Typing Monkeys: History of an Idea
by Wesley R. Elsberry
It is difficult to find the originators of certain concepts which
pass quickly into general use. The analogy of monkeys typing
at random on typewriters and eventually reproducing copies of
literary works is one such concept.
In tracking down who might have originated the concept, we will
find people who definitely use or reference it, as well as variants
of how it is expressed. We will also explore limitations upon
who might have originated the concept or when the concept might
reasonably have been first told to a general audience.
The first referenced use of the analogy that I have been able to
substantiate is by Sir Arthur Eddington in 1927 (published in
If I let my fingers wander idly over the keys of a typewriter it might
happen that my screed made an intelligible sentence. If an army of
monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in
the British Museum. The chance of their doing so is decidedly more
favourable than the chance of the molecules returning to one half of the
[End Quote - Arthur S. Eddington. The Nature of the Physical World:
The Gifford Lectures, 1927. N.Y., Macmillan, 1929.]
This usage places an upper bound upon the introduction of the analogy.
Anyone who could not possibly have originated the analogy before 1927
is out of the running, since Eddington's usage implies a cultural
currency for the analogy.
On the other end of the scale, no one would originate such an analogy
before the introduction of the typewriter, and the likelihood that such
an analogy would be made remains vanishingly low until such time as
typewriter usage is generally understood within the culture. The first
machine arguably akin to the modern typewriter received a French patent
in 1833. Various inventors made improvements and prototypes, but the
first commercially successful typewriter only went into production in
1873 (the Sholes-Glidden-Soule' machine manufactured by Remington). It
is likely that awareness of typewriters and their manner of operation
did not become a commonplace in culture until some years after 1873.
Formulation of the analogy
There are variants in the form of the analogy. In its most
general form, one would say that one or more monkeys using
typewriters over long periods of time or infinite time would
eventually produce copies of one or more known literary works.
Actual usage instantiates various values which may eventually
help narrow down the origination of the analogy.
Eddington's usage yields up the distinctive phrasing of "army
of monkeys", "strumming" for how the monkeys operate the
typewriters, and "all the books in the British Museum", but
leaves unspecified how long the activity might go on.
Sir James Hopwood Jeans uses the analogy.
Into such a universe we have stumbled, if not exactly
by mistake, at least as the result of what may properly
be described as an accident. The use of such a word need
not imply any surprise that our earth exists, for accidents
will happen, and if the universe goes on for long enough,
every conceivable accident is likely to happen in time.
It was, I think, Huxley who said that six monkeys, set to
strum unintelligently on typewriters for millions of
millions of years, would be bound in time to write all
the books in the British Museum. If we examined the last
page which a particular monkey had typed, and found that
it had chanced, in its strumming, to type a Shakespeare
sonnet, we should rightly regard the occurrence as a
remarkable accident, but if we looked through all the
millions of pages the monkeys had turned off in untold
millions of years, we might be sure of finding a
Shakespeare sonnet somewhere amongst them, the product
of the blind play of chance.
[End Quote - JH Jeans, 1930, The Mysterious Universe, 1st
edition, The MacMillan Copany, New York and At the University
Press, Cambridge, England, 163 pp., p.4]
The Jeans usage and the Eddington usage agree on some
particulars and disagree on others. Jeans specifies six
monkeys, which I believe most people will agree is several
fewer than an army as given by Eddington. The monkeys are
said to strum their typewriters by both, and the books in the
British Museum are said to be copied eventually in both
scenarios. It is interesting that Jeans goes on to also
mention a Shakespeare sonnet as another by-product.
Jeans, though, obviously credits someone else for the
origination of the analogy. Jeans does not give a reference
for his attribution of the concept to "Huxley". Nor does
Jeans specify *which* "Huxley" to whom the analogy should be
attributed. The 1930 edition of the work does not list
"Huxley" in its index. The 1932 edition contains an index
entry which reads "Huxley, T. H., 4", although the text on
page 4 (as quoted above) is no more specific as to which
Huxley is referenced than it was in the first edition.
Three possible originators of the analogy will be examined here.
First, one collector of instances of use of the typing monkey
analogy speculates that Emile Borel may have begun the analogy
sometime around 1910. This is possible, given the bracketing of
dates of the introduction of the typewriter and the dates at
which Eddington and Jeans utilize the analogy. However, there does
not appear to be any solid positive evidence that Borel did
originate the analogy.
If we take seriously Jeans' recollection of family name, two
further possibilities arise for originator of the analogy:
Julian Huxley and Thomas Henry Huxley. Both were active writers
within the period in question (1873 to 1927). Both may have had
cause to consider the issues which the typing monkeys analogy
Again, positive evidence is lacking to implicate one of the
other of these two candidates. However, one can argue that
the likelihood that Thomas Huxley was the originator of the
analogy is far lower than for either Borel or Julian Huxley.
