Copyright 1992 Don Benish


By Don Benish

In speculating on the occurrences caused by random processes, many people look to the example of the monkey assigned the task of typing the plays of William Shakespeare. Supposedly if you seated him in front of a typewriter and he began blindly typing away, eventually he will have typed all the plays of William Shakespeare. This is really a poor analogy as I will here explain.

Let's define the monkey's task a little better. Instead of plays, let's assign him the task of writing one single thousand word sonnet. It would have five thousand characters and one thousand spaces. Further, let's limit the possible characters to A-Z, periods, question marks, and commas. So with the space, there are thirty possible keys. Suppose we make the typewriter keyboard like so:


P Q R S T U V W X Y Z . , ? spacebar

This is purely arbitrary. We could scatter the keys in any design so long as we are not picking them according to frequency of occurrence.

Let's assume that the monkey types 33.3 words/minute such that he completes a proto-sonnet every thirty minutes. He is going around the clock without stopping to eat or sleep or other things.

Simple calculations show that he would take over (30)5997 (30 to the power 5997) years to go through every possibility. That would be considerably longer than the estimated time from the birth of the universe (the Big Bang) to its eventual death by recontraction or by total heat entropy (heat death). In fact it might take our monkey over 41,000 years before he might even get the first word right.

So random processes wouldn't really be useful for creating anything more complex than a simple greeting card.

Wait! There's worse. Random processes are never truly random. Our monkey's hands aren't very big. And after about 10,000 years he is probably going to be damn tired. With a keyboard as big as a typewriter, he is probably going to settle on the center of the keyboard and will hardly ever type an A or an O or a P or a spacebar. These characters will be greatly selected against. Now it will be really tough to even get the sonnet to look like the English language, let alone right.

Poor monkey!

Let's look at another random process that is generally misunderstood. Life, as scientists believe, sprung from a cauldron of random processes to form the first collection of molecules able to reproduce itself faithfully. Our earliest ancestor. Probably simpler than the simplest thing that we now recognize as life today. So how, if it is so difficult for the monkey to get even one word right, was it possible for something as complex as a human being to come about?

The simplest viruses we know about are collections of about 1000 nucleic acids. The environment that they live in is much more hostile to their existence than was the environment of the first ancestor. He lived in a pool of nucleic acids and other beneficial organic materials. He did not worry about other organisms trying to eat him. He was to be the first. He did not need the protective coatings of the virus. He did not need the enzyme head that the virus uses to allow it to invade a host cell. The earliest ancestor could find all the raw material that he needed by just bumping up against it. All he needed was a mechanism allowing him to multiply. He was just a couple of words to our friend, the monkey.

Before he finally assembled himself he was just a collection of organic bits in a vast organic soup. Everywhere else in the organic soup were trillions of other organic bits that had an equal chance of being the first to assemble themselves into a replicating thing. Over the preceding millions of years trillions of trillions of trillions of other organic bits might have been in the same position as his own particular bits were at this instant. But he was the only one who actually did it.

Voila'! He is now a thing. Something special for sure. But why? Why is he different from all the trillions of collections of organic bits that preceded him, only they broke down eventually back into their constituent bits?


He alone of all the molecules on the planet, for all we know in the universe, is the first thing that could actively cause a particular complex structure to be formed in spite of the existence of randomness. He was like if the monkey looked up at his work and saw the words 'TYPE THIS AGAIN' and he did it, time after time.

His children, who were all copies of himself, spread like wildfire throughout the seas, gobbling up the vast soup oforganic bits that had valiantly been struggling to do exactly what he had finally done.

Now, something else started to happen. Random processes kick in once again. His children start to evolve. Sometimes the copy that becomes a child does not happen exactly faithfully. Most normally this imperfection, which was a random event itself, is not acceptable to the organism as a reproducing entity. The imperfect child cannot reproduce and eventually it breaks up and returns its organic bits back to the soup.

But sometimes the random change has a benign or even beneficial change. Here again is a random event that is carried into future generations as a non-random copy.

Thus, after billions of years of random events piling one on top the other, each succeeding form retaining a random event from the previous form, comes a most non-random creature called man.

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