London, May 9 — Give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, the theory goes, and they will produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Give six monkeys one computer for a month, and they will make a mess.
Researchers at Plymouth University in England reported last week that monkeys left alone with a computer failed to produce a single word. “They produced a lot of S’s,” said Mike Phillips, a researcher in the project that was paid for by the Arts Council. The researchers left a computer in the monkey enclosure at Paignton Zoo in southwest England, home to six Sulawesi crested macaques. Then they waited. Eventually, the monkeys produced only five pages of text, primarily filled with the letter S. At the end, a few A’s, J’s, L’s and M’s were struck. “Another thing they were interested in was defecating and urinating all over the keyboard,” Phillips added. — Associated Press
Like each of us hasn’t felt like doing that same thing to our keyboards from time to time …
I stumbled across that news item the way I stumble across most things — inadvertently while trying to avoid doing any real work. The story of the typing monkey experiment caught my eye partly because, next to coffee and catapults, monkeys and good writing are two of my favorite things.
But I’m also troubled by all the important information about this experiment that the AP failed to give us. For example, what kind of computer were the monkeys given? Was it a tired old personal computer knockoff or was it a sleek new Apple G-5 cube? And what word processing program are we talking about here? Was the computer screen set up in a monkey-friendly configuration?
Could the monkeys’ admittedly crude treatment of the keyboard actually be an editorial comment on the quality of the hardware or software provided to them? And did the keyboard have English letters or Sulawesi characters? If English, what made the researchers think these monkeys were bilingual? Could it be that the monkeys repeatedly typing of the letter S was actually an attempt to write in English the name of their Sulawesi homeland from which they were no doubt forcibly removed?
Perhaps the repeated typing of the letter S was a crude attempt to send a simian “SOS” into the Ethernet in the futile hope of reaching a higher monkey power who could liberate these six captives from their London cage and its lousy and antiquated typewriter. And just where the hell is Sulawesi anyway, and does it have a reputation for being home to a strand of particularly unintelligent monkeys?
Those are all good questions, of course, but let me interrupt myself to look at a larger issue in this story. The theory that a bunch of monkeys could eventually type all of Shakespeare’s plays was always oddly comforting to me. It somehow made me feel better to know that all that separated great writers like Shakespeare from hacks like me was a room full of monkeys, a typewriter and an eternity, give or take a millennium or two. (Note that I did say it was oddly comforting to me.)
On our better days, most of us respect and celebrate genius when we see it in others. In our lesser moments, we are often bitterly envious of anyone who rises above the pack. As a society, nothing makes us happier than to find out that the high and mighty have feet of clay or hearts of stone or the sexual restraint powers of a rabid weasel.
In that context, the failure of the Sulawesi monkeys to type out even one measly sonnet is yet another arrow in the bulging quiver of our national obsession with fallen heroes and disgraced celebrities, and I for one mourn the failure of our plucky little evolutionary cousins in their noble efforts to establish a monkey literary beachhead from their cells in Paignton. Long live the Sulawesi Six!
Tom Tyner writes a weekly humor column for this newspaper called, “The Latte Guy.” This is from his classic files.