Monkey business

An argument made against the theory of evolution is that it is improbable, if not impossible, for there to be random mutations in genes sufficient enough to result in the development of humans from, say, apes. As an analogy, some refer to what is known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem. If there were an infinite number of monkeys typing randomly on a keyboard over a sufficient amount of time, could one eventually produce the Bible or the works of Shakespeare? Attempts to demonstrate the plausibility of monkeys typing out works of literature using computer technology have shown that it can happen. Since it is plausible, then the theory of evolution as currently understood is plausible, too, so the argument goes.

Michael Shermer, in his book, The Mind of the Market, explains how this works within the theory of evolution. The requisite principle is called “variation plus cumulative selection.” The idea is that when evolutionary processes get a gene mutation right, it saves the “correct” mutation and then moves on until the next “correct” mutation occurs, at which time evolutionary processes save that one, on and on until you get the complete works of Shakespeare (so to speak). For instance, random typing can produce the phrase “To be or not to be” if, once a random “T” is typed, it is flagged or saved until a random “O” is typed, and so on. Shermer gives this illustration of random typing:

wieTskewkOsdfeB92uE2OseRdl7jeNkseOdseTe3r22TsweOsxBwxseE …

which, if you look for the bolded capital letters, contains “T O B E O R N O T T O B E …”

Interesting idea. But, as I was reading Shermer’s book, it occurred to me that his explanation actually demonstrates the requirement for a God. Think about it. How does a computer program mimicking the random typing of monkeys know when the typers gets the right letters or words unless that was programmed into the software initially? How does the non-random selection process know when to say to the typing monkeys “STOP! There is the letter T we need. Now proceed again. … Wait! STOP! There is the O we need …”? We know to look for the T, O, B, E, etc, to complete the phrase “To be or not to be” because we have the advantage of already knowing how the story ends. Someone has to know what is correct and how and when to save things, if we are to accept the idea of a non-random cumulative saving mechanism. There is nothing in the evolutionary theory, especially once “variation plus cumulative selection” is added, that can explain to me how random mutations can correctly accumulate sufficiently over time for human consciousness to evolve, unless something along the way knew what to save and when.

Scientists love to invoke Occam’s Razor, which says that when faced with two or more explanations for an effect, the simpler one is preferable. So, which is a simpler explanation for humans? Random typing by monkeys with an unexplained non-random cumulative saving mechanism, or a God directing the affairs of things? The answer seems obvious to me.


Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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