Shakespeare and Monkeys

By: Dennis Bates

Most of us have heard some variation of the Infinite Monkey Theorem at some time in our life. It suggests that if 100 monkeys are put in a room in front of typewriters for an infinite amount of time they would produce the complete works of Shakespeare.

If you have ever visited a monkey house in a zoo you know the kinds of noises that come from screeching monkeys jumping from one limb to another and I have yet to hear anything that sounds remotely like “To be or not to be; that is the question.” The monkey-bard suggestion would be laughable if so many people hadn’t taken it seriously for so long, at least metaphorically as validation of the Darwinian theory of evolution.

Perhaps those who take this suggestion seriously know different monkeys than I do. Just a thought.

 I offer Congress as proof to the contrary. It is supposed to be peopled with beings superior to monkeys by virtue of evolution, and yet I defy even the most intelligent among us to decipher what the bills it produces mean. I doubt that anyone would compare them to a summer’s day in iambic or any other pentameter, and there is no way that Congress could say anything in a mere 14 lines. Shakespeare did. Maybe even a few monkeys, who knows?

On the other hand, I’ve never heard of the Infinite Congressman Theorem, so perhaps I’m just expecting too much from our legislative body. It certainly doesn’t appear to have the same potential as the Bard, but that’s understandable. What worries me more is that Congress doesn’t seem to have the same potential as a room full of monkeys. Maybe Congress just needs more time, infinity being what it is.

But I digress.

I have a basic, gut level problem with any theory that bases itself on the mysticism of the purely random. That’s what the Infinite Monkey Theorem really is. It suggests that everything comes from an endless string of random and unconnected acts. Given enough time, what we call art and even life itself magically appears and evolves from there. Natural selection, survival of the fittest, if you will: that’s how we got to where we are.

Brighter minds than mine have argued for and against Darwin’s theory, so I won’t even attempt to jump into the middle of that. I haven’t evolved enough to make a significant contribution, and I’m not certain that even an infinite amount of time would change that in my case.

A friend of mine says he accepts Darwin’s theory because it is scientific and he can’t believe in anything that isn’t based upon a scientific analysis. My counter to that is why?  Science is the process of attempting to reach conclusions by systematically eliminating one erroneous assumption after another. And these assumptions are based upon the biased personal observations of imperfect beings who often see the same things differently.

I could almost accept his reliance on the scientific method for finding facts within the narrow definition of the word which suggests that a fact is a conclusion that cannot be disproved. I could also accept with some reservations that facts are the byproducts of a system that demonstrates what happens more often than it doesn’t happen.

What I cannot accept is the suggestion that facts are the one and only source of truth. In fact I categorically reject the tie between fact and truth insisting that it’s  a comparison of apples and oranges. Facts are the inferences drawn at the conclusion of a process. Truth, on the other hand, is a moral imperative that begins the process and allows it to continue.

As such, truth never changes. It is always the same. Facts, on the other hand, never quit changing. In some ways it seems to me that it takes a lot more faith to believe in something that constantly changes and is, by definition imperfect, than it does to believe in something perfect that never changes from beginning to end.

But maybe, that’s just me. Still, to suggest that the complexity and orderliness of any one of Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets can be replicated by a room full of primates with typewriters takes more faith than I have. I chose a simpler explanation: the writer of those pieces was driven by a Divine creative spark to write what he did, a spark that is truth, a spark that all the monkeys in the world could never duplicate.





One Response to Shakespeare and Monkeys

  1. Wayne Marshall says:

    Last I looked, the American system of government, and not just Congress, completely defies rational analysis, yet we believe in that…

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