An infinite number of monkeys eventually wrote this blog post

15.42, Wednesday 8 Mar 2023

So the infinite monkey theorem, right, the idea that if you stick an infinite number of monkeys in a room with an infinite number of typewriters, they will eventually write out the complete works of Shakespeare – in 1939 Borges traced the concept back to Aristotle, and just now I feel like I finally got the gag.

The history bit

Borges goes over the sources in The Total Library (1939). (This essay sets up his famous short story The Library of Babel (1941) in which the books contain every possible ordering of just 25 basic characters.)

Borges cites Aristotle who introduces the idea of atoms like letters of the alphabet, followed by Cicero who, in On the Nature of the Gods, anticipates movable type:

I do not marvel that there should be anyone who can persuade himself that certain solid and individual bodies are pulled along by the force of gravity, and that the fortuitous collision of those particles produces this beautiful world that we see. He who considers this possible will also be able to believe that if innumerable characters of gold, each representing one of the twenty-one letters of the alphabet, were thrown together onto the ground, they might produce the Annals of Ennius. I doubt whether chance could possibly create even a single verse to read.

Borges then leaps forward to Huxley:

Huxley … says that a half-dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce all the books in the British Museum.

(Borges footnotes: Strictly speaking, one immortal monkey would be sufficient.)

BUT! Borges seems to misstep here.

The quote is attributed to “Huxley” but - which Huxley? - there are many. It should have (I think?) been Thomas Huxley, early evolutionist, first; others credit Aldous Huxley (novelist) or Julian Huxley (biologist) – but the monkeys were hearsay in any event, and according to this fascinating and tangled account, the infinite monkeys framing originated with either French mathematician Émile Borel (in 1913) or English physicist Arthur Eddington (in 1929).

If infinite monkeys had infinite typewriters, could they retell a metaphor about infinite monkeys and, etc.

Though I don’t know when the Shakespeare bit appeared.

The theorem has been tested!

Twenty years ago:

Lecturers and students from the University of Plymouth wanted to test the claim that an infinite number of monkeys given typewriters would create the works of The Bard.

A single computer was placed in a monkey enclosure at Paignton Zoo to monitor the literary output of six primates.

But after a month, the Sulawesi crested macaques had only succeeded in partially destroying the machine, using it as a lavatory, and mostly typing the letter “s”.

I remember this! They had a grant from the Arts Council, mostly for purchasing the hardware to set up a radio link so the activities in the enclosure could be watched live on a website.

More art like this pls.

The gag is that we know the answer.

Could infinite monkeys eventually write the complete works of Shakespeare?

Yes, because we are the monkeys, and one of us monkeys was called Shakespeare, and he did indeed write the complete works, by tautological definition, and it didn’t take an infinity of monkeys, it took approx 94 billion, that being the number of humans who had ever lived till 1650, and it didn’t take an eternity but only 190,000 years.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.