages. The rules of probability don't apply in the same way they do to the theoretical or software monkeys, because these primates had their own preferences. "It questions the whole idea of animals as random generators," says Mike Phillips, professor of interdisciplinary arts at Plymouth, who led the research. "I think Shakespeare might be species-specific."
So now we can move on to other topics.

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