Did life spring from non-life, as evolution suggests, or was there intelligence behind the formation of life out of nothing? This is a question that gets to the heart of the debate between those who accept evolutionary science as the ultimate answer, and those who either deny it outright, or argue that evolution was simply part of a grand intelligent design.
Those who accept evolutionary theory as the sole method for the appearance of life on earth must acknowledge that a group of extraordinarily unlikely events all converged at the right place and right time. This, they argue, is not necessarily as unreasonable as it sounds, given the enormity of the universe and the infinite possibilities contained within it.
One analogy they put forth to show that life could be a natural, “undesigned” phenomenon is commonly called the “Shakespearean Monkey Analogy.” It is based on an idea presented by Stephen Hawking in "A Brief History of Time." In this analogy, it is argued that if you put a group of monkeys into a room alone with a word processor, given enough time, the odds are that they would eventually produce a Shakespearean sonnet. The argument is based on the idea that there are only so many letters in the alphabet and only so many combinations possible of those letters to produce English words and phrases. Given enough eons, the analogy says, the monkeys would likely eventually produce a coherent piece of poetry – thus, “intelligence” out of “non-intelligence,” or, “life” out of “non-life.”
At first glance, this seems to be a reasonable and coherent analogy to demonstrate how space and time is wide and varied enough to suppose that all the right ingredients could have come together naturally to create life out of nothing on this planet. However, when you begin to apply mathematical principles to the analogy, it quickly becomes apparent that it is invalid.
I recently read an account of a group of researchers who did just that. They started by isolating six monkeys in a room with (apparently!) a highly shock-resistant word processor. The monkeys lived in this room for a month, with free reign to do as they pleased with the computer. In addition to using the computer for, among other things, a bathroom, they managed to produce over 50 pages of typed script.
After the experiment was over, the researchers analyzed the script. In all of the 50 pages, not a single English word could be discerned. This includes single-letter words like “a” and “I” – since those words would require a space before and after. Extrapolating from the progress (or lack of progress) the monkeys made, mathematicians began working out a formula for just how long it would take the monkeys to actually produce a Shakespearean sonnet. I won’t bore you with all the numbers, but in the end, using a simple formula based on the number of letters in the alphabet, and the number of keys on a keyboard, and the likelihood of hitting all the right letters mindlessly in just the right order to produce a sonnet, the chances were something like 10 to the 690th power. More simply, that would be a 1 with 690 zeros behind it. To put this in perspective, if you added up all the particles scientists believe exist in the world – meaning, all the protons, neutrons, and electrons contained in every atom in every substance on earth – it would equal about 10 to the 80th power, or 1 with 80 zeros. Based on the length of time since the Big Bang, there simply have not been enough years in universal time for a group of monkeys to compose a Shakespearean sonnet.
This seems a fairly strong contradiction of the Shakespearean Monkey Analogy, no?
Well, actually, no.
I first read this argument in philosopher Antony Flew’s book “There Is a God.” Flew is regarded as sort of the “father” of modern atheism. Now in his 80’s, he shocked the philosophical world a few years back by publicly declaring he had “converted” to a sort of Newtonian Deism – that is, he confessed to believe in a God, or an intelligent designer of the universe. His “conversion” did not constitute an acceptance of religion, however. He continues to maintain a Renaissance-style deism – he rejects institutional religion with its man-made doctrines and creeds, he rejects the idea that this deistic God is in any way in contact with humans or knowable by humans, and he maintains his belief that complete annihilation follows death – thus, no afterlife. This last point, especially, calmed some of his atheist critics, who had suggested he had “converted” in old age simply out of fear of approaching death.
Throughout his career, Flew has been noted for his unceasing commitment to the Socratic principle of “following the argument wherever it leads.” As such, he was always open to the existence of a higher power, but simply found no evidence whatsoever that such a thing existed. By modern standards, he was what we might call a “weak” atheist, although he did, at times, openly declare that he “knew” there was not a God (which is more of a “strong” atheist statement).
In beginning the section of his book wherein he described his journey into accepting a deistic belief in God, he discussed the Shakespearean Monkey Analogy, and the research that more or less debunked it. This seems, apparently, to have been the beginning of his journey toward deism.
The problem, however, is that the research seems to be fundamentally flawed for at least two reasons that are apparent to me.
