Wild(er-Smith) Fantasies about Huxley

Chimpanzee at a typewriter. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“HUXLEY’S ARGUMENT FOR CHANCE EVOLUTION IS STILL CONSIDERED TO BE VALID IN MANY ACADEMIC CIRCLES TODAY. THE JOURNAL SCIENCE RECENTLY CITED IT AS SUCH. FEW HAVE RECOGNISED THE FATAL FLAW IN HIS REASONING.” That subheadline, in all its capitalized glory, caught my attention while I was looking through a strange book that surfaced in NCSE’s archives recently. The book in question is volume 3 of something called the Christian News Encyclopedia for 1984–1988. It is essentially a thematically organized collection of reprinted articles from various newspapers, secular and Christian. “Creation” and “Evolution” are both themes in volume 3, so I peeked at the reprinted articles to see if the volume was worth retaining. The capitalized subheadline comes from “Time and Chance,” by A. E. Wilder-Smith (1911–1995), and the whole article is reprinted from Creation Ex Nihilo (1986; volume 8, number 4).

What, you may be wondering, is Huxley’s “argument for chance evolution”? According to Wilder-Smith, during the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford, Thomas Henry Huxley offered a Gedankenexperiment of six eternal typewriters, each “supplied with indefinite amounts of paper and ink and…strummed upon by six eternal apes until all eternity was almost passed (if that can be imagined).” Huxley asserted that Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” etc.) would be produced in the course of the experiment. Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford, objected that David, not the apes, would be the author; but Huxley replied that “just as chance strumming on the machines would…produce the psalm…so molecular movement, given time and matter enough, would produce the worthy Bishop…by chance and without the help of a creator.” (Wilder-Smith is not attempting to quote but only to paraphrase Huxley here.)

Except for the fact that Huxley and Wilberforce indeed sparred about evolution at the meeting, every detail here is fantasy, including the anachronism of the typewriters (not in commercial production in 1860). Wilder-Smith isn’t the only writer to have misattributed the image of the simian typewriting crew to Huxley, to be sure. The initial offender was the astronomer James Jeans, who in his The Mysterious Universe (1930) wrote, “It was, I think, Huxley who said that six monkeys, set to strum unintelligently on typewriters for millions of millions of years, would be bound in time to write all the books in the British Museum.” (Note the verb “to strum,” echoed by Wilder-Smith.) The misattribution continues to proliferate—and even occasionally to mutate along family lines. Luther Sunderland’s Darwin’s Enigma (1998) misattributes the Gedankenexperiment to Julian Huxley—who at least was a biologist—while Thomas Andrew Moore’s Six Ideas that Shaped Physics (2003) attributes it to Aldous Huxley the novelist.

The actual origin of the typewriting simians, whether apes or monkeys, appears to be with the French mathematician Émile Borel (1873–1956), who in a 1913 paper entitled “Mécanique Statistique et Irréversibilité” (and similarly in his 1914 book Le Hasard) wrote:

Concevons qu’on ait dressé un million de singes à frapper au hasard sur les touches d’une machine à écrire et que, sous la surveillance de contremaîtres illettrés, ces singes dactylographes travaillent avec ardeur dix heures par jour avec un million de machines à écrire de types variés. Les contremaîtres illettrés rassembleraient les feuilles noircies et les relieraient en volumes. Et au bout d’un an, ces volumes se trouveraient renfermer la copie exacte des livres de toute nature et de toutes langues conservés dans les plus riches bibliothèques du monde.

Let us imagine that a million monkeys [or apes; singes applies to both] have been trained to strike the keys of a typewriter at random, under the supervision of illiterate overseers, and that these typist monkeys work eagerly ten hours a day on a million typewriters of various kinds. The illiterate overseers gather the blackened pages and bind them into volumes. And at the end of a year, those libraries turn out to contain the exact texts of the books of every sort and every language found in the richest libraries of the world.

But the main source in the Anglophone world is probably A. S. Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World (1929): “If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British Museum” (emphasis in original; note the occurrence of “strumming”).

Once Jeans carelessly attached Huxley’s name to the typewriting monkeys, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be conflated with the Oxford debate (in which, of course, Huxley was supposed to have routed Wilberforce by saying, “If then the question is put to me whether I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape”). Wilder-Smith isn’t the only writer to have done so, but the wealth of invented detail, such as Psalm 23, in his article is really quite remarkable—and new even to him. His Man’s Origin, Man’s Destiny (1968) simply quotes Jeans; his The Natural Sciences Know Nothing of Evolution (1981) refers wrongly but without the colorful details to “the monkey and typewriter experiments cited by Huxley in the Wilberforce debate.”

Wilder-Smith’s reckless way with the facts would not matter, of course, were it not that he continues to be influential. Wilder-Smith was a young-earth creationist, so it’s not surprising to find his fellow young-earth creationist Werner Gitt repeating his account (complete with “strum” and “Psalm 23”) in In the Beginning Was Information (2006). But Wilder-Smith was also influential on the “intelligent design” movement. In 2005, for example, William A. Dembski credited Wilder-Smith as “particularly important to me”: “Making rigorous his intuitive ideas about information has been the impetus for much of my research.” Lo and behold, when creationist David Coppedge profiled Wilder-Smith for a volume called Persuaded by the Evidence (2008), arguing, “Much of the literature coming out of the modern intelligent design movement contains echoes of powerful arguments made by A. E. Wilder-Smith decades ago,” what should appear but Psalm 23? My cup runneth over.

Photograph: New York Zoology Society (1907) via Wikimedia Commons.