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Further Reading

Diversions

Monkey Playwrights

Bard Games & Other Cosmic Fun

by Erik Schaug

Hugh Ross, in "ETI In the Sky" (Salvo 36) argues scientifically that it is very unlikely that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and that therefore, "in many respects, SETI research is a waste of time, money, and talent." So was Carl Sagan wasting his time in promoting the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence?

Now, before you can get intelligent life anywhere, you have to start with a simpler life form—something like an amoeba—from which intelligent beings can evolve through random mutations and natural selection. Although the probability of this happening is very low, it has been argued that, given enough time, random processes can produce something intelligent. A traditional analogical form of this argument posits that, if you get, say, a thousand monkeys to pound away on a thousand typewriters for a long enough period of time, they will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 38

There is a catch, however. It is not enough that the monkeys produce Shakespeare's lines; somehow those lines must be recognized as such and preserved. Richard Dawkins calls this process cumulative selection. David Berlinski of the Discovery Institute came up with the idea of adding a Head Monkey to the analogy, whose job it is to check up on the other monkeys' output and to glean and retain from the piles of gibberish any Shakespearian fragments that might emerge. I think Berlinski's idea deserves further elaboration in a story.

A Tale of Coco & Company

I prefer to picture chimpanzees in this story; they have long fingers very suitable for typing. Also, they can drink tea out of cups, always a sign of civility and social refinement.

Okay, now, let's assume the chimps have been typing away for, say, a bajillion years, and head chimp Coco is a bit worried, mostly because of the second law of thermodynamics: the typewriters are getting old, some of the letters are loose, the ribbons are threadbare, and the typing paper is running alarmingly low.

"All right, guys," calls out Coco, and there is a respectful silence. "We've got a problem, and we need to see where we are. Let's have a look at what you've done, and check on progress."

There's a certain amount of nervous chatter among the chimps, except for Cheeky, who's absorbed in looking for fleas in his fur. Daisy, a shy young female, tentatively hands Coco her best efforts, The Shaming of the Few and Too-Gentle Men of Corona. Coco is disappointed, but not completely discouraged. More chimps come forward, proffering samples of their work.

Richard IV and The Passionate Primate seem to be headed on the right track. Some fragments also seem promising: To be or not to be, that is the banana, and Now is the winter of our gIt4*vgdUU. Mickey, who believes in diversity, has come up with Never in the field of blood, sweat, toil, and tears has our country been founded upon so few conflicts and by life, liberty and the happiness of pursuit. Henrietta, who fancies herself a Zen existentialist, offhandedly proffers Not Much Ado About Anything, Really, and All's Well That, Well, Ends. Cheeky, however, once his attention has been gained, shows only four trillion pages with nothing but the letter y on them, rows upon rows upon rows.

Clearly, there's a lot more work to be done. Several chimps claim they'd be able to work much faster if they had word processors rather than old-fashioned typewriters, particularly because nobody knows how to repair the typewriters and no spares are available.

Another chimp then brings up spellcheckers, and a vigorous debate ensues over whether or not their use would be a legitimate way to speed things up. It is eventually decided that they wouldn't be, since that would be introducing intelligence into the process and the results would no longer be random.

The use of word processors, though, does at first seem to be a good idea. But during their frequent banana breaks, some of the younger chimps decide to fling banana skins at each other, and they splat across the keyboards, generating various groups of letters. A heated discussion regarding the validity of this output then takes place, but it soon degenerates into a full-blown fight with bananas, and Coco has to intervene. He calls for tea to be prepared, and when the orange pekoe and bone china arrive, calm is restored. Against the gentle background clatter of teacups, the question of banana-skin input is discussed more equably.

Bobo, Deidre, and Muffin, who self-identify as classicists, assert that the banana-flinging is clearly Aristotelian: there is an Instrumental Cause (the banana skins), an Efficient Cause (the chimps who throw them) and a Sufficient Cause (those chimps who are capable of throwing). But Fifi and Charlie, who think that apparent causes have to have substance, throw the discussion off-track by starting a discussion of Roger Scruton's summary of Spinoza's distinctive substance philosophy. Then Henrietta begins to chime in, at which point Coco, fearing that she will take the floor and go on and on and on about Kierkegaard and Sartre, announces that it's time to get back to work. So the Humeans (Gladys, Ethel, and Petey) are duly fetched back from the recreation room, where they've been playing billiards, and work resumes.

The Moral of the Story

Did it bear fruit? Did the chimps ever type out the complete the works of Shakespeare? The odds were astronomical, but after eons of random typing, they finally pulled it off, and produced, letter perfect, every Shakespearean line.

So, did the chimps punch the air and go "Woo! Woo! Woo!" when Coco announced their magnificent achievement? Did they put on their party hats and break out the vintage bananas?

Alas, no. It turns out that there was no grand announcement because Coco's heart, weakened by the stresses of his enormous responsibility, had given out years before. Without Coco's teleological input and knowledge of their feat, the chimps just carried on as if nothing had happened:

Unless this general evil they maintain,
All chimps are bad and in their badness reign.
nd8htkz/MJ97^hk'`00hs

So, the moral of this story is: Even when a random process accomplishes something, it needs intelligence to tell it so.

Epilogue

Carl Sagan thought it likely that numerous planets existed that could support life. His novel Contact explores the idea of getting in touch with extraterrestrials; the main character, Eleanor Arroway, listens on an array of radio telescopes, and gets very excited when she hears a series of pulses. Normally, radio signals from outer space are nothing but random noise, but these pulses denote a sequence of prime numbers. Mathematics is the universal language, she says; therefore, only an intelligent being could have sent those pulses.

If Sagan was convinced that intelligence lay behind something as simple as a sequence of prime numbers pulsed in from outer space, why wasn't he convinced that intelligence lay behind the sequences of DNA found in living creatures right here on earth? After all, producing a sequence of prime numbers is not that difficult; why, even Cheeky could do it. Remember his rows of y's?

yy
yyy
yyyyy
yyyyyyy
yyyyyyyyyyy

Child's play, actually. Shakespeare's much harder.

So, if you're a scientific materialist, and a mathematical radio message comes to you from outer space, all it really indicates is that the chimps did it, and that Cheeky is the intelligent life you need to get in touch with.


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