This argument is a variant of proving a negative. While I can
examine many sources that do not yield a use of the analogy,
all it would take is one overlooked instance that did so
document to overturn the argument. That being said, an
examination of collections of Thomas Huxley's essays and
autobiographies online reveal no trace of the typing monkeys
analogy. An examination of index entries in Adrian Desmond's
two-volume biography of Huxley likewise reveals no evidence of
Thomas Huxley having used or originated the typing monkeys
analogy. Given the fact that the analogy is one of the more
colorful and memorable pieces of rhetoric deployed concerning
random processes, it would be puzzling as to why if Thomas
Huxley originated it, it does not appear prominently in one or
more common sources of Thomas Huxley's writings or description
of his life. Further, Desmond's biography reveals that at age
55 (in 1880), Thomas Huxley preferred to continue to write via
pen and ink while his fellow Secretary of the Royal Society
was practising use of a "newfangled machine", a typewriter.
If Thomas Huxley did originate the analogy, it likely would
have postdated 1880 and his exposure to such machines at the
Royal Society. But if the typewriter was a new technology in
1880, it would hardly have been suitable then for making an
analogy whose purpose would be to edify a general audience,
who might well be mostly comprised of those whose exposure to
and understanding of such machines was nil to slight.
The evidence for Julian Huxley being the originator of the
typing monkeys analogy is marginally better than for Borel,
but only because Jeans offhandedly attributes it to "Huxley"
and it appears that the other famous Huxley, Thomas, is likely
not to have originated it.
Suspicious Attributions of Use or Origination
While any attribution to a source predating 1833 is certainly
invalid, attributions in the period 1833 to 1873 could be
remotely possible. The general argument that anyone using the
analogy in this period would have been speaking outside the
usual experience of his audience, though, makes this
possibility very remote indeed.
Some anti-evolutionary sources not only attribute the analogy to
Thomas Huxley but also specify its introduction as occurring at
the famous 1860 debate which featured speakers including Thomas
Huxley and Bishop "Soapy" Sam Wilberforce. This attribution is
not just suspicious, but very likely risible.
A less egregious case of attribution can be found in an essay by
In line with the Parable of the Cube let us recall Thomas
Huxley's simian typists. Thomas Huxley was Charles Darwin's
apologist. Darwin's theory of speciation by natural selection
sought at all costs to avoid teleology. The appeal of
Darwinism was never, That's the way God did it. The appeal was
always, That's the way nature did it without God. Thus one
looked to chance, not intelligence, to render Darwinism
plausible. Huxley's simians were to provide one such
plausibility argument. Huxley claimed that some huge number of
monkeys typing away on typewriters would eventually (where
"eventually" was a very long time) type the works of
Shakespeare. If one assumes the monkeys are typing randomly,
not favoring any keys, and not letting one key stroke
influence another, Huxley's claim is a simple consequence of a
fundamental theorem in probability known as the Strong Law of
Large Numbers. Indeed, given enough time one can expect the
monkeys to type all the great works of literature, though the
bulk of their output will be garbage.
[End Quote - WA Dembski,
If Dembski had ended there and simply critiqued the concept as
he went on to do, there would be little significance to
whether the attribution to Thomas Huxley were true or false.
But Dembski went beyond critique of the concept to critique of
the originator, and thus this issue becomes significant as a
matter of scholarship.
Let me put it this way. Huxley's example presupposes an
intelligence familiar with the works of Shakespeare. At the
same time Huxley wants to demonstrate that random processes,
the typing of monkeys, can account for the works of
Shakespeare. Thus Huxley's example is supposed to show that
the works of Shakespeare can be accounted for apart from the
person of Shakespeare. Huxley wants it both ways. An
intelligence must be on hand to know when the monkeys have
typed Hamlet, and yet Hamlet is to stand in need of no
author. This is known as having your cake and eating
it. Polite society frowns on such obvious bad taste.
[End Quote - WA Dembski,
When making such a claim about a historical figure, it pays to
have firm documentation that the premise is true. I emailed
William Dembski around October 25th, 1999 asking for his
documentation that Thomas Huxley was the actual originator
or user of the analogy. To this date, I have not yet received
any such positive documentation of either use or origination
of the analogy by Thomas Huxley. Given the negative nature
of the claim that Dembski makes, it seems hardly fair to make
such derogatory comments on scant to nonexistent evidence.
Much of the literature search reported here was conducted by