A Million Monkeys Recreate Shakespeare; Weasels Do A Better Job, Says Dawkins

Monkeys to Man is passé, it’s Simians to Shakespeare now! Given enough time, a huge number of monkeys typing at a keyboard in a completely random fashion, will reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. At least philosophically. Now, an eccentric computer programmer wants to test this out using virtual monkeys. Jesse Anderson, the evolved ape in question, is at this problem. Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to recreate Shakespeare, not to praise him, writes one of his monkeys on his blog. Keep Calm and Carry On, says he!

Mon'Key'ing around

If you wait long enough, it’ll happen

So here’s the lowdown on the concept. If you keep on typing out gibberish for a very long time, typing away randomly, then there will be phrases or even an entire work of Shakespeare typed out in between that gibberish. This demonstrates a powerful concept in a simple manner: An event of extremely low probability will definitely occur, given enough time and enough chances for the event to occur. For a long time, this has been a topic just for philosophers. Dawkins brought it into science in his famous The Blind Watchmaker’, by explaining that no matter how improbable an evolutionary process might be, it will occur, since there is a huge period of time during which it could occur. Yes, this is akin to the typing monkeys. But it gets better than that, and we shall come back to that in a moment.

Gibberish to Genius

Anderson, on his blog. updates the progress he, or rather his monkeys, have made. The monkeys are computer programs that just type out alphanumerics, in completely random order, each keystroke completely unbiased and independent of previous strokes. He claims that he got his inspiration from the Simpsons and just wants to have fun! Amidst the gibberish, lie hidden other masterpieces of literature. A monkey Dickens came up with It was the best of times, it was blurst of times maybe proof-reading will take care of that!

As for the hardware, Anderson uses the Amazon EC2 with a modest Core 2 Duo 2.66 GHz processor with a 4GB RAM running Ubuntu 10.10 64 bit version.

Dawkins and his Weasels

So what about Dawkins and his weasels? Well, he had his weasels, which did an even better job. Using the phrase Methinks it is like a weasel’ as a target phrase’, Dawkins had written a virtual monkey program in 1998. It couldn’t produce any text even resembling the target phrase the first few minutes of running. So he added a cyber equivalent of Natural Selection. Every time a letter would match one of the target phrase letters at the proper place, it would be retained. This produced the target phrase in just a few cycles.

(Go To 5:32 if you’re in a hurry.)

So, Dawkins said, this is how evolution works. It isn’t a process of mere blind chance it requires a selection factor, the second stage of the Darwinian process. Natural Selection will produce complexity and requires significantly less time to do that. Given 4 billion years for life to evolve, it shouldn’t be surprising that creatures as complex as us evolved!

He He! My weasels beat your monkeys!

So there you have it at typing, weasels beat monkeys hands and feet down! Oh yes, no monkey or weasel was harmed during the running of these programs.

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Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.