First, the researchers and mathematicians seem to presuppose that the progress, or lack of progress, made by the monkeys in the month-long experiment would remain constant throughout any ensuing months, years, or theoretical eons. In other words, if they made progress with a factor of 1 during that first month, the researchers assumed this level of progress would stay constant, should the monkeys be given an infinite amount of time to compose a Shakespearean sonnet.
Unfortunately, this presupposition fails to recognize any unknown or external factors that might contribute to the monkeys making strides forward in their rate of progress. However, since the basis of the original analogy was the idea of “intelligence” springing from “non-intelligence,” a skeptic cannot make the argument that the monkeys would “learn” over time how to compose a sonnet. Learning would ruin the analogy of intelligence springing from non-intelligence. Be that as it may, there could be other unknown or unforeseen factors that might cause the monkeys to increase their progress over time. Thus, by year 10 million, for instance, the rate of progress toward composing a coherent sonnet might be a factor of 200, instead of a factor of 1. The point I’m getting at here is related to chaos theory – there are simply too many unknown variables to presuppose that a 1-month experiment would produce results that were repeatable over the course of countless eons. Thus, perhaps, the monkeys could produce a Shakespearean sonnet randomly, given enough universal time. Perhaps, for instance, the computer would malfunction and allow only those letters that happened to be contained in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets to be entered, thus increasing the likelihood of success. There are just too many unknown variables to assume a constant rate of progress.
This is a lot of nit-picky semantics, however. But this leads to the second point.
Even if one accepts that the researchers and mathematicians adequately debunked the Monkey Analogy, it doesn’t have any relevance whatsoever to the question of whether life on earth could have sprung out of non-living matter. Its usefulness is solely confined to demonstrating that this particular analogy is not coherent, or, as Professor Flew put it, “a load of rubbish.” Perhaps the chances of life on earth springing out of non-living matter given a specific amount of time is far more likely than a group of monkeys producing a Shakespearean sonnet given the same amount of time. The argument against the analogy does not address that situation – it only addresses the analogy itself. Therefore, the argument is useless as a means of assuming that life could not have sprung out of non-life.
One counter-argument against this assertion is that since the factors contributing to the emergence of life on earth are far more complicated and convoluted than monkeys hitting keys on a keyboard, it follows that if the sonnet is impossible, then so must life springing out of non-life be impossible. Professor Flew, in fact, implies this himself when he says, “If the theorem won’t work for a single sonnet, then of course it’s simply absurd to suggest that the more elaborate feat of the origin of life could have been achieved by chance.” For clarity, I’ll call this “Flew’s Counter-Argument.”
Unfortunately, Flew’s Counter-Argument makes the exact same failure as the original Monkey Analogy itself. The problem with the Monkey Analogy is that it was simply a subjective idea used to show how life might have a chance to spring up on earth out of nothing. Once the analogy was analyzed and put up against the scientific method, it proved meaningless and invalid. Thus, without putting Flew’s Counter-Argument up to the same kind of objective analysis, and without subsequently displaying how it can be true, it is simply an unverified subjective statement much like the Monkey Analogy itself.
As it stands based on this argument, I remain unconvinced that there is overwhelming data to suggest the necessity of a God being behind the design of the universe. I see no reason not to accept evolutionary theory as a valid scientific explanation for the origins of life. Notice, however, that I used the word “necessity” in that first sentence. While I see no overwhelming scientific data to suggest the necessity of God – that is, I see no “proof” of God in the design of the universe – I do not assert that this must lead to the conclusion that there is no God. In fact, I do see evidence of God in all of nature and human experience. This may not constitute scientific proof, but I do not need scientific proof to experience God. That is the beauty of the mystical spiritual experience. It is life-affirming and life-enriching. Scientific proofs, then, become as irrelevant as attempting to objectify scientifically why a poem is beautiful. Science, in my opinion, is an inadequate and inappropriate way to approach the question of God, and that is why arguments such as Flew’s ultimately fail.
P.S.: I wrote this essay about two weeks ago, before I had even finished Flew's book. Since I wrote it, I have come across a New York Times article from last November about the nature of Flew's so-called "conversion." It was very eye-opening, disturbing, and even sad on a certain level. It seems that Flew, in his old age, is being exploited. I won't go into all the details myself, but if you are interested, you can read the article here: NY Times Article by Mark Oppenheimer