Re: Typing monkeys: Where did they come from?

Cliff Lundberg (
Tue, 26 Oct 1999 09:31:27 -0700


>My copy of thermal Physics, by Kittel and Kroemer, mentions this
>quote in a homework problems designed to show that the claim
>"six monkeys, set to strum unintelligently on typewriters for millions
>of years, would be bound in time to write all the books in the
>British Museum" is really nonsense. (Kittel and Kroemer, 2nd ed., p. 53).

>They list their source for the quote as James Jeans' book Mysterious
>Universe, Cambridge University Press, 1930, p.4. They say that Jeans
>attributed the quote to Huxley, which may be the origin of this connection
>to Huxley. Since I don't have Jeans' book, I can't tell you exactly
>what he said.

If the point is some analogy with evolution via natural selection, then to
be fair, you have to insert a mechanism through which correctly typed
words, sentences, etc get selected and saved, and the monkeys
themselves acquire writing skills as the process proceeds.

It is fun to track down the origin of metaphors. Aldous Huxley wrote a
nice essay on the expression about intellectual achievers 'standing
on the shoulders of giants'. He found some medieval source for it.
At least with the monkey business we won't be going back beyond
typewriters, or perhaps Gutenberg.

Cliff Lundberg  ~  San Francisco  